The Amphetamine Experiment on Everest

While the World Anti-Doping Agency bans the use of drugs in competitive athletics, high-altitude climbers have always policed themselves.

Artificial aids such as performance-enhancing drugs or even the use of supplementary oxygen are more as a matter of ethics, eschewed by the purist, embraced by many others. In a study done by the University of Washington and the Institute for Altitude Medicine, 43 percent of the Everest climbers surveyed used acetazolamide (Diamox) during their ascents. Another 5 percent used dexamethasone and 4 percent used sildenafil (Viagra). All can help prevent or lessen the effects of altitude sickness. Some climbers carry these drugs and use them if symptoms begin. Others take them ahead of time as prophylactics.

Some will argue that these drugs saves lives at altitude, and that is true. But it is ironic that the first successful Everest summit also featured an early experiment in the use of a different sort of performance-enhancing drug: amphetamines.

On May 29, 1953, Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became instantly famous as the first to reach the summit of Mount Everest. However, they were just the tip of the spear. Below, 400 people, led by John Hunt, supported them. This included 362 porters and 20 Sherpa guides who lugged 450kg of food and gear up the mountain. Tenzing was originally one of these.

The previous year, a Swiss team had come close to summiting, and Hunt built on their successes and learned from their mistakes. His biggest change was a new route, the Lhotse Face. Overall, it is a longer climb than the Swiss’s, but climbers could establish intermediate camps in the slightly flatter sections of the Face and rest more often between climbing sections.

But Hunt still worried about progress between camps. Although the climbs were shorter, climbers and Sherpas needed to move swiftly to succeed. This is where the amphetamines came into play.

Hunt, Michael Ward (the team medical officer), and Griff Pugh (physiologist) decided to test psychostimulant drugs to see if they could literally help climbers speed up. Ward and Pugh were wary of trying out the drugs on Lhotse Face itself, so opted for a trial in the Khumbu Icefall, just above Base Camp. Two unnamed Sherpas volunteered to take part in the ethically questionable experiment and were given Benzedrine.

They then reported on the effects of the drug as they ferried their loads between the three lower camps. A liaison officer reported that “one man said it was wonderful stuff, it had cured his cough. Another said it made him sleep excellently.” Not exactly a standard response to amphetamines.

They had gained no speed. If anything, the drugs had the opposite effect: The stimulants were anything but stimulating.

You can read further about this experiment and other drug-related high-altitude issues below:

Climbing’s Little Helper

Mount Everest, amphetamines and the ethics of experiment

How Many People Use Drugs on Everest?