Meet the adventurer: mountaineer Alison Levine on her incredible feats of endurance

The American explorer and mountaineer has climbed the seven summits and skied to both the north and south poles.

By Angela Locatelli
Published 19 Jan 2023, 08:00 GMT
Explorer and mountaineer Alison Levine.

Explorer and mountaineer Alison Levine.

Photograph by Alison Levine

Where does your passion for adventure and mountaineering come from?

I grew up in Phoenix, Arizona, which is incredibly hot in the summer. As a kid, I was intrigued by the stories of early polar explorers and mountaineers — reading and watching documentaries about these frigidly cold places felt like a mental escape from the extreme heat. I never thought I’d actually see them for myself; I was born with a hole in my heart and had my fair share of health challenges. But after my second heart surgery, I had a new lease of life. A lightbulb went on in my head and I thought if I want to know what it’s like to ski across Antarctica to the South Pole, to summit a big mountain, I should do it! I climbed Kilimanjaro at age 32, and things just snowballed from there.

In 2002, you served as team captain of the first American Women's Everest Expedition. What was that like?

Back then, there weren’t many women in the sport, so for a team of five to show up on a high-profile mountain like Everest, no one had seen anything like this before. We had a lot of supporters at base camp, but we also had detractors who seemed to be envious of the attention we were getting, and they made no effort to hide their contempt. We never wavered in our goal, which was to send a message to people all over the world that we belonged in the sport. We wanted other women to see what we were doing and feel inspired to climb their own mountains, be they literal or figurative.

You completed the Adventure Grand Slam in 2010 — what’s one destination you’re particularly fond of?

Antarctica, for sure. It’s like being on another planet. It’s the coldest, windiest place on earth and requires mental focus like nowhere else I’ve ever been. It’s also the place where I’ve felt the lowest mentally and have struggled the most physically.

What’s the role of exploration in the 21st century? 

I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to stand on a few mountaintops that were previously untouched. It was especially satisfying to complete the first ascent of Khang Karpo in Nepal with my two girlfriends, Squash Falconer and Kath Staniland. During our trek, we passed another climber who told us he’d scoped out the peak and it looked impossible; say that to a group of women and they’ll find a way to do it. Of course, there are very few places left on earth that have been untouched. But I don’t think exploration has to mean going somewhere that no on else has been — it can feel exciting when it’s somewhere that’s new to you and takes you outside of your comfort zone.

You've inspired many people. Who inspires you?

Pasang Lhamu Sherpa, the first female Sherpa to summit Everest. She had to break through all kinds of racial and gender barriers just to get access to the mountain, as the government of Nepal did not want female Sherpas climbing. Pasang fought for all women in her country and was eventually allowed to set off. After many failed attempts on her quest for the summit, she succeeded on her fourth try in 1993 — but died on the way down. I’m the executive producer of a documentary film about her life called Pasang: In the Shadow of Everest, which I hope will be out on a streaming platform in 2023. I believe it’s incredibly important to tell the stories of the people who paved the way for the rest of us to achieve our dreams.

Where are you off to next?

My next big adventure will most likely be on Seabourn Venture — a new expedition ship that just joined the Seabourn fleet this year. It’s a polar icebreaker and was built specifically to go to the Arctic and Antarctic regions. I’m the godmother of the ship and hope to be able to inspire plenty of people to travel to the remote places it’ll be heading to over the coming months. Adventure travel is life changing; I realise not everyone wants to spend two months crossing Antarctica on skis and sleeping in a tent like I did, but they can still take in the magic of the continent by boat.

Alison Levine is the godmother of Seabourn Venture, Seabourn’s first purpose built ultra-luxury expedition ship. 

Published in the Cruise 2023 guide, distributed with the Jan/Feb 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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