Probably a cyclist would be more qualified to write about his, but it’s something that has been on my mind quite a bit for a little while now. We can easily say that Performance Enhancing Drugs - PEDs - are taboo in professional sports. We do not want the athletes we cheer for to be “cheating” by injecting some kind of human engineered substance, of which origin we may or may not know. Baseball players have soiled the precious “record books” that baseball fans supposedly hold so dear. Lance Armstrong won 7 straight Tour De France’s, and that is just impossible without pharmaceutical help - allegedly - and now goes through what seems like annual investigations to get to the bottom of a sport nobody in the USA cared about even before he retired. The US government has spent millions on convicting Barry Bonds (on one count - obstruction - essentially a technicality), failing to convict Roger Clemens, and now up to bat, Armstrong. A huge and utter waste of taxpayers money, to be sure, but yet somehow our politicians feel that it is a necessary expense to defend “the honor” of sport. Or something like that...
Well, what about mountain climbing? People might say “why would anyone cheat at mountain climbing?” Mountaineering by nature is not an organized sport. Yet, for the elite mountaineer, there is money and a career to be had climbing mountains. The more summits one can accumulate, and the method in which those summits are achieved (i.e. - without oxygen, speed ascents, etc) all factor into the reputation and marketability the best of the best have when it comes to sponsorships and endorsements. As for the weekend warrior type climbers, I’ll address that after we take a closer look at those who might be referred to as “professional” climbers.
The main drug that seems to be in question as far as Lance Armstrong and cycling world is concerned is EPO, or Erythropoietin, a hormone that controls red blood cell production. One thing that piqued my interest in this subject, is that during hypoxic stress - that is times when the body is oxygen-starved - natural in the body production of EPO may increase 1000X normal. Obviously, when one climbs to extremely high altitudes, the amount of oxygen available to the body decreases significantly. Since climbing well with a lower amount of oxygen in the blood is dependent on the body’s oxygen delivery system to the muscles, it stands to reason that using such an enhancer would improve a user’s endurance capacity at high altitudes. Now, I’ve read cyclists dismiss this idea that a mountaineer would use such an advantage, but their reasons for doing so (no money in climbing, no competition) don’t really ring true to me. There is a health risk with practicing this kind of doping, especially by a high altitude mountaineer, but just like cheating in cycling there have to be those who will make the trade-off. Also, EPO just happens to be the most known type of blood doping at this time. Who’s to say some scientists somewhere haven’t come up with the next new thing, and are using athletes (and climbers) to carry out their experiments? Does that seem far-fetched? Hey, I cheered when Mark McGwire hit home run #62 also. Since there is no organized competition in mountaineering, there is no institution that might administer and require testing. It’s basically a free-for-all, use at your own risk.
And using drugs while mountaineering is by no means a foreign idea. In fact, everyone who goes on an expedition to a mountain of higher than normal altitude should be bringing something with them. Even the big guide companies will ask you to see your doctor before and get a prescription for diamox and sometimes dexamethasone - drugs which help with complications that can develop in hypoxic (mountains) environments. So where exactly can the line between ethical and non-ethical performance enhancers be drawn? If I take diamox trying to climb Aconcagua am I as much of a cheater as Barry Bonds was? What about steroids and HGH? They help you get stronger and recover more quickly. Why not for the mountain climber who needs to A. Be strong and B. recover quickly? What is there to discourage a top level mountaineer from enhancing his abilities by whatever means he cares to? To just dismiss mountaineering as a non-professional sport is doing an amateurish investigation of the subject.
I’ve noticed the biggest new fad in high altitude mountaineering these days is speed ascents. Specifically, speed ascents of 8000 meter peaks without using supplemental oxygen. One of the few long standing goals of mountaineering that still commands respect is climbing all 14 of world’s 8000 meter peaks without oxygen. Now, in the rapidly progressing world, that isn’t enough. One has to climb these peaks faster than anyone else. Across the Himalaya recently, mountaineers have accomplished stunning, even unbelievable to most, times of ascents on these peaks. Well, how are they doing all this? Are the climbers of today just that much better than the climbers of yesterday? Is it the modern equipment and knowledge of how to climb big mountains that is enabling these speed records to happen? Are we as a human race just evolving into better mountaineers in general? Or is there something else at work here? Many of these climbers are sponsored by the biggest names in outdoor gear and apparell. They aren’t climbing these expensive mountains using funds out of their own pockets, and they aren’t training for these mountains an hour a day or so, after they get off work from their accounting jobs. They are full-time professional mountaineers. And there is nothing stopping them from using PEDs, save for their own ethical “right and wrong” belief systems.
The mountaineers of yesterday were certainly not afraid of taking amphetamines and who knows what else on their pioneering climbs. In 1953, Herman Buhl was descending from the summit of Nanga Parbat. In the darkness and exhausted with threatening weather on the way, the expedition doctor deftly gave him Pervitin, and the surge of energy helped him get off the hill alive. When Stephen Venables completed a new route on the Kangshung Face of Everest in 1988, for two days he had spent the night at over 8000 meters without food. Later he would survive an open bivouac at 8600 meters, and spent a total of 30 hours climbing alone. If not for him popping two prescription strength caffeine pills, he might not have made it as well. These are just two of many heroic deeds in the mountains venerated by mountaineers for being bold and difficult achievements, yet both took substances that an Olympic athlete would be banned for.
So what’s to stop the ordinary Joe weekend-warrior type from doing PEDs? Sure, there is a significant health risk, but many of these drugs can even be purchased online if one desires to do so. That says to me there is a market, and somebody somewhere is keeping them in business. A friend of mine recently told me a story about how he had thrown his daughter’s boyfriend out of their house, and had found out the guy, an amateur body-builder, was using steroids. The only gain that person has from using such a pharmaceutical edge is for himself, for his own ego. So doesn’t it seem logical that a climber might also think the same way? Personally, climbing for me is finding out how far I can push myself, finding out my own limits. I don’t think of myself as a cheater, even though I’ve used diamox on more than one occasion. I’ve used ibuprofen too. Heck, right now I’m on a diet and I’m drinking a protein shake every morning. I’m getting a lot stronger, and I can tell the difference when I’m in the mountains. Where can the line be drawn? It can’t be just legal and illegal drugs, because even EPO has a legal medical use to it. The use of supplemental oxygen has long been accepted for climbing Mt. Everest. It helps one’s athletic performance at high altitude thus enabling the user who might otherwise not achieve the feat to conquer the summit. This is part of the style of the ascent, and is so listed. Perhaps all ascents should now include all pharmacological aids used, including those injested or taken during training for the event. But would anyone even care?
In the end, we can only climb the way we believe it is right to climb. I do think I’ve changed my opinion slightly on some of these amazing ascents that I’ve heard about in the past few years though. I remember too much the SF Giants announcers going on and on about Barry Bonds’ “all-new fantastic workout regimen” back in the days when I used to listen to their games on the radio. They were lying to the audience, they all knew he was juicing, but me the casual fan could never know that. Call it a casualty of our modern age, but I remain suspicious and cynical of any new mountaineering accomplishments of the 21st Century. If I were to cheat, or do something I believe to be cheating while climbing, then I would just be cheating myself. So the only real accomplishments I can respect are the ones I succeed in attaining myself. Sorry all you heroes, The Skeptic has replaced you.