Eighteen climbers actively ascended Mount Rainier (elevation 4,392 m) twice during a randomized, double-blind, concurrent, placebo-controlled, crossover trial comparing the use of acetazolamide, 250 mg, dexamethasone, 4 mg, and placebo every 8 hours as prophylaxis for acute mountain sickness. Each subject was randomly assigned to receive placebo during one ascent and one of the active medications during the other ascent. Assessment of acute mountain sickness was performed using the Environmental Symptoms Questionnaire and a clinical interview. At the summit or high point attained above base camp, the use of dexamethasone significantly reduced the incidence of acute mountain sickness and the severity of symptoms. Cerebral and respiratory symptom severity scores for subjects receiving dexamethasone (0.26 +/- 0.16 and 0.20 +/- 0.19, respectively) were significantly lower than similar scores for both acetazolamide (0.80 +/- 0.80 and 1.20 +/- 1.05; P = 0.25) and placebo (1.11 +/- 1.02 and 1.45 +/- 1.27; P = .025). Neither the use of dexamethasone nor that of acetazolamide measurably affected other physical or mental aspects. Compared with placebo, dexamethasone appears to be effective for prophylaxis of symptoms associated with acute mountain sickness accompanying rapid ascent. The precise role of dexamethasone for the prophylaxis of acute mountain sickness is not known, but it can be considered for persons without contraindications who are intolerant of acetazolamide, for whom acetazolamide is ineffective, or who must make forced, rapid ascent to high altitude for a short period of time with a guaranteed retreat route.