A Guide's Take: Drugs Have No Place In The Alps

I have been guiding people from all nationalities, all over the world for over 23 years as a Swiss IFMGA certified mountain guide. No matter the nationality or age, my clients have all been fun and full of spirit. Anyone who hires a guide is excited and motivated to reach their own mountaineering goals, big or small.

But one thing has become a topic of concern in the Swiss mountaineering community lately—“doping” on the mountain. I see more and more climbers using drugs of all kinds to accomplish their goals. Use of drugs to enhance performance or simply to mask aches and pains seems to be “in.” A little bit of suffering, which used to be the thing that made retelling a mountaineering story exciting, is seen as distasteful and avoidable. Hut keepers tell of clients stumbling into the hut, choking down a pill for dehydration, when simply drinking water would have done the job. 

In mountaineering, the most commonly used drugs are acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil), sildenafil (Viagra), promethazine (Phenergan), antibiotics, acetazolamide (Diamox) and dexamethasone (Decadron), nifedipine (Procardia) and Erythropoietin (Epo). 

Why use any drugs at all unless you are truly sick or injured? It seems that more and more climbers are using drugs to overcome their lack of training, skills or patience for acclimation. This casual overuse of drugs in the mountains seems most prevalent on well-known, prestige mountains like the Eiger, Matterhorn or Mt. Blanc, and of course, most people take drugs on the big one, Mt. Everest. Some drugs have only been tested up to 6,000 meters, so we cannot be certain what the side effects in higher altitudes might be.

Isn’t the entire purpose of mountaineering to accomplish a goal of your own strength and determination, and as a result, there will be a little bit of pain and suffering involved?

A longtime guiding colleague of mine says, “If you have to take drugs to succeed, you are in the wrong place.” I cannot agree more. If you are injured or sick enough to require drugs (individual medical exceptions aside), you should not be attempting a climb.

I do not know where it all comes from. I can’t believe our society thinks it can overcome a lack of training and short cut acclimation with drugs. Why are we even going to the mountains, then? Not every mountain has to be climbed for the sake of it.

Most of the drugs like Diamox have some unpleasant side effects such as a tingling in the fingertips and toes. It’s a diuretic, which causes dehydration, which in turn leads to poorer performance in high-intensity sports. In other words, you may temporarily feel better, but your performance suffers. In my experience, the clients who take acetazolamide need the extra energy they get from it because they lack proper acclimation and are not in optimal physical condition.

I guided Kilimanjaro a couple of years ago with a Swiss climber/hiker group. (A Swiss poll found that 50 percent of the climbers on Kilimanjaro are “doped.”) The trip was well organized and allowed plenty of time to naturally acclimate without drugs. Although a few took aspirin (the most common and actually helpful drug), no other drugs were taken. On the last day before climbing the peak, I had three nurses who started taking lots of drugs which they had never tried in high altitude, and they got quite sick as a result. They had had no problem up to this point, but subsequently, they were so ill that they barely made the summit, which could have been catastrophic in a setting like Everest. The moral of the story is if you’re not sure if a drug has been tested in high altitude, don’t take it. 

I understand there may be cultural differences in what is "normal" here versus where I come from. It may be relatively normal and accepted for people to take a daily ibuprofen or vitamins; nevertheless, they are foreign substances that everyone reacts to differently in different situations. We need to be aware that there’s no substitute in pill form to a healthy diet and a training regime commensurate to the mountaineering goal you have.

We all love the mountains, so we have to respect nature out there as well as our own body and be clean and powered by real food and no drugs. Unless it’s in an emergency to get off a mountain to safety, drugs really have no place in the Alps.


Photo by Forest Woodward.