The Paradox of Doping in Mountain Climbing

We’re usually comfortable deciding whether or not an athlete is doping. Lance Armstrong was definitely doping by using erythropoietin. Tennis player Novak Djokovic, on the other hand, was definitely not doping when he slept in an egg-shaped barometric chamber.

We tell one from the other by a kind of cultural gestalt, sorting out those who dope and those who don’t. Then we take that one step farther and reason: Those who don’t, compete cleanly—those that do, cheat.

But what if a substance is both performance-enhancing and a benefit to an athlete’s health? What if that substance is oxygen?

But using supplemental oxygen sounds vaguely like doping. In fact, prominent elements of alpine climbing culture see it as illegitimate. Famous professional climbers like Ed Viesturs, the only American to have climbed all 14 8,000-meter peaks,1 deride the use of supplemental oxygen and have for decades. Using it, they maintain, is indeed like doping—with all the associated stigma heaped on it. “It brings the mountain down to your level,” Veisturs writes. “I don’t want that. If I have to train harder or suffer more, then so be it.”

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Reinhold Messner without oxygen Everest

Everest the hard way: Reinhold Messner, pictured here on Everest, ascended the mountain without supplemental oxygen in 1978, creating a new standard for the community.

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