Subjects with a history of high-altitude pulmonary oedema (HAPE) have increased pulmonary artery pressure and more ventilation-perfusion (V'A/Q') inhomogeneity with hypoxia and exercise. We used noninvasive methods to determine whether there are differences in the pulmonary diffusing capacity for carbon monoxide (DL,CO) and cardiac output (Q') during exercise, indicative of a more restricted pulmonary vascular bed in subjects with a history of HAPE. Eight subjects with radiographically documented HAPE and five controls with good altitude tolerance had standard pulmonary function testing and were studied during exercise at 30 and 50% of normoxic maximal oxygen consumption (V'O2) at an inspiratory oxygen fraction of 0.14 and 0.21. DL,CO and Q' were measured by CO and acetylene rebreathing techniques. HAPE-resistant subjects had 35% greater functional residual capacity than HAPE-susceptible subjects. Vital capacity and total lung capacity were also 7-10% greater. There were no differences in airflow rates or resting diffusing capacity. However, DL,CO in HAPE-susceptible subjects was lower in hypoxia and with exercise, and showed less increase (32 versus 49%) with the combined stimulus of hypoxic exercise. HAPE-susceptible subjects had smaller increases in stroke volume, Q', and ventilation during exercise. The findings are consistent with lower pulmonary vasoconstriction, greater vascular capacitance and greater ventilatory responsiveness during exercise in subjects who are resistant to high-altitude pulmonary oedema. Their larger lung volumes suggest a constitutional difference in pulmonary parenchyma or vasculature, which may be a determinant of high-altitude pulmonary oedema resistance.