Many people afflicted with a chronic disease have plenty of obstacles to surmount in their lives without adding more. For Upper West Side resident Alexandra Levin, being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at a young age did nothing to thwart her desire to tackle some of the biggest natural obstacles in the world: mountains.
Levin, 30, was diagnosed with MS, a condition that attacks the body’s nervous system, in 2005. She’s only had a few episodes and has been able to recover after each, continuing to ascend peaks all over the world on breaks from her high-powered banking job. She recently got back from a three-week summit of Mount Denali in Alaska, the highest peak in North America at 20,320 feet, a feat she accomplished while carrying and administering her medication and hauling a 125-pound backpack.
She became obsessed with mountain climbing after a solo trip to Africa six years ago, not long after her first MS episode, when she climbed Kilimanjaro at the suggestion of her travel agent. Despite working with a guide who spoke no English and getting altitude sickness, Levin remembers it as a transformative experience.
“Being on the side of the mountain and working so hard to get there, when the sun comes up, it took what little breath I had away,” Levin said. “I remember thinking, If I had extra air right now, I’d cry.”
When her plane zoomed past the mountain peak she had ascended on her flight home and she realized how high—19,300 feet—she had climbed, she was hooked. Since then, she has also summitted Elbrus in Russia (18,500 feet), Baker in Washington State via two different routes (10,800 feet), Cayambe in Ecuador (19,000 feet) and Aconcagua in Argentina (22,840 feet).
Levin was a competitive figure skater as a child and never imagined herself in a rugged, tough sport like mountain climbing. She grew up in Riverdale and went to the Horace Mann School before heading to Harvard to study philosophy and Russian. After graduation, she took an analyst position at Citigroup, trading distressed municipal bonds there.
“I worked with great people, I had great bosses, we had a ton of fun,” said Levin, who later moved to a different department. “It was sort of similar to philosophy in that it was highly analytical. At the same time, it had this element of creativity because we were dealing with very broken-down projects and part of the analysis was, how does the thing improve and what’s necessary to turn it around?” She was working at Citigroup at 23 when she had her first episode of what turned out to be MS.
“I basically woke up one morning and felt like I couldn’t really walk,” Levin said. “It was very sudden. I had had a work event the night before and I was out late and just assumed that I was tired.”
After walking to work at a glacial pace, she moved slowly throughout the day and later noticed that the right side of her face had gone numb. The next day, she got checked out at the medical clinic at her office building, and a nurse suspected that she might have MS.
“That set off a whole chain reaction of MRIs and spinal taps and blood work and vision tests,” said Levin. “It’s sort of a process of elimination.”
She was officially diagnosed with Clinically Isolated Syndrome, a precursor to MS, though she immediately assumed that she had MS and began taking medication for it. Her feelings were confirmed with a second episode in 2008.
That year, she also switched to a new position at Citigroup, in the community development investing division. She credits her company and co-workers with being incredibly supportive after her diagnosis. Now, between planning her mountain climbing excursions, she works closely with the MS Society to help with fundraising efforts.
“There are still so many questions and there is no cure—the only way to get answers is to fund medical research,” Levin said. “The way that I saw that I could contribute and drive our collective push for a cure was by raising money.”
She’s also, of course, already planning her next climb.