Between the Lines: 5 Ways Climbers Cheat

What is “cheating” when it comes to using performance enhancers or drugs like dexamethasone?

By Andrew Bisharat | June 18th, 2020

Approaching the south summit on Mount Everest. Photo: Mário Simoes.

 

This week the AP reported that researchers in England have evidence that dexamethasone, a cheap and widely available steroid, has shown effectiveness in reducing death in severely ill Covid-19 patients.

Dexamethasone … where have I heard of dexamethasone before?

Oh, you mean DEX!? As in the life-saving elixir every character in “Vertical Limit,” the campy climbing film from 2000, is shooting up. The people in this film spend more time fighting and killing each other over their supplies of dex than they do actually climbing. The whole movie is like if you staged a heroin den at 24,000 feet.

“Vertical Limit” gets my vote for one of the best climbing movies of all time. To refresh your memory about how good this movie is, enjoy this outrageous opening scene.

“We got amateurs at 12:00! Check your safety!” Blowing the whistle … Cams ripping. Oh, man, so good.

Oh, wait. I am now reading that high-altitude climbers actually do use dex, both to stave off the effect of acute mountain sickness as well as prophylactically to enhance their performances at altitude.

“I’ve seen men who can’t even stand up get a dose of dex and immediately start walking again on their own,” says Adrian Ballinger of Alpenglow Expeditions, a seasoned high-altitude guide who has recently achieved the distinction of having climbed both K2 and Everest without oxygen, as well as ticking 5.13 sport. Ballinger has personally experimented with dex for prophylactic performance gains, and says it’s “fully like cheating.”

“It makes you feel euphoric,” he says. “All the pain immediately goes away.”

Although it carries minimal risk, dex is banned by the World Anti-Doping Association as a performance enhancer. And there is a story of at least one climber who took almost 90 doses of dex over the weeks leading up to an attempt on Everest, and shut down his entire adrenal system and almost died.

Ballinger says most guide companies carry dex to help clients in case they get in trouble, and that given the recent news about dex and Covid-19, he expects there to be a global shortage.

Perhaps our ERs will soon look something like this:

When life imitates the high art of “Vertical Limit,” we’re all in deeper trouble than we realize.

What is “cheating” when it comes to using performance enhancers or drugs? For many high-altitude climbers, the use of oxygen is the clearest line between what’s legit and what’s invalid salad. But sometimes we let these almost arbitrary lines in the sand cloud our ability to think clearly. In 2011, a team of Spanish mountaineers climbed Lhotse and got themselves into trouble on the way down, requiring a big rescue by other mountaineers. The Spanish climbers, however, were so committed to the idea that “oxygen equals cheating” that they refused to take any oxygen so as not to invalidate their ascent. Meanwhile, other mountaineers were literally carrying them down the mountain. Oh, and half the team was also dex’d out of their minds.

So, oxygen is cheating but dex or being carried home by your compatriots like you’ve been 86’d from a bar after drinking too much isn’t?

The line between “performance enhancer” and “cheating” has always seemed arbitrary to me. The conversation itself obscures a more interesting paradox in climbing, which is that we all want to find the hardest routes and biggest challenges, but then we spend every subsequent moment thinking of ways to shortcut the very process and experience that’s inherent to completing anything difficult.

We’re always looking for the edge, the shortcut that will help us circumvent the very thing we want.

There’s always some new “thing” my friends are experimenting with. A few years ago, one friend was sneaking cordyceps pills out his snack-pack tupperware before all of his redpoint burns. Cordyceps are thought to increase the body’s production of ATP, which may boost energy production.

“What is that shit?” I asked.

“Cordyceps,” he said. “They’re mushrooms.”

Mushrooms, huh? I went home and looked it up and cordyceps are literally fungal parasites that explode out of the fucking heads of insect larvae. How do you go from finding a bunch of larvae with aliens growing out of their heads to thinking, “Hey, what if I grind this up and put it in a pill and eat it … you think that might help me send my proj?”

For a while, the supplement companies were pushing the “pre-workout” drink mixes with branched chain amino acids (BCAAs), which is just an incomplete form of protein thought to ultimately reduce muscle soreness. But does this help you send? If you know anything about the climbing process, you know that you can slam all the BCAAs you want, but it’s not going to help you send if you’re not already fit enough, know the beta, and climbing well enough to do the route.

 

[Also Watch VIDEO: Breathtaking: K2 – The World’s Most Dangerous Mountain]

 

At Rifle this summer, the newest jam is beetroot juice, which is supposed to improve your stamina. A bunch of climbers are walking around sipping water bottles filled with blood-red liquid, wiping their mouths like vampires. (They’re also pretty pale, since everyone avoids climbing in the sun.)

“Can I just eat beets?” I asked my buddy.

“Not if you want to optimize your sending potential,” he replied, slamming a cup of blood and then nearly crushing his project.

Was that the beet juice? Or was he just climbing really well?

One of my harder redpoints came after I drank three beers, on my third day on. Another one of my harder redpoints came during my third day of an all-water fast.

Does what we put, or don’t put, into our bodies make any difference? It’s hard to say, especially when climbing is so much about rote execution of the right muscle memory. It’s good to be smart about your climbing performance, but part of being smart is also embracing the very nature of the difficulty of your goal, and not trying to shortcut that experience. There’s greater value in diving into this process than ticking summits and routes. And as they say in “Vertical Limit,” “A smart climber always wears a belt and suspenders.”

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