2016 Family Medicine Experience

Failure May Be Key to Success on Everest, in Life

September 30, 2016 09:12 am David Mitchell Orlando, Fla. –

Explorer and author Alison Levine speaks about the challenges of climbing Mount Everest. Levine was the keynote speaker Sept. 23 during the 2016 Family Medicine Experience in Orlando, Fla.

Before Alison Levine led the first American women's expedition on Mount Everest in 2002, she completed a media tour that included stops on the national morning talk shows. When her team returned, having been turned back just 200 feet short of the summit, Levine was obligated to do followup interviews.

The questions all had a similar theme and tone: "How does it make you feel to get that close?"

"It makes me feel like a loser, Ann Curry!" Levine quipped Sept. 23 during her keynote speech at the Family Medicine Experience (FMX) here.

Putting the jokes aside, Levine, author of the bestseller On the Edge: Leadership Lessons from Mount Everest and Other Extreme Environments, said failure isn't necessarily a bad thing. That was one of many lessons she learned in her multiple treks up Everest that can be applied not only to climbing but also to medicine and life in general.

Story Highlights
  • Explorer Alison Levine told physicians at the 2016 Family Medicine Experience that lessons she learned in her unsuccessful first attempt to climb Mount Everest were key to reaching the summit later.
  • Levine offered advice that applies far beyond mountain climbing, including that "backing up is not the same as backing down."
  • Levine has reached the tops of the highest peaks on each continent.

"We're not a very failure-tolerant society," she said. "That prevents people from taking risks. People who have perfect track records maybe haven't pushed themselves that hard or gotten out of their comfort zones. You have to give yourself the opportunity to fail."

At the time of her failed Everest attempt, Levine already was a noted climber, having reached the tops of the highest peaks on the six other continents. But when her friend Meg Berté Owen urged her to try Mount Everest again, Levine demurred.

"I have zero unfinished business on that mountain," Levine told her friend. "I'm not going back."

Instead, Levine skied to the North Pole in 2004 and to the South Pole in 2008. Those accomplishments left her just one goal short of the Explorers Grand Slam (reaching both poles and the highest peaks on seven continents).

A year later, Owen died of flu complications at 37. An All-American soccer player in college, Owen's lungs had been compromised during a battle with Hodgkin's disease. Despite her illness, Owen had become an avid cyclist and had completed a cross-country ride to raise hope for cancer survivors.

"She had friends all over the world," Levine said, "and people started doing things in her honor -- triathlons and marathons."

As for Levine, she carved Owen's name into the handle of her ice ax and headed back to Nepal.

Climbing Mount Everest begins with a 10-day hike to base camp at 17,585 feet. A succession of four more camps takes climbers to 26,000 feet. But it's not a direct journey. Above 18,000 feet, the body begins to break down, so climbers must make a series of up and down treks to acclimate, eat, sleep, hydrate and regain strength.

"You have to remember you're still making progress," said Levine, who has overcome her own health issues, including Wolff-Parkinson-White syndrome and Raynaud's disease. "Progress doesn't have to be in one particular direction. Backing up is not the same as backing down."

Levine offered several other pithy pearls that could be applied to life beyond the world's most famous mountain. For example, she said that in passing obstacles such as Everest's Khumbu Icefall, "Fear is OK, but complacency will kill you."

The icefall sits at the head of the Khumbu Glacier at nearly 18,000 feet. Climbers making repeated trips from base camp and back pass the icefall multiple times. The glacier moves three to four feet every day, creating treacherous conditions. On their final descent, an avalanche stopped about five feet from Levine and her team.

Levine said she makes an effort to meet as many climbers as possible at camps because, "I want people to feel obligated to help us if, God forbid, something happens to our team."

The benefit of networking may not be as extreme in health care, but still, Levine said, "People who know you are more likely to go out of their way for you if you have a good relationship with them."

In 2002, Levine's team reached high camp at 26,000 feet. They still had more than 3,000 vertical feet to climb. At that point, climbers need five to 10 breaths for each step.

"If you ever think you're having a slow day, it could be so much worse," she said. "I was completely freaked out and intimidated."

So instead of fixating on the summit, Levine started picking out rocks and focused on reaching one rock at a time. Eventually, the team reached 28,750 feet, but a storm rolled in and they were forced to descend. They were caught in a whiteout and had to camp -- much too high -- at 26,000 feet.

After two months on the mountain -- and with food and oxygen supplies diminished -- the team was forced to abandon the idea of reaching the top.

"If the conditions aren't right, you turn around. You cut your losses," she said. "You walk away. You can always go back, but if you do something dumb, you might not have that opportunity. One person's bad decision can bring down an entire team."

Eight years later, Levine again was near the summit when another storm roared in. Given a second chance, she made a different decision. Despite horrible conditions and limited visibility, Levine kept going and ultimately reached her goal.

She said her journey wasn't about the brief time she spent at the peak but rather the lessons she learned along the way.

"I made it because of my previous failure," said Levine, who explained that her willingness to take risks and her threshold for pain were greater the second time around.

"You don't have to be the best or fastest climber. You have to be relentless about putting one foot in front of another."

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Additional Resources
2016 AAFP FMX: Day One(storify.com)

2016 AAFP FMX: Day Two(storify.com)

2016 AAFP FMX: Day Three(storify.com)

2016 AAFP FMX: Day Four(storify.com)