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High Altitude Dopers and Armstrong

Date: 28th August 2012

Note–I wrote this after a Facebook conversation where I said that one of the reasons I liked outdoor risk sports is that we don’t generally dope for “performance.” Then I started thinking about that idea, and realized it wasn’t exactly true… The following came out.


As you and likely everyone on the planet now knows, Lance Armstrong recently rolled over and basically said, “The evidence for my past doping is too strong now, I’m going to pretend to take the high road of the unjustly accused and plead “no contest” to the USADA’s doping charges.” Some of my friends are or have been high-end cyclists, and they all have an opinion on how much and when Lace was doping (none of my half-knowedgable cycling friends believe he’s anywhere near “clean”). After Floyd Landis and basically every other top cyclist I can think of got busted for doping I don’t believe any top cyclist is “clean” legally. How about clean morally? Are the demands of top-level cycling so great that you have to dope, and therefore it’s no crime to dope? And is it OK to lie about doping because that’s what the public and sponsors expect? To me this all boils down to a question of whether the means justify the end. Usually when people start invoking the idea that the end justifies the means used to get there they are about to do something immoral, stupid, or insanely short-sighted. Like climb Everest while sucking oxygen.

In my view every ascent of Everest or any other high-altitude peak done with oxygen since Messner climbed Everest without oxygen 30 years ago was done by dopers.Maybe those who climbed Everest without oxygen 20 years ago or more should get a “past champions” pass. It was a different era then, just as it was for legendary Tour de France winners back in the day (who have also admitted to doping back then). Give ‘em a pass, especially those who did new routes or otherwise pushed the game farther. But if Lance is getting busted going back 10 years then we might as well use that for high-altitude mountaineering too. If Lance is going to lose his 7 Tour titles for doping then there should be many thousands fewer ascents of Everest on the books as well: only about 170 people have climbed Everest without oxygen, which is probably about the same number who have ridden an international champion level cycling race “clean.”

But both cyclists and Everesteers want something so bad (winning or the summit) that they will use any means to get there. Lance might have an argument that winning the Tour de France was impossible without doping, but climbers don’t even have that argument as the highest point on earth has been reached  by 170 people give or take. Diamox, oxygen, and a host of other drugs are commonly used in high-altitude climbing/walking up fixed ropes to make the summit lower; if you use drugs to get there then in my view you didn’t get there. I wrote about this for Explore magazine a while back, but as I listened to all the outrage in the outdoor community about Lance’s doping I just couldn’t stop thinking about all the dopers, and the acceptance of that doping, in high-altitude guided walking on Everest and other mountains. The Everesteers at least admit to their doping (it’s hard to hide that oxygen mask), but clearly they are using artificial means to reach a goal. That’s doping, that’s saying the means justify the end.

Last year two of my friends, Ueli Steck and Conrad Anker, both climbed Everest without oxygen. That’s where the bar is now (and realistically has been for 30 years), buck up.


Posted in: Blog


  1. C Lohse   August 28, 2012 10:47 am

    Hi Will,

    You’ll get no argument from me about Lance’s “cleanliness,” but the differences in sport between cycling and climbing definitely spring up in my mind when trying to draw comparisons between completing Tours de France and summiting Everest, the most obvious being that one is a race and the other the pitting of man’s insignificance against nature’s behemoth. If Lance feels like he’s being made the victim of a witch hunt, that’s his prerogative, something we can agree or disagree with him based on our varying opinions on whether doping, as a cyclist, is merely leveling the playing field or pursuing a competitive advantage. A person summiting Everest seems to me to be on a more personal journey and is, in any case, subject to the educated opinions of the very small population of people who have themselves climbed high mountains and even more importantly, themselves. In fact, as I am not a member of that high mountain club, I wonder if I should even be trying to point out the differences between Lance bending over for a needle and Messner bending over to gasp for breath.

    In any case, people have to live with their own choices. I don’t know how easily his use of PEDs sits with Lance, and I don’t know how heavy the mask sits on those thousands of Everest aspirants’ faces either, but it’s tough to judge confidently when we aren’t sweating in their spandex or freezing in their down suits. All we can do is choose for ourselves and see how we feel about those choices.

