Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Powered by skill or doped with O2?

The use of banned substances and O2 in high-altitude mountaineering
seems to be both widely spread and a fully acceptable way to get to
the summit, but for how long? A "sports"-specific ban on O2 may well
be lurking around the corner. Does WADA have the power to upset the
whole industry of guided and O2-assisted climbs on the world’s highest
mountains? Will this new world order have any impact on the race to
become the first woman to summit all 14 8000-meter peaks?

While it’s a fair assumption that the history of mountaineering won’t
change, in the future summiting an 8000-meter peak using O2 may well
be considered as doping. An O2-powered ascent of Everest made today
can propel any aspiring newbie to the highest echelon of
mountaineering, at least in the eyes of the mainstream media and thus
of the average adventure-sports follower. Summiting Everest, at any
cost, still seems to make you mountaineer to the world, to the extent
that speaking engagements and lecture tours can become your new source
of income. [Aside: this media perception issue is on its own an
important one, but will not be pursued here.] The climbing world,
however, will not notice an ascent of Everest performed without some
special style and grace, and no recognition can be expected in the
“real” climbing media. If, then, a team that scales the West Face of
Gasherbrum 4 in alpine style and powered only by Clif bars, skill, and
the determination to summit in style will indeed achieve the
recognition it deserves from the people who matter, what is there to
complain about?

The WADA doping policy is the cornerstone of the UIAA’s own
anti-doping policy. In the future, the UIAA’s anti-doping policy may
well affect parts of the climbing world other than the competition
scene. This appears to be a development few have foreseen and one that
many will despise. It is easy to dismiss the doping issues in
high-altitude alpinism by saying that it is an “out-of-competition
activity” and that it’s nobody’s business to regulate what goes on up
there. But is climbing in the Greater Ranges really an
out-of-competition activity? Countries such as France and Kazakhstan
both have national teams for alpinism. Enormous funds are raised every
year on the back a declared ambition to set or break a record of some

Then there is the "race" among some female alpinists who are in
a de facto competition to become the first woman to scale all 14 peaks
over 8000 meters. True, this is not an organized competition with
judges sitting in lawn chairs in BC looking at the athletes through
big scopes while they kill themselves in the name of a record, but it
is still a race for the glory, recognition, sponsorship, book deals,
money and record claims which are without a doubt up for grabs. Then
there are also the destroyed opportunities for future generations to
achieve great firsts by fair means. I think it is fair to say that for
most climbers, as for most fans of more traditional sports, what it
all boils down to at the end of the day is: shall we encourage
cheating or go for the cleanest possible way?

The UIAA’s own Medical Committee and Doping Committee currently seem
to have some internal conflict over how to respond to a potential WADA
sports-specific ban on the use of supplementary O2. The UIAA Medical
Committee alone has been unable to answer any questions related to the
issue without having some of its members contradict each other. There
is to date simply no official policy statement which an outsider can
obtain with regard to the use of O2, and not even an unofficial
statement on which the committee members are agreed. The only clear
thing is that there is no consensus within the UIAA of how to handle
the O2-doping question.

I think it would be fair to say that it is impossible to dispute the
fact that using O2 is performance-enhancing, in fact at any altitude.
Add prescription drugs to this mix and we are definitely in murky
waters. At least in any other sport we would be in very murky waters,
but the acceptance of using for example Acetazolamide, sold under the
trade name Diamox, is almost universal. Who has not had Diamox in
order to speed up acclimatization, without thinking of it as actively
trying to enhance performance? Would we do this as readily in the full
knowledge that taking Diamox for any purpose other than treating a
symptom is a violation of the WADA code? Here we will not go into a
discussion of the use and abuse of the corticosteroids, of which the
best known is Dexamethasone, or of the new Wunderkinder of
high-altitude performance, Viagra and its relatives. Suffice it to say
that Acetazolamide (Diamox) is a banned substance according to the
WADA 2010 list of prohibited substances. O2 is not.

So how likely is it that O2 will be part of a future WADA list of
banned substances? This is hard to say, but conversations with a
number of WADA officials show they are well aware of the controversy.
This means they both understand the implications of adding O2 to the
list of banned substances and are at the same time keen to get rid of
the issues associated with the use of O2 in high-altitude
mountaineering. While it seems highly unlikely that a general O2 ban
could happen, a sports-specific ban may well be a reality in the near
future. One WADA official said off the record that the agency is being
approached by a considerable number of people who oppose that fact
that records can be claimed on ascents of mountains while assisted by
O2. The same official also confirmed that the UIAA seems to be
seriously divided in terms of how to handle the issue, and lobbying
efforts from those both for and against the use of O2 are being
mounted. One other WADA official, however, indicated that a
sports-specific ban would be likely to appear only if the UIAA were to
approach WADA to request this.

What would be the future in the event of a sports-specific ban on O2

Doping controls by UIAA officials on the South Col? A medical
facility in Askole where blood samples are registered and DNA tested?
It would not be going out on a limb to say that this is not going to
happen. Some of the most significant implications, however, are those
concerning the 8000-meter "tourist industry," underpinning as it does
a not insignificant fraction of the local economy on both sides of Mt.
Everest. Today the industry of guided, O2-assisted ascents of
8000-meter peaks is driven largely by the fact that "Joe the Plumber"
can come and play at being a fully-fledged alpinist without any
previous knowledge or experience, and still have an Everest summit to
his name. The only drawback is noticed when he looks at his bank
statement. He is virtually guaranteed speaking engagements given that
he did some kind of "first on Everest” – first plumber, first to
summit with a batman toy, first to summit without knowing how to start
a Jetboil, or first to summit without ever having been higher than the
Empire State Building. Might this industry, for good or bad, suffer a
substantial blow? How cool is it to say “Hi, I climbed Everest.” when
you have to add “and by the way I used doping all the way”? Even the
most dubious outfitter would have to inform his clients that the trip
he was selling comes with the waiver that the ascent can’t be claimed
as a clean one because doping is a key element to success. Could or
would the UIAA try to ban the issuing of summit certificates for
climbs done on O2? Or would anyone comply at all if it’s killing

To wrap up, it is worth pointing out that the end of this debate is
not going to hinge on the personal ambitions of some people at WADA
and the UIAA – it’s a question going to the core of how high-altitude
climbing is defined. Is that important enough for each of us to take a
position, or are we happy to let it be determined for us by some media
figures, some commercial operators, and the national mountaineering
associations of a few Himalayan nations? On a personal note, I think
keeping O2 out of climbing, if it could have any real impact, would be
a great way to keep the mountains clean, both literally and