The Nepalese government's announcement of a ban on unguided ascents of Everest is unlikely to make much difference to claims for injury, death or assistance. Robin Gauldie reports
At the end of 2017, the Nepalese government proclaimed a ban on foreign climbers attempting to ascend Mount Everest without a guide. The announcement received widespread media coverage, especially when Nepal also said it would bar climbers with disabilities from the world's highest mountain, a proposal it has since retracted. However, like the government's earlier, well-publicised announcement that the cost of an individual permit to climb Everest had been cut from $25,000 per person to $11,000, the ban will have minimal impact on climbers and their insurers, say experts.
“It really means very little,” says Russell Brice, of Himalayan Experience, a leading UK-based Everest specialist operator. “Practically nobody attempts Everest or other 8,000-metre peaks solo, so any individual is already normally part of a team.”
However, such ascents do take place, sometimes with fatal results. In January 2018, climber Tomas Mackiewicz died on an independent attempt on 8,126-metre Nanga Parbat and his climbing partner Elisabeth Revol was rescued by a team of Polish volunteers and a Pakistani military helicopter.
On Everest, standard practice is for mountain operators such as Himalayan Experience to form individual clients into teams, Brice says. “These members have the advantage of a communal fixed rope and making the route, team logistics, and of course support, with others on the same route at the same time.”
Few climbers ever paid $25,000 for a single permit, agrees Alan Arnette, a US-based high-altitude veteran 'summit coach' who has made four ascents of Everest. “This was a public relations move.”
The ban is likely to come into force later this year and is partly aimed at creating more jobs for professional Nepalese mountain guides. It follows initiatives taken to encourage tourists, including mountaineers, to return to Nepal following the earthquake which killed around 10,000 people – including more than 20 on Mount Everest – in 2015.
For highly experienced climbers, going solo is not by definition more dangerous than climbing accompanied by a guide, opines Alan Arnette, however. “This all