  2. Richard Ferron   August 28, 2012 11:10 am

    I think USDA is wrong in it’s pursuit of Lance. Leave the past where it is and concentrate on the present and future. You missed him back then… well too bad, move on.

    As for climbing, with cleaner means comes cleaner mountains. Is the future of climbing an elevator to the top of every mountain. I mean, who are we to prevent a 110 year old handicapped from getting to the top of Everest?!!!

    On a similar topic, Joe Simpson wrote in one of his books that if you want to make something safer you need to increase the risk. When you make things safer, people tend to take things less seriously. Increase the risk: forbid oxygen. There will be much less traffic on Everest(safer), and the mountain will be cleaner. This idea goes to much smaller scale. Does every mountain has to be easily accessible? Do we really have to remove roots and rocks on a trail? It goes way farther than doping!

    Sorry for the long reply that goes a bit off topic… it got me started!
    Let me just take the opportunity to tell you that I really enjoy your blog. Went back to your tips for speed today in preparation for the winter… :)

  3. Ernie   August 28, 2012 12:28 pm

    At least one important difference is that Lance, and the rest, signed contracts and swore oaths promising not to do what they eventually did.

    For me it is the hypocrisy which is so hard to live with.

  4. Laurel Ambrose   August 28, 2012 12:43 pm

    Will, thought provoking as always. C. Lohse, very well said. I may not be personally involved in the world of uber-professional athletics – but I have to inject a bit of a spin on this one. Sorry, bad pun. And not really intended, seriously. While doping in the cycling world sure seems to be ultimately results-driven to set records, doping on the mountain is twofold: survival-driven and for results. Lance’s MO is not to dope to save his very life, although at that competitive level, maybe winning and collecting the cash and fame really is life. If you can’t survive on Everest (or any other behemoth) without the dope, you die. If you can’t survive professional cycling without doping – well, you stay in the next-best winners circle. Physiologically, nobody is predisposed to be at 29,000 feet, except for a good percentage of the local cultures attuned to high altitude, and rarities like Boukreev, Viesturs, Messner, (and anybody else who wishes to play that hand to find out) but we still keep doing it – because we still keep trying to touch the damn stars. Thank the early philosphers for that one. If we did so insisting it be a fully organic experience, more families would be left behind, so I view O2/Diamox as morally admissable to get your butt back down to your wife or husband and kids. Everest is always such a thorny subject, Will :-)

  5. Kim Graves   August 28, 2012 12:55 pm

    I said on your facebook page that I would guess it’s only a matter of time until performance enhancing drugs are part of the comp climbing circuit. There is just too much money involved for it to be otherwise. I’m just guessing, but I would think a sponsored athlete with endorsements can make +$100K a year. That’s serious money for kids in there 20’s. Even for people our age it’s enough to own a house and have a family. People who win the comps get sponsored which is a big incentive to win the comps.

  6. Lisagrrr   August 28, 2012 1:02 pm

    “Dopers”, as a general term, are pervasive in all aspects of life, in an attempt to quell fears, enhance performance or to gain an advantage against a competitor. As much as I roll my eyes a bit in the fervor against (and for) Lance—as it seems pretty certain to be on an “equal playing field” in elite cycling one must do some degree of PE to keep up w the Contodors—errrr, joneses —and the many metaphors I have heard for acceptable enhancing of performance in climbing (weed, ‘roids, trust funds … ), the fact is, Lance signed a contract to obey a set of rules for fair play. And that contract specifies a longgggg list of banned substances and tactics.

    Not so in peak bagging, or any kind of bagging in our little insular world.
    Currently, Os are not a banned substance (tho I totes agree w what u say about the difference in ascents) nor are altitude drugs. And generally, the ascents are all qualified—no snow-slogger would dare claim she’d ascended K2 w out Os. So unfair advantage notwithstanding, no performance modifier is banned in climbing and we have no standard of conduct except in internationally sanctioned events.

