The Team That Summited Everest Dosed Two Sherpas With Amphetamines

Eager to be the first to the top, these brave adventurers briefly turned to ... Adderall.
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Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay (Wikimedia Commons)

Nearly sixty years ago -- on May 29, 1953 -- Edmund Hillary and his Nepalese mountaineer, Tenzing Norgay, became the first humans that we know of to have reached the summit of Mount Everest.

Their accomplishment was a feat not just of physical prowess, but of procedure. Climbing Everest, then as now, was as much a design problem as anything else: Which path could lead humans safely to the summit? Hillary and Norgay, ultimately, summited the wind-whipped, snow-covered mountain not on their own, but with the backing and the strategizing of a 400-person team named for its leader: John Hunt. The Hunt expedition to Everest included not just a small cadre of Western mountaineers, but also 362 porters and 20 Sherpa guides, one of them being Norgay -- and all of them wrestling with some 10,000 pounds of equipment, food, and other luggage.

Hunt was not without guidance in the strategy he developed for his expedition. The year before, 1952, a team of Swiss mountaineers under Edouard Wyss-Dunant had come close to summiting Everest, setting a new climbing altitude record and identifying a new route up the mountain. Hunt used information from their experience to both build on their successes and avoid the pitfalls they had encountered. He charted a new route -- which turned out to be the route -- to the top of the mountain, one that would require the climbing of the steep, icy surface known as the Lhotse Face.

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The route would require something else, too: lots of speed on the part of the humans who attempted to traverse it. The slope of the Lhotse is stepped -- meaning that it would offer climbers the opportunity to establish intermediate camps on their way to the summit, which would in turn mean easier access to supplies and shorter climbs between rests. This infrastructure would be the key to the Hunt party's success. The team set up Camp V at the bottom of the face, Camps VI and VII on the face itself, and Camp VIII above the face. 

The only outstanding question was how -- and whether -- the mountaineers would be able to travel between the camps. They would need, above all, to be quick about it. 

And here's where things get kind of crazy.

To get the speed they needed, The Guardian reports, the Hunt expedition briefly experimented with a time-tested, if somewhat artificial, way to hurry up and focus on the task at hand: amphetamines. Yep, the psychostimulant drugs that today are largely known by brand names like Adderall. While the team's medical officer, Michael Ward, was hesitant to try the drug for the first time on the Lhotse face itself -- much too risky, given the precarious ground and the thin air -- he compromised with a trial run of the stuff in the Khumbu icefall, just above Everest's base camp. Two Sherpas (Sherpas whose names, alas, seem to have been lost to history) volunteered to try Benzedrine in a kind of ad hoc mountaintop drug trial, reporting on the effects of the stimulant as they carried tents, oxygen equipment, climbing gear, and other cargo from Camps I to II to III.

Had the stimulants actually been stimulating, the experiment might have made an excellent premise for an Everest-set Zack Snyder movie, or at least given new meaning to the phrase "race to the top" ... but the amphetamines, at high altitude, didn't provide the effects the mountaineers had been hoping for. There was no speed. There was no focus. In fact, the drugs seemed to have the opposite effects on their testers. Later, in his memoir of the Everest summiting, the Hunt expeditioner Wilfrid Noyce would explain these "most unexpected results":

One man said that it was wonderful stuff, it had cured his cough. Another said that it made him sleep excellently. Fortunately, they never had to be used.

But excellent sleep, of couse, was not the goal. And though the Sherpas might have had something else to say about the drugs "never having to be used," the doping test was soon abandoned -- a brief experiment relegated to two adventurers whose names have been lost to history.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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