The cause of exercise intolerance in congestive heart failure is unclear. Hemodynamic and ventilatory responses were measured during symptomatic maximal upright bicycle exercise in 28 patients with chronic severe left ventricular failure who achieved a maximal oxygen uptake of only 12 +/- 4 ml/min/kg (+/- standard deviation). All patients reached anaerobic metabolism as the respiratory exchange ratio rose and arterial pH fell significantly. Pulmonary capillary wedge pressure increased from 20 +/- 10 mm Hg at rest to 38 +/- 9 mm Hg at peak exercise and cardiac index increased from 2.51 +/- 0.73 to 4.54 +/- 1.65 liters/min/m2 (both p less than 0.001). Systemic vascular resistance decreased, but pulmonary vascular resistance did not change during exercise. Despite the marked pulmonary venous hypertension at peak exercise, blood gases were unchanged (PaO2, 96 +/- 15 mm Hg; PaCO2, 35 +/- 7 mm Hg). Systemic arterial oxygen content increased from 16 +/- 2 to 17 +/- 2 vol% (p less than 0.01). Changes in pulmonary capillary wedge pressure did not correlate with changes in arterial oxygen content. Results were similar whether patients were limited by dyspnea or fatigue. Thus, exercise intolerance in patients with severe left ventricular failure is associated with marked elevation of pulmonary capillary wedge pressure and anaerobic metabolism without hypoxemia or altered carbon dioxide tension. These findings suggest that exercise ability in congestive heart failure is more dependent on cardiac output than on ventilatory consequences of pulmonary congestion.