How Alison Levine Reached the Summit of Everest and Business

Chronicling an Inspirational Leader's Ascent

Into The Void: Alison Levine drags her sled toward the South Pole.
Erick Phillips, IceTrek
Into The Void: Alison Levine drags her sled toward the South Pole.

By Curt Schleier

Published January 24, 2014, issue of January 31, 2014.
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It proved to be an eye-opening experience. “I had to borrow a fleece jacket, a backpack. I didn’t own anything except a pair of hiking boots. I learned so much about myself on that trip. First of all, everything I need to get by I could fit in a backpack; you really don’t need much in life to survive.

“It’s a really empowering feeling to know you can survive up on a mountain with just the stuff you can carry on your back. Also it was the first time I tested myself physically. I was cold, tired, and had an altitude headache. I felt really crappy.

“And then you just take one step and then you take one more step and then you take one more step. After that you realize even if you feel like absolute hell, if you have the determination, you can keep going.”

That will power attracted the attention of former General Thomas A. Kolditz, professor and director of the Leadership Development Program at the Yale School of Management.

“I was impressed with her comments and asked if she’d come up to West Point and talk about leadership to some of my cadets,” he said.

The two kept running into each other at conferences. About five years ago, Kolditz got an unexpected call for help from Levine: “She wanted to enlist in the army, but was six months too old. She wanted to see if I could get a waiver. She was inspired by this sacrifice of soldiers.”

Levine confirmed the account, adding, “I feel everyone should serve. It doesn’t have to be in uniform, but everyone should serve.”

Kolditz offered a way. “I appointed her as an adjunct professor and increased the frequency of her visits and classes across the leadership core course. That was her way of giving back. It’s a pretty impressive story.”

“I still think the army lost out,” Levine said. “I would have been a good soldier.”

This still leaves one question. It was asked by Yossi Vardi, the founder of one of Israel’s first software companies, who approached Levine after she addressed a World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland, a couple of years ago: “What’s a nice Jewish girl like you climbing Mount Everest? What did you mother say?”

Levine’s reply: “She said to take a coat.”

Curt Schleier is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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