Doped on a Rope: PEDs, the Olympics and Climbing

Recently, the International Olympic Committee shook up the events for the 2020 Olympics: wrestling is out. Any number of proposed sports could be in, including sport climbing. For the first time since 1988, when medals were last given to two climbers in achievements of alpinism (Reinhold Messner refused his silver medal that year), climbing could get a place on the world sporting stage, provided it can beat out the other contenders, like wakeboarding and squash.

This is as good a time as any to address the question of doping in climbing. If the world’s best sport climbers are invited to the 2020 summer games, they would have to perform a battery of tests required by the World Anti-Doping Agency, checking to see that their red blood cells are at normal levels and that their system is clean of chemicals and hormones that would give them an unfair advantage.

How many climbers would be snared by these tests? A few writers have expressed concern about the extent to which doping has already taken root in the sport climbing world. One writer argues that it’s not unreasonable to suspect that with sponsorship money on the line, some climbers have sought out an artificial edge over others. Perhaps climbing will be the next sport in a long string to be shaken by doping controversy.

But it’s important to remember that unlike these other sports, where doping is a recent phenomenon, climbers have used chemicals for artificial advantage for almost a hundred years.

High Altitude Doping
36 days after Hillary and Norgay summited Everest in 1953, the German climber Hermann Buhl made a perhaps more daring ascent of a different 8,000 meter Himalayan  peak, Nanga Parbat. During the summit push, Buhl looked back for his climbing partner and saw no sign of anyone. The partner, who had left the tent an hour later than Buhl, could not catch up to Buhl and turned back. Ahead of Buhl lay some of the route’s most difficult technical climbing. He decided to push on. Upon reaching the summit, Buhl was the first — and now, only — climber to make a first ascent of an 8,000 meter peak solo.

Getting down was now the challenge. A storm was rolling in and Buhl didn’t have a tent or a sleeping bag for an emergency bivouac. There wasn’t even room nearby for him to sit down. On a small ledge just below the summit, Buhl stood all night and waited out the storm. Then he made the long and treacherous descent hungry and dehydrated. Battling hallucinations, he reached camp not having slept in over 40 hours.

Buhl’s storied accomplishment is one of the most spectacular feats in the history of mountaineering. But if he was competing in the olympics, his ascent would be deemed illegitimate. Buhl repeatedly consumed tablets of Pervitin, the trade name for a mass produced methamphetamine, on both his ascent and descent. The stimulant allowed him to stay alert and maintain his concentration throughout the climb.

Our retroactive olympic doping committee wouldn’t stop there. They would throw out Hillary and Norgay’s summiting of Everest, as well as many other Himalayan ascents, because the use of supplemental oxygen was banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency. (The ban was lifted in 2010.)

Experts say that the use of supplemental oxygen on the Everest summit, at 29,000 feet, lowers the physiological height to 22,000 feet — it makes the mountain feel smaller. Is this an unfair advantage?

Ever since the first bulky canisters were carried up Everest in 1922, climbers have been debating whether supplemental oxygen grants an unfair advantage. Reinhold Messner and his partner Peter Habeler climbed Everest for the first time without supplemental oxygen, a feat they deemed the mountain’s first fair means ascent.

Chemicals such as dexamethasone (dex) and acetazolamide have long been a mainstay of the high altitude mountaineer first aid kit: They can help treat altitude sickness, including high altitude pulmonary edema. Dex in particular can have a fog-clearing effect on a climber’s mind at altitude. Ken Kamler, M.D. relates an anecdote in his article in Adventure about the abuse of steroids on Everest:

During a “house call” at Everest’s Camp II in 1995, I treated a climber who could not manage to unzip his sleeping bag. In any case, he said, he wouldn’t leave his tent without his girlfriend.

“Ricardo, who won the World Cup?” I asked.

“I did,” he replied.

Three minutes after I administered a dose of dexamethasone, he was out of his tent, knew Brazil had won the World Cup, and remembered that his girlfriend was home in South America.

Many high altitude climbers use dex preventively — that is, for performance enhancing purposes. Your mind becomes clear, even as the altitude would naturally be clouding it. Scott McIntosh, M.D., director of the EMS/Wilderness Medicine Fellowship at the University of Utah, speculated in an email that as many as 10% of climbers on mountains like Denali and Everest use dex for this purpose.

McIntosh co-authored a paper in the American Alpine Journal entitled “Performance-Enhancing Drugs and Climbing,” which called for the drugs climbers use to be reported with the ascent of a climb, just as supplemental oxygen is now.

But McIntosh admitted the infeasibility of this recommendation in an email: “It’s difficult in a sport like mountaineering to have any sort of regulation or oversight.”

The World Anti-Doping Agency on its website partially defines doping as “the use of artificial enhancements to gain an advantage over others in competition.” By this definition, much of the equipment of mountaineering could be considered doping: crampons, light weight clothing, ice tools.

Because mountaineering is such an individualist pursuit, climbers are able, to a certain extent, to set the bounds of their own adventure — no one’s going to force you to climb without oxygen if you don’t want to. It’s the mountain versus you and whatever tools you choose to use. “Have we vanquished an enemy? None but ourselves,” said George Mallory, who felt no compunction over the use of supplemental oxygen in his three attempts at climbing Everest. It’s a hollow distinction that the modern climber makes against supplemental oxygen or PEDs, when he uses high tech crampon that give a huge artificial advantage over his hobnail booted forbears.

Doping in Sport Climbing
The world of mountaineering is largely unpoliceable when it comes to PEDs, but sport climbing is not. Already the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation, as well as the International Federation of Sport Climbing, have doping policies and infrastructure in place to test participants in climbing competitions. So far, the only climbers these tests have caught are those who tested positive for recreational drugs. According to Adam Roy on the Outside blog, only one or two climbers have tested positive for marijuana, one of whom was Chris Sharma, whose 2001 World Bouldering Cup gold medal was stripped after the test. Roy questions the effectiveness of these tests: “It’s safe to say that there have been far more than two World Cup climbers who have smoked weed during their careers.”

Better tests and more efficacious testing practices will surely come. Right now, if we found out that Chris Sharma is taking anabolic steroids — which would help him to gain strength and more quickly recover from workouts — in preparation for a sport climbing comp,  we would consider it poor form and cheating. And yet, many climbers as recent as 30 years ago would be aghast at the type of climbing that Sharma pursues. Climbing isn’t a sport, many of them would say. It’s cheating sew up a route with bolts.

Maybe in another 30 years, the climbing world will come to accept PEDs as the next artificial tool to help push the limits of climbing achievement, allowing us to go faster, harder and ever higher.

By Sean Sullivan

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