    Bu back to lance, and a bit o/t … the difference he (and his American successors) will always suffer is that they will always have an agency breathing down their necks looking for any semblance of rule-breaking. That’s not gonna happen w anyyyy other country, bar perhaps Canada or Oz. The other xxADAs who ay do what they must for an internationally sanctioned event, e.g. Olympics, but who will also support the athletes’ claims they ate tainted meat. The diff? They WANT champions (China and turtle blood soup ring a bell?) and we (US) want to punish the cheats. That may be noble and I’m not nec against it, but anytime the term “international” comes into play, all bets for a level playing field will be nil.

    (Pardon the run-ons and typos. I wrote this on my phone!)

  7. Sergei   August 28, 2012 2:20 pm

    “Diamox, oxygen, and a host of other drugs are commonly used in high-altitude climbing/walking up fixed ropes to make the summit lower; if you use drugs to get there then in my view you didn’t get there. ”

    You mean like Red Bull or coffee? ;)

  8. Stefan Mitrovich   August 28, 2012 2:49 pm

    Of course you left out another very important sport to some of us fools you know very well. Using supplementary oxygen on high altitude flights is another topic of conversation but begs a similar question. Is a record flight using oxygen more “pure” than a record flight without using oxygen? Where do we draw the line? One could argue that using supplementary oxygen in paragliding and record distance flights is less of an endeavor than those that dont use it. Of course longer flights have been done using oxygen and Im talking above 14,000ft. and the longer distance flights as of late in the Rocky Mountains for an extended period of time that may not have been done without using O’s. Anyway, just more food for thought on the purity of the effort/endeavor.

  9. DebS   August 28, 2012 3:25 pm

    Thanks for pushing us to think, as always. I was internet following Steck and Anker, and your words “only about 170 people have climbed Everest without oxygen” don’t negate, but do give real and important perspective to the achievements of the other climbers.

    For myself, I love mountains but I know now my body won’t perform over 10K in a way I’m willing to risk – either by gutting it out or by taking drugs to make it work. I’ve felt unlucky to be so effected by elevation, but I’m getting over it and looking for new things. There is something to be said for being true to yourself and accepting some limits – it doesn’t make for good hollywood, but there are lessons and good new opportunities in that realization, and the things you do achieve are truly yours. Asterisk free!

  10. Sean   August 28, 2012 4:53 pm


    Your “quote” from Lance Armstrong is not quite the sentiment he expressed. You can read his statement here: http://lancearmstrong.com/news-events/lance-armstongs-statement-of-august-23-2012

    I find it a little disheartening that you disguised your interpretation of his decision as a quote, even with the “evidence” (hearsay) presented by your cyclist friends”. If you read his statement, you might see that he has a few good points.


  11. Matthew   August 28, 2012 9:08 pm

    I agree 100%. Last year I watched the television program Everest: Beyond the limit, I was shocked that a climber who didn’t know how wear or walk in crampons at the start of a season was then able to climb Everest. For extra money climbers were able to have extra bottles of oxygen placed higher on the mountain to make sure there climbing investment succeeded. Everest has always been a dream of mine, but to climb it like that makes the whole thing seem like a joke. 60 to 80 thousand and Everest can be yours. Oxygen and fixed lines steal from what real climbing is all about.

  12. Tina   August 28, 2012 11:56 pm

    GARBAGE!!! Have you ever seen the amount of empty oxygen containers and gear the so called Eco-friendly climbers are leaving? I am tired of hearing how cool people (Suburb kids with parents gold card to help finance the trip) think it was to try to climb Everest.

    I admire the REAL climbers that take years to get into shape, and try the climb without oxygen.

  13. Adrian   August 29, 2012 7:39 am

    I don’t really see the difference between using O2 and Diamox etc (& coffee & redbull!!) to survive a harsh environment and using any other supplies and equipment.

    We take processed food like energy gels, power bars and dehydrated meals so why not take processed air in metal cylinders?

    Down suits, axes, crampons etc are all artificial aids used to allow altitude mountaineers to get to the top without the environment killing them.

