COFFEE & CLIMBING: PERFORMANCE ENHANCING DRUG?

it is if you’re doing it right!!!

a recent spate of discussion, including comments on the iceclimbingjapan trip to Gangga VII and reactions to the blog post on Andy Kirkpatricks site, have raised the issue of climbers drinking coffee. and fair enough. tho the discussion usually centers on supplemental oxygen and then dexamethasone, Diamox, nifidipine etc coffee always gets roped in as an example of the grey area. yes, the effects are recognized by the highest authorities, but no, it aint banned except in specific circumstances, and indeed in most circles its celebrated.

drug? definitely. unacceptable advantage? not really. bottled oxygen is because its too high, Dex is because youre dying and Diamox is because youre going too fast. coffee is because its 4:00am and theres things to get done.

where coffee warps the envelope with alpine climbing is it has no effects specific to altitude. its well researched that it has distinct effects for endurance activities in general, but above 3500m (or whatever altitude ‘altitude’ begins at…) the effects are nothing special, indeed some references suggest stopping drinking it if its already being regularly consumed to be a problem.

in other endurance sports coffee is only looked down upon within the regulations of Olympic grade events like triathlons where immediate ‘race doses’ that require pharmaceutical dosing (and therefore leave whats meant by ‘coffee’ and enter whats considered doping). ultramarathons, adventure races and stage races have no restrictions on coffee.

an element that clouds the matter is alpine climbings definition as a ‘sport’, which defines then what is ‘fair’ or not. is an ascent done with regular espressos having an unfair advantage the same as an ascent done dexed up or using bottled oxygen? should ascents done by coffee addicts be defined as such? are there ascents being done with coffee that couldn’t be done otherwise?

the thing with coffee is its only performance enhancing when you drink enough – disqualifying dabblers, coffee-wankers and drip. to get the endurance effects requires about 5 cups, which is no big deal over a day but in order to peak a few hours after takes effort (youre looking at espresso for that). according to some literature its main enhancing potential is in training, as to get enough right before a maximal effort would require tablets or suppositories, which stretches the definition of ‘coffee’. enough to blow the idea that Eckenstein insisting on afternoon tea on K2 was getting any enhancing benefit from it (tho who can say what Crowley may have added to the mix…)

coffee paraphenalia. no syringes, no pills, no prescriptions, no sherpas to carry it all.

unlike most drugs used in climbing coffee doesn’t do what your body cannot do itself nor alter the environment you climb in. coffee doesn’t keep you alive or extend your abilities like a true amphetamine or steroid, its simply not invasive enough. its hard to imagine anyones directly been saved by the stuff (tho indirectly thanks to its properties to temporarily sharpen a mind clouded by exhaustion). in this respect coffee is more like beet juice or throat lozenges in that it enhances the scope of a set of functions. it doesn’t initiate them, nor does coffee make up for a genetic disposition like Diamox does. asprin is of greater pharmacological effect than caffeine at altitude, as is ibuprofen. sub-‘altitude’ both are considered standards for the basics of endurance injury.

just what coffee does do to enhance endurance performance is not really clear. apparently it stretches fat metabolization so its broken down over a longer period, starting earlier thus ‘saving’ glycogen so it can be broken down over longer. but how it does this is undecided. compare this to the invasive actions that ‘real’ performance enhancing substances used by climbers have and tho it’s a drug for sure, its pretty low key, certainly lower than many effects of regular diet have, ie taking amino acids, drinking coconut oil or energy gels.

where it is banned is is not because its harmful or has side effects that are nasty, nor that it imparts a risky unfair advantage to some like blood doping – which can kill you – other than I suppose people that may have an allergy reaction, its safe for everyone competing to use without risk of someone going too far.

is it unethical? im not sure how. procuring it certainly isn’t (unless we get into bird friendly, picked by disabled women in impoverished countries stuff) so theres no dodgy doctors or communist conspiracies involved. it doesn’t exclude anyone normal from its use due to cost, metabolism, risk or method of ingestion.

yes, coffee helps at altitude in a way that non-coffee drinkers wont be getting but it also does that on Sunday morning in a beachside café with a copy of the Economist. the divide between coffee drinkers and non-drinkers isn’t what exists between dopers and non-dopers or ‘O’ users and non-‘O’ users. coffee doesn’t open up otherwise unclimbable peaks, nor does it create high-altitude scandals and controversies. people don’t die because they ran out of coffee and sherpas don’t risk their lives for meagre wages to carry it.

do we strip alex lowe and ueli steck – both renowned for their coffee habits – of their achievements because they drink coffee on the mountain? rather than hide it and/or lie about it like Armstrong et al these guys chose to celebrate it. holy heck, Kyle Dempster even owns a cafe! the early morning smell of BCs and highcamps the world over suggest its hardly a clandestine affair, and tho popular use doesn’t justify anything, comparing the numbers of coffee drinkers to summits and O users (or Dexamethasone or Diamox users) and summits suggests the performance enhancing effects are pretty minimal – unless you consider the ambiance of highcamp at 4:00am and ‘enhanced effect’.

in the end im not sure anyone’s stood on top of a mountain, route or boulder directly because of it, but im damned sure they’ve been happier at 3:00am when they decided it was game on.

be aware this rant is about coffee. it isn’t an attempt to change anybody’s mind, disqualify anybody’s achievements or justify anything that’s been done. nor is it about posturing a pro-PED stance for supplemental oxygen, ‘dexing up’ or prophylactic use of pharmaceuticals for the effects of altitude.