Strenuous exercise may be a significant contributing factor for development of high-altitude pulmonary edema, particularly at low or moderate altitudes. Thus we investigated the effects of heavy cycle ergometer exercise (90% maximal effort) under hypoxic conditions in which the combined effects of a marked increase in pulmonary blood flow and nonuniform hypoxic pulmonary vasoconstriction could add significantly to augment the mechanical stress on the pulmonary microcirculation. We postulated that intense exercise at altitude would result in an augmented permeability edema. We recruited eight endurance athletes and examined their bronchoalveolar lavage fluid (BALF) for red blood cells (RBCs), protein, inflammatory cells, and soluble mediators at 2 and 26 h after intense exercise under normoxic and hypoxic conditions. After heavy exercise, under all conditions, the athletes developed a permeability edema with high BALF RBC and protein concentrations in the absence of inflammation. We found that exercise at altitude (3,810 m) caused significantly greater leakage of RBCs [9.2 (SD 3.1)x10(4) cells/ml] into the alveolar space than that seen with normoxic exercise [5.4 (SD 1.2)x10(4) cells/ml]. At altitude, the 26-h postexercise BALF revealed significantly higher RBC and protein concentrations, suggesting an ongoing capillary leak. Interestingly, the BALF profiles following exercise at altitude are similar to that of early high-altitude pulmonary edema. These findings suggest that pulmonary capillary disruption occurs with intense exercise in healthy humans and that hypoxia augments the mechanical stresses on the pulmonary microcirculation.