    Next time you go climb an icefall try leaving your hardware & technical clothing behind and see if the sense of purity is worth it. Front pointing used to be considered cheating (some old timers in the UK still think it is)

    At the top end of sport the performance margins are purely down to genetics – which is just luck really. If someone like Ueli Steck uses oxygen to walk up everest by an easy route then yeah its cheating but if an average guy uses it because he invested all his money on buying onto some guided trip and he wants to make the most of his one chance then good for him.

    We can either accept that technology (chemical & mechanical) plays a part or we can insist that people climb naked, live off the land and do every climb from sea level.

  14. Ben   August 29, 2012 7:53 am

    Second what Sergei said…not that I disagree with your point, but what drugs are okay (ibuprofen, caffeine?), what drugs aren’t (diamox, O2 even if it’s not a drug, speed?), and what draws the line? Tricky hornets’ nest you’re playing with :)

  15. Toby Gadd   August 29, 2012 8:56 am

    Most bike racing is a test of competitive athleticism, stripped of most distractions. Mountaineering, while it usually includes a high degree of athleticism, has far more complicated and nuanced dynamics. Really hard to compare the two–and to determine whether the ethics for one apply to the other. Even harder to compare oxygen use in climbing to EPO use in cycling since they are extremely different substances, often used for very different purposes, with wildly different health risks, etc.

    I find it curious that you are ranting about two sports with which you have so little experience–high altitude mountaineering and competitive road cycling. Hearing what you have to say about things closer to might be more interesting, such as the evolution of the ethics that shape the worlds of ice/mixed climbing, rock climbing, flying, etc. Lots of drugs, equipment debates, style conflicts, etc. As an opinionated, influential, and top-performing athlete, you’ve been right in the middle of a lot of them, and have often had a hand in shaping some of the debates and conclusions. Pundits are great and all, but I’d be curious to hear your thoughts as participant in the game!

  16. Grant   August 29, 2012 1:33 pm

    Did Ueli or Conrad both eschew Diamox and other pharmaceuticals when they climbed Everest?

  17. Toby B   August 30, 2012 4:42 am

    Isn’t the key thing just to be open about methods, so people, if they are so inclined, can fairly measure one thing against another? If folk want to climb mountains fizzing with drugs while others don’t, surely they are free to do so as long as they don’t try to claim a ‘better’ ascent.

  18. Morgan   August 31, 2012 7:16 am

    The biggest problem here IMO is that he wasn’t caught earlier. So Lance was able to win 7 tours, have an immeasurable effect on North American (and worldwide) cycling popularity, and then finally down the road he is labelled as a pariah.

    My main concern was not whether or not he doped – from what I’ve heard nigh on every is doping – but moreso what impact this would have on the cycling community and cycling advocacy (hopefully not much).

    I think the parallels you draw are interesting, Will, but perhaps a little off-piste. As Laurel mentioned above, doping for winning is different from doping for survival. External to the argument of whether or not doping is ethical/moral/etc. (I’m on your side, I would not condone it in any sport), there is a key difference that if you don’t dope in cycling, you don’t run the increased risk of dying.

  19. David Dornian   August 31, 2012 9:31 am

    I have yet to hear a good argument demonstrating how using drugs or particular medical technology – as an act in itself – is moral or immoral. It is just another way to affect performance. These practices only become an ethical issue when their use is in contravention of the rules of the game being played, i.e. when they are used covertly, to cheat and beat someone else, or – if there are monetary rewards – for attempting fraud.

    Doping should only be a concern for players. The rest of us should mind our own business, and open another beer.

  20. James Jenden   September 3, 2012 12:03 pm

    I dislike the use of doping in sports. I really do. I don’t, however, think that they should be going after Lance. I’m fairly sure he doped, but so was everyone else. Going after him does nobody any good, and could do a lot of damage to Livestrong, which helps lots of people. If they strip his titles, is anybody going to care who the second place guy was (who probably also doped), and that he now gets a title?

