The purpose of this study was to assess the effects of acclimatization to extreme altitude on the cardiovascular system, using vagal and adrenergic blockade and acute restoration of normoxia during exercise to maximum with one and two legs. Fourteen climbers on an expedition to the Himalayas were studied at a lower base camp (5250 m) following 56-81 days at altitudes between 5250 and 8700 m. After acclimatization, peak heart rate (HRpeak), oxygen uptake (VO2peak) and noradrenaline (NA) were similar during maximal one- and two-legged cycling, whereas peak plasma lactate was higher during the one-legged protocol. HRpeak (range 113-168 beats min-1) was lowest when subjects returned from the higher camps. The degree of partial restoration of HRpeak to more normal values within seconds of 60% O2 inhalation (range 5-35 beats min-1 HRpeak increase) was greatest in subjects with low HRpeak. HR responses to beta-1 blockade increased as a function of HRpeak and the HR responses to atropine were the least in subjects with high HRpeak. These findings suggest that (a) the reduction in HRpeak is linked to the duration and severity of the hypoxaemia, (b) the degree of restoration of HRpeak with acute normoxia is dependent on the level of attenuation or down-regulation of cardiac sympathetic activation (SNA), (c) cardiac vagal drive is masked to a lesser extent in chronic hypoxia because of attenuated SNA and lower HRpeak values, and (d) the lower blood lactate levels at altitude is a function of muscle mass involvement rather than adrenergic activation, as normal peak values were reached during exercise with a small muscle mass.