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July 2013 Issue
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Climber’s high

Climbers at high altitude often use drugs to get them to the top. Photo:

Are climbers who use performance-enhancing drugs cheating their way to the top or simply trying to survive the extreme environment found at high altitude? Paul Hersey investigates

Drug-taking in sport has become a hot media topic lately. Cyclist Lance Armstrong’s house of cards finally came crashing down on world-wide television while, closer to home, Australian elite sport is apparently rife with illegal doping.

Now the taint has spread to climbing. American sport magazine Outside recently published an article stating that drug taking is widespread among high altitude climbers. Radio New Zealand has run a news piece along similar lines. According to the reports, mountaineers have long used substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), but usage is on the increase as more climbers strive to reach the summits of the world’s highest peaks.

This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. The world up there is about as far away from home as anyone can get. From my own experience at altitude (admittedly only up to around 6000m) staying healthy is a constant battle, let alone trying to reach a distant summit. Icy slopes seem to rise forever, disappearing into the cloud. Footsteps follow one slow, plodding footstep after another. With a head pounding like a sledgehammer and your breathing rasping inadequately, climbing at altitude is a mixture of intense hangover and chronic asthma.

And altitude isn’t fair. It affects people differently. I am a notoriously slow acclimatiser, and this means any ensuing acute mountain sickness (AMS) could potentially lead on to other more dangerous conditions such as pulmonary or cerebral edema. At times, I have consumed various drugs in the hope of reducing, or at least masking the symptoms, so I can both stay safer and climb more efficiently. Being so far away from the security of flat earth, and with a sometimes tenuous hold on life, pretty much anything goes in my mind.

In the wider sporting world, the rules of what is acceptable and what isn’t are constantly being tested by those with ever efficient means of breaching the parameters. These rules are set by WADA, an organisation charged with preserving integrity and value in sport, ensuring what it calls ‘a level playing field’.

WADA president John Fahey is New Zealand born but moved to Australia at a young age. A former premier of New South Wales, these days he is in charge of catching drug cheats.

‘WADA is committed to protecting the rights of clean athletes,’ Fahey states on the organisation’s website, ‘where hard work and talent are justly recognised and doping cheats are exposed for what they are. Clean sport is fundamental to a healthy society and sets the best example for future generations of athletes’.

A discarded dose of dexamethasone found just above Camp 3 on Mt Everest. Photo:

A discarded dose of dexamethasone found just above Camp 3 on Mt Everest. Photo:

So is this attitude applicable to climbing, and if so how? Climbing New Zealand (previously the New Zealand Sport Climbing Federation), promotes an anti-doping policy and actively enforces this policy among its athletes. But while it seems obvious to apply the protocols of WADA to the highly competitive and tightly controlled world of sport climbing, what about the other non-sport orientated and less regulated climbing disciplines? The International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), which governs competitive ice climbing, also states that it strives to preserve the ‘spirit and traditions’ of alpinism. Although the federation is currently working on a report about drug use in the mountains, it has no regulatory power to enforce any WADA regulations in mountaineering. The International Federation of Sport Climbing recently broke away from UIAA and, according to CNZ president Paul Jones, part of the reason was the ‘issue of drugs used in alpinism and how it conflicted with the principles of WADA and competitive sport’. And to complicate matters further, UIAA now states that it fully abides by WADA regulations at all its sanctioned events, probably because it is pushing for ice climbing to be included at the Olympics. But no other recognition is made of drugs in alpinism.

So is there even a problem? What drugs are used on the tallest mountains of the world and why? According to my high altitude climbing friends, everything from amphetamines to steroids to acclimatisation aid acetazolamide, or Diamox, and even erectile-dysfunction drugs Viagra and Cialis. Altitude provides pretty unique, and often dire, health challenges to climbers – hence the need for drugs to combat the effects of it.

Queenstown-based alpinist Derek Chinn has summitted a number of high mountains, including Everest. He has always carried various drugs to cope with health or altitude-related issues on those expeditions, including Diamox and Dexamethazone (dex) – two of the main drugs highlighted in media reports as being used to negate the effects of altitude. And while Diamox has minimal serious health risk, dex is banned by WADA but endorsed as a high-altitude rescue tool by the Wilderness Medical Society.

According to some reports, dex – a potent steroid – is being increasingly used as a performance enhancer while ascending a mountain, rather than as an emergency last resort if someone is unable to descend. And this is the concern: Over the past two decades, climbers have discovered that dex increases lucidity and feelings of euphoria; yet, if taken for more than a week, the steroid can actually impair immune systems. In some cases, climbers have become seriously ill by taking too much dex and for too long.

“Given that it is a sort of chemical jump start,” Chinn comments, “I don’t imagine that it is terribly good for you. I’ve carted it around a bit but never had to use it.”

Another climbing friend, Brad Jackson, is highly critical of the Outside article and what he calls the “many factual inaccuracies” within it.

“Corrupting the game? Rampant use? A dangerous trend? These are inflammatory headlines based on a couple of anecdotes, and do not highlight a growing problem,” Jackson says. “All high altitude climbers should be carrying dex. I don’t care what journalists or the community at large may say. Dex can save your own life or help save someone else.”