    As for it in the mountains, I think that the argument of survival is a silly one. If you need oxygen to survive on Everest, then you shouldn’t be on Everest. It’s pretty simple. I visited the base camp, and talked to several people who had far less mountaineering experience than myself. The only difference was that their pocketbooks were a lot deeper. There seems to be a pervasive view there that if you have the means to climb, you have the right. I don’t agree. As a non-rich mountaineer, I hate being compared with people who have climbed Everest, because with a sadly few exceptions, they’re not mountaineers, just rich people. Being in the mountains can be brutal, and lowering the standards so that 75 year old men and 10 year old children can climb Everest is just wrong. Jason Kruk’s choping of bolts on Cerro Torre is the same thing as outlawing oxygen on Everest. It would piss a lot of people off, but the people who deserve to be there wouldn’t mind.

  21. Sera F   September 3, 2012 6:22 pm

    While I still side with Lance with all the testing, ie, coming back negative, what makes climbing any different for performance enhancing?

    While it may not be steroids, epo’s, or blood doping, climbing has its own dark side, oxygen not included.
    Better innovations to climb bettter- better rubber for shoes, bolts to open climbing to areas that trad can’t get you into. The list goes on. What about ice climbing? Heel spurs vs. no heel spurs/ monopoints, better ice axe design, lighter weight gear vs heavy old pitons, etc? Would we beable to reach 5.14/15 today with out bolts or better shoes? I mean, yeah, technique has a lot to do with it, but some couch potato can’t just get off his duff and get on a bike and win the TdF let alone climb 5.14. There has to be a serious amount of effort involved to get to that level before “doping” even makes a difference.

    Helll???? what about Red bull? I won’t touch that shit! and weed as a banned performance enhancing drug???? well as Robin Williams says, its only performance enhancing if there’s a big giant Hershey’s Bar at the finish line. I do have to admit that weed does relax me so I can focus but as for making me a better climber….in my stoned stupor deep sleep, yeah.

    As for the ppl accusing Lance, I think they’re just out to clear their own names and make themselves feel better for what they couldn’t accomplish.

  22. Rick   September 4, 2012 1:10 pm

    This argument is just ridiculous. What about the individuals who physiologically can simply not acclimate well enough to go above a certain height without O’s, but otherwise are skilled and knowledgeable enough to make it up the mountain. Does their hard work and training not count because of this dilemma?

    Also, as another poster said, you are on a slippery slope of drugs my friend. Did you ever use caffeine, protein supplements, or other performance enhancers when training for these climbs? Did you use pain killers? How “pure” do we need to get?

    Do we need to find ways to make climbers more accountable, more experienced, more skilled, and more independent, so that big mountains became less of a tourist trap? Absolutely. But do we need to be complete a-holes and discount the hard work that many men and women have put in because they wanted to be safe about their ascent?

    screw that.

  23. Wade Jackman   September 5, 2012 12:43 pm

    Will, I think you hit the nail on the head. I also think the Tour was better before they started using team radios but that’s beside the point. It really comes down to honesty for me. If you want to summit Everest with bottled O, go for it, but be honest. If you want to dope to win the Tour, be honest and give up the medal. Unfortunately it will probably be the guy in 11th place that actually won.

  24. Montana   September 6, 2012 7:26 am

    Since we are speaking of doping and aid, there’s one detail that’s never discussed.

    Sherpa support: how about climbing the mountain without the aid of the ice doctors, personal sherpa(s) guide(s) to melt water, carry your Os and extra gear, set up your tent and then carry your ass down after summiting because you cant seem to get down without them. The idea that these folks “climbed” Everest on their own is a fantasy at best. If it weren’t for the ancillary support that each “climber” fails to credit, these folks couldnt wipe their own ass after “surviving” Everest. The majority of these folks pay to have themselves hauled up the mountain while everyone else fixes the lines, route-finds, and ensures their safety. If that isnt blatant cheating, then Lance is definitely innocent in my book.

  25. Richard Ferron   September 6, 2012 9:04 am

    Actually the 11th guy, like the last is probably doped too… I’m sure there are exception and Lance might even be one but I think most of them need drugs to get on the team.

