Hypoxic ventilatory response is higher in successful extreme-altitude climbers than in controls. We hypothesized that these climbers have lower brainstem blood flow secondary to hypoxia which may possibly cause retention of medullary CO(2) and greater ventilatory drive. Using transcranial Doppler, basilar artery blood flow velocity (Vba) was measured at sea level in 7 extreme-altitude climbers and 10 controls in response to 10 min sequential exposures to inspired oxygen fractions (FI(O(2))) of 0.21 (baseline), 0.13, 0.11, 0.10, 0.09, 0.08 and 0.07. Sa(O(2)) was higher in climbers at FI(O(2)) of 0.11 (P<0.05), 0.08 and 0.07 (both P<0.0001). Expired ventilation (VE) increased more (n.s.), and PET(CO(2)) decreased more (n.s.) in the climbers than in controls. Vba did not significantly change in both groups at FI(O(2)) of 0.13-0.09. At FI(O(2)) of 0.08 and 0.07, Vba decreased 21% (P<0.03) and 27% (P<0.01), respectively, in climbers, and increased 29% (P<0.01) and 27% (P<0.01), respectively, in controls. The conflicting effects of hypoxia and hypocapnia on both medullary blood flow and ventilatory drive thus balance out, giving climbers a greater drive and higher Sa(O(2)), despite lower PET(CO(2)) and lower brain stem blood flow.