1. Exposure to altitude hypoxia elicits changes in glucose homeostasis with increases in glucose and insulin concentrations within the first few days at altitude. Both increased and unchanged hepatic glucose production (HGP) have previously been reported in response to acute altitude hypoxia. Insulin action on glucose uptake has never been investigated during altitude hypoxia. 2. In eight healthy, sea level resident men (27 +/- 1 years (mean +/- S.E.M); weight, 72 +/- 2 kg; height, 182 +/- 2 cm) hyperinsulinaemic (50 mU min-1 m-2), euglycaemic clamps were carried out at sea level, and subsequently on days 2 and 7 after a rapid passive ascent to an altitude of 4559 m. 3. Acute mountain sickness scores increased in the first days of altitude exposure, with a peak on day 2. Basal HGP did not change with the transition from sea level (2.2 +/- 0.2 mg min-1 kg-1) to altitude (2.0 +/- 0.1 and 2.1 +/- 0.2 mg min-1 kg-1, days 2 and 7, respectively). Insulin-stimulated glucose uptake rate was halved on day two compared with sea level (4.5 +/- 0.6 and 9.8 +/- 1.1 mg min-1 kg-1, respectively; P < 0.05), and was partly restored on day 7 (7.4 +/- 1.4 mg min-1 kg-1; P < 0.05 vs. day two and sea level). Concentrations of glucagon and growth hormone remained unchanged, whereas glucose, C-peptide and cortisol increased on day 2. Noradrenaline concentrations increased during the stay at altitude, while adrenaline concentrations remained unchanged. In response to insulin infusion, catecholamines increased on day 2 (noradrenaline and adrenaline) and day 7 (adrenaline), but not at sea level. 4. In conclusion, insulin action decreases markedly in response to two days of altitude hypoxia, but improves with more prolonged exposure. HGP is always unchanged. The changes in insulin action may in part be explained by the changes in counter-regulatory hormones.