Jackson, who has also climbed Everest and attempted other 8000m mountains Cho Oyu and Broad Peak, thinks it would be negligent for high altitude climbers not to carry dex.

“There are no gold medals for climbing any mountain and very few climbers are trying to set speed records,” he says. “For 99 per cent of climbers on Everest, they are just trying to get up and down, survive the process and not be a burden to others. It is a competition with oneself, not the world at large.”

In dealing with this issue, it seems appropriate to take a step back from the specifics of high altitude  mountaineering for a moment and look at climbing in general. Most of us climb rock faces and mountains to get away from society’s rules and limitations. We seek freedom and challenge, risk and satisfaction. Most of us climb for ourselves, rather than any perceived fame or fortune.

Brad Jackson on the summit ridge of Denali. Photo: Jon Griffiths

Brad Jackson on the summit ridge of Denali. Photo: Jon Griffiths

But climbing can be pretty risky. Being exposed to dangerous conditions for thousands of vertical metres means staying alert for long periods of time. In pushing the boundaries, some climbers attempt difficult routes in a single 30 hour push on little more than two litres of water, a few energy sachets and a handful of caffeine pills. What might be considered over-usage of caffeine by WADA has absolutely no relevance in the struggle to get a long climb done as safely and efficiently as possible. And the history of climbing is filled with colourful stories of various people climbing under the influence of a cacophony of drugs, including speed and LSD. Sometimes these drugs could be considered performance enhancing; other times they were to add to the ‘effect’ the experience had on an individual. Climbing has long attracted those with a bent for the edgy.

So, to me, this story has a storm in a teacup feel to it. There may be the odd overuse of dex at altitude but, generally speaking, most climbers only use it in an emergency. Two New Zealand–based guiding companies were interviewed about dex usage on their high mountain expeditions: Wanaka-based Adventure Consultants doesn’t recommend the drug for other than emergencies but doesn’t have a policy against it, while Russell Brice of Himalayan Experience says no clients have asked permission to use dex as a performance enhancer, and if they did he “would not allow it”.

Everest is not a good example of the climbing world. Most who ascend it are rich, paying clients, and often not technically-minded climbers. Fame and fortune certainly play their parts on the fixed ropes of Everest’s ‘stock’ routes. Guides and Nepalese Sherpas do the donkey work, ensuring as easy a route as possible for their clients.

“It sucks that the general community at large names Everest as a metaphor for the most difficult task possible,” Jackson says. “All climbers know that this is not true but it still often grates the climbing community at large, the attention given to Everest. The mountain has been climbed commercially with relative newbies with bottled oxygen for over 20 years.”

The real performance-enhancer on Everest is, of course, bottled oxygen and that’s where trends seem to be emerging. Jackson states that recent bottled oxygen usage rates are in some instances doubling what they used to be. The higher the usage, the less of an effect altitude will have. More oxygen means more trips through the dangerous lower Khumbu icefall for the Sherpas who carry them. Whereas a paying western client may have to climb between two and four trips through the icefall, the Sherpas are doing between seven and 10 rotations through the icefall to stock the higher camps with sufficient oxygen bottles and then bring them down.

Somewhere approaching 80 people have died in the Khumbu icefall since Everest was first climbed in 1953, the vast majority Sherpas.  According to Jackson, this is where a more important ethical debate should be focussed.

Very few climbers summit Everest without bottled oxygen. Those that do consider their ascent as being more ‘pure’. For climber Kester Brown, this is the grey area of high altitude climbing: “Is altitude-induced sickness a necessary evil of mountaineering or part of the challenge? If bottled oxygen is acceptable, does that then open the ethical door for any and all drug use?”

Because there’s no organised competition or regulation to alpinism, you could argue it’s an academic point. Except when it comes to achievement recognition, climbing history and media, Brown points out: “These things are valued beyond doubt by our climbing community. If someone completes a hard route in the Himalaya, no one is asking for transparency on drug use, but maybe we should be? We’re fanatical about points of style, so isn’t this just another example?”

Wanaka-based Mark Sedon has guided many clients up the world’s highest mountains. “With mountaineering you are not out to beat anyone to the top,” he says. “It is just you against the mountain. So if someone flies to Nepal, or paddles a boat and rides their bike, it is personal preference, taking on the mountain in a way that is ‘reasonable’ to them personally. Oxygen or no oxygen, it’s a personal choice and no business of others to criticise.”

Sedon says he respects anyone who climbs a mountain in their own style that doesn’t affect or risk the lives of others. “Good on them for whatever style that is. I hate the arrogance some climbers have for putting down someone’s choice of mountain, method of climbing it, or the price they paid. Climb for yourself, don’t worry about others. The best line I’ve heard is that the best climber is the one having the most fun.”

From my own point of view, what happens on the slopes of Everest is not necessarily indicative of other mountains around the world. In the rush for achievement and to make money, the ethics around climbing the world’s highest mountain will likely always have a circus-like feel to them. Whether the UIAA decides to try and bring drug-taking at altitude into line with the rules and regulations of WADA is a different matter.