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Tuesday, December 27, 2011
Updated: February 15, 12:30 PM ET
Alison Levine proves she's all heart

By Sarah Spain

When Robert Sarver, owner of the Phoenix Suns and CEO of Western Alliance Bancorp, invited adventure athlete Alison Levine to address his team in Arizona earlier this month, she assumed he meant he wanted her to tell her story to a collection of his managers and investors. Instead, Levine found herself fielding questions from the likes of Sebastian Telfair and Grant Hill.

"I was completely surprised by how engaged and attentive [they] were," Levine said. "It was the first time I've spoken about sports parallels versus business, but it was perfect for the Suns. I talked about how it doesn't matter what you've done on any past expedition, all that matters is how you are performing on the mountain now. It doesn't matter that [the Suns] went to the Western Conference finals two years ago -- all that matters is what you do on the court this season.

"I showed a photo of me with a Duke banner at the summit of Everest and, of course, [fellow Duke alum] Grant Hill cheered when he saw that," Levine continued. "And the best question was Sebastian Telfair's: 'Did you see any brothas up there on Everest?' I cracked up and told him there were more white guys in the NBA than brothas on Everest. I think it was the best day I've ever had at work."

Work for Levine often entails traveling around the country speaking at conferences or companies. Other times, it takes her to the top of the world's tallest peaks and back down again.

An investment advisor and deputy finance director-turned- explorer and mountaineer, Levine, now 45, was captain of the first American Women's Everest Expedition in 2002. Six years later, she became the first American, male or female, to complete the 600-mile trek from west Antarctica to the South Pole, following the same route as legendary Italian mountaineer Reinhold Messner. Oh, and about that 600 miles? The 5-foot-4, 100-pound Levine skied it all with a sled holding 150 pounds of supplies and gear harnessed to her waist.

Alison Levine
Despite a congenital heart defect, Alison Levine has reached the highest peak on each continent.

When she reached the summit of Mount Everest in 2010, Levine became one of an estimated 30 people in the world to have completed the adventure grand slam, which entails ascending the highest peak on every continent and skiing to both the North and South Poles. The achievement would be impressive for anyone, but it is especially so for Levine, who's been fighting an uphill battle since well before she ever met her first mountain.

A Phoenix native, Levine was born with Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome, a life-threatening congenital heart defect. As a child and throughout high school, she struggled through everyday activities like climbing stairs or driving a car. A proper diagnosis wasn't made until age 17, when she was rushed to the hospital after collapsing and falling unconscious. She ended up in the emergency room more than a dozen times over the next few years, until multiple surgeries finally gave her the chance to see the world like the explorers she'd read about as a child.

Since her early 20s, Levine has also suffered from Raynaud's disease, a disorder that causes the arteries that feed her fingers and toes to collapse in cold weather, stripping her of feeling in her extremities for up to an hour at a time. It seems hiking in some of the coldest places on earth wouldn't be in the cards for someone with heart problems and a disease that's compounded by cold weather, but Levine said it's all a matter of learning to manage her limitations.

At age 32, just more than a year after a second heart surgery, and just before she was set to begin grad school at Duke, Levine decided to make up for lost time and put her newly healthy heart to the test. She made plans with friends to go to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. But a few weeks before they were set to make the trip, the rest of the group decided to go to Club Med instead.

"I could lie on a beach before I had my heart surgery," Levine said. So she decided to tackle Kilimanjaro on her own. "I hired a guide at the base of the mountain and went up with locals," she explains. "That was where I first learned that I could push myself past the point of discomfort. I learned that I had to rely on myself because there was nobody with me to encourage me and cheer me on. That voice saying, 'You can do it, just work harder,' had to come from my own head."

After that first climb, Levine was hooked. She honed her climbing skills on a variety of mountains during her grad school years, and then was tapped to lead the first American Women's Everest Expedition in 2002.

That trip to Nepal could have easily quashed Levine's thirst for adventure. Her team had just passed through the Khumbu Icefall, one of the most dangerous parts of the ascent, when a section of it collapsed, sending an avalanche of 10,000 tons of ice down the mountain. Shaken by the narrow miss but undeterred, they kept climbing. After two months on the mountain, Levine and her teammates were just a few hundred feet from the summit when deteriorating weather forced them to turn back. They had no choice but to accept that their adventure would not end at the top.

Their sponsor, Ford, had arranged for a helicopter to take them off the mountain and back to Katmandu. After dropping them off safely, the Nepalese helicopter turned back to pick up another group, but never made it. The helicopter crashed before ever reaching the mountain, killing everyone on board.

"I have definitely had a few close calls that have rattled me a little bit," Levine admitted. "But I think if you're smart and you use good judgment all the time, that's what will make sure you come back alive."

The lessons Levine learned on that first Everest trek and all of her subsequent adventures have greatly influenced the rest of her life. When she's not trekking up a mountain or on the road giving speeches, she's an adjunct professor in the department of behavioral sciences and leadership at the United States Military Academy at West Point. She is also founder of a consulting firm, Daredevil Strategies, and a nonprofit, the Climb High Foundation, which trains women in developing countries to work as trekking guides and porters in their local mountains.

Levine has no problem commanding an audience of cadets or CEOs, but she's not impervious to sentimentality. She talks matter-of-factly about the time she got stuck hanging upside down on the side of Everest, her oxygen mask dangling out of reach, but devolves into the language of the love struck when the topic turns to Pat, her boyfriend of two years.

"If I could create a life partner in a chemistry lab, the perfect person for me would be Pat," she said. "I know we'll be together forever."

When she gets stressed out, she bakes chocolate chip cookies or hits the beach near the northern California vacation house she bought with a group of friends. She's always dreamed of trying her hand at acting, but first she's working on a memoir.

Levine is hoping to embark on more adventures, perhaps a visit to the mountains in India or some unclimbed peaks in Nepal, but doesn't yet have her next expedition planned. Of course, she's never been one to feel stuck to a plan. One of her mottos, "complacency kills," applies perfectly to her life as an explorer and adventurer who, despite her health challenges, has figured out a way to conquer the world's tallest peaks.

"The important thing to realize when you're on any mountain is that getting to the top is optional -- getting down is mandatory," she said. "People who are all about sticking to a plan put themselves and their team at a much greater risk. You have to be able to take action based on the situation at hand."