Imagine yourself atop the highest mountain in the world.

Imagine you enter into an area known as the "death zone" because at 26,000 feet above sea level, your body is literally starting to die.

Imagine your time here is rapidly depreciating, as your brain and body are oxygen starved from the elevation and have begun to deteriorate.

Imagine you feel your corneas starting to freeze when you remove your fogged goggles to get a glimpse of your surroundings.

Imagine frozen bodies lie in the distance, emblematic of bad luck and bad decisions.

Now imagine, in this moment, you have to look into the eyes of your team and make a critical decision - push on and risk death, or turn around and come off the mountain alive.

If you were Alison Levine, you wouldn't have to imagine it, you've lived it.

As a mountaineer who conquered the highest peak on every continent, skied to both the North and South Poles, and has taken on the world's tallest mountain (twice) - all with a rare heart condition -  Levine can vouch for how to succeed under any circumstances.

She penned her experience of what it's like to survive and thrive in extreme environments, in her best-selling book, On The Edge with lessons in leadership, risk and teamwork. While the lessons in her book are vast, the most provocative learnings are those that counter our cultural norms of success...

1. Give Yourself Freedom to Fail.

Alison and her team ended up just a football field short of reaching the summit during their first excursion, due to poor visibility from a snow storm. In an effort to look failure in the eye, eight years later she made another attempt - this time, resulting in success.

 

"It's not about spending a couple of minutes up top, it's about the lessons you learned along the way and what you are going to do with that information to be better going forward. Because of my previous failure I knew a heck of a lot more about my pain threshold, and my risk tolerance. The only reason I made it up in 2010 when most people turned back, was because I had that failed experience in 2002."

2. Fear Is Fine, But Complacency Can Kill You.

Everest presents some of the most treacherous terrain while climbing right at the beginning: the Khumbu Icefall - 2,000 vertical feet of massive ice chunks that are in a constant state of motion, and can collapse unexpectedly at anytime. Because the icefall is constantly changing shape, you can't always count on the ladders to be right where you need them to be. At any moment, you could be buried by an avalanche. In such unstable environments, agility is key to survival.

"When climbing, Levine says, complacency can lead to extinction. I was definitely scared, and fear is an interesting emotion. People assume it's bad to feel fear, but I actually think fear is good. I use fear to my advantage; it keeps me alert, on my toes, and aware of everything going on around me. Fear is fine, but complacency can kill you."

3. Backing Up Is Not the Same as Backing Down.

Acclimatizing to Everest's thin air is an extensive and vexing, but necessary process if you want even a shot at reaching 29,035 feet. Levine writes "if someone were to magically drop you off at the Summit of Everest (pretend you could be dropped there by plane), you would be dead in a matter of minutes from the sudden altitude gain."

Instead, you typically climb from Base Camp to Camp 1, and then back down to Base Camp. Next you climb to Camp 2, down to Base Camp again, up to Camp 3, and all the way down again--in a continuous cycle of pushing heights and then descending to rest. Levine extracted a great fallacy regarding progress from this experience -that it isn't always defined by a constant forward motion.

"For whatever reason, we think that progress has to happen in one particular direction. Don't look at backtracking as losing ground. What you have to remember is that even though you are going backwards you are making progress. Backing up is NOT the same as backing down."

As a society, words like fear, failure, and moving backwards, are at opposition with how we perceive success. Therefore we stay safe behind the veneer of our risk-free lives. After reading Levine's book, you can't help but ask yourself, what if I didn't?

As someone whose passion and livelihood relies on defying these norms, when I met Levine, I asked her: why does she climb? What is the inner reason?

"The mountains are the ultimate classroom. These expeditions force you to get to know yourself and to figure out how to perform when you are completely outside of your comfort zone. You learn that you can push yourself far beyond your self-perceived limits."

Challenging convention, and changing perception. Extreme lessons, found in extreme heights. But if you're Alison Levine, they're right where you imagined them to be.

Published on: Apr 18, 2016