    BTW, here is an excellent article on the GOOD side of doping…:

  26. Wade Jackman   September 7, 2012 1:12 pm


    Unfortunately you’re probably right.

    Thanks for the article, it was very interesting to get an inside perspective of doping.

  27. Toby Gadd   September 7, 2012 1:37 pm

    I’m not sure that it’s fair to hold recreational cyclists and climbers to the same standards as their competitive peers.

    I don’t have any problem with a recreational cyclist taking drugs to improve their performance. It’s certainly not my thing, but their actions don’t hurt me one bit. Same is true with climbing–who really cares of some casuals climber use oxygen to make it up a peak?

    But when things get competitive, the landscape changes. I don’t want to race a bike against a guy who’s taking performance-enhancing drugs. I’d feel like I’m racing a pharmaceutical company, not another guy working as hard as I am. Knowing that I will never beat him because he’s got an artificial advantage would take the fun out of the game. A level playing field is the foundation of all worthy sports, and PEDs really screw things up. A talented rider who crushes me under his own steam is inspiring; a drugged up rider who crushes me with EPO is depressing. Same is true with competitive climbing (of which sponsored climbing is included). The guys who do it in the best style should win on the merits of the accomplishment–which means continually stripping out unnecessary advantages as the sport evolves.

    There’s room for dopers and non-dopers, oxygen-suckers and hyperventilators–just not in the same leagues.

  28. Philip Ebert   September 10, 2012 7:22 am

    Nice blog post

    I think, it is worth mentioning that the first ascent of Nanga Parbat by Herman Buhl in 1953 was done without oxygen! (and solo…) — so not all pass champions used oxygen and it wasn’t Messner who showed the way. Somewhat ironically, though, Herman Buhl was using drugs — doping? — in that his expedition doctor gave all mountaineers a drug — commonly used by fighter pilots — called Pervitin. It is a type of methamphetamin, now more commonly known as chrystal meth….

  29. Ben   September 11, 2012 1:30 pm

    I think that the comparison between doping in cycling and cheating in mountaineering is fair in that hearing about high profile doping in a sport I don’t participate in can get me thinking about ethics in my own sport.

    To those who argue that condemning those who use bottled O2 on high altitude climbs is a slippery slope and that we need to examine our use of drugs such as caffeine, I don’t agree with your arguments. We don’t have to take arguments to their logical extremes. Drinking a cup of coffee before an alpine start on a big climb or using energy gels is not the same as using bottle 02. It’s hard to quantify why, but in the case of energy gels, coffee and other dietary supplements, this is simply choosing a diet that will provide your body with the nutrients necessary to perform at the level you are able to perform at. You have to get nutrients in some form when you’re climbing, why not an energy bar full of protein, vitamins, and simple sugars for quick energy? Why handicap yourself by eating something that won’t deliver nutrients as effectively? After taking/eating any of these commonly used food products you’re not going to be able to perform at a higher level than you’ve trained to be able to perform at. (ie, no amount of coffee is going to get you up something you’re not capable of climbing, it just might make the alpine start less painful though). On the other hand using O2 on high altitude peaks allows you to do something that you wouldn’t normally be capable of doing. And using O2 and fixed lines does litter mountains and have a profound impact on climbers who have worked hard and are capable of climbing without the supplements (piles of garbage are unsightly and diminish the experience and sense of adventure).

    Anyways, all that to point out that there is a difference between having a red bull before climbing a big route and using 02 on high altitude peaks.

  30. Travis   September 14, 2012 9:37 pm

    I thought this was going to be about alpine climbing and herb.

  31. James G   September 26, 2014 10:53 am

    I share Will’s sentiment about oxygen being used for assistance to get high. But it goes back 41 years before Messner’s time. Gotta give credit where credit is and Fritz Wiessner ushered in an era of oxygen-less climbing, getting within 800 of the summit of K2 in 1939. This feat is often hidden due to his American partners bailing and carrying out all his camps. While not summiting this feat is non the less impressive and he should be remembered as a man some 40 years ahead of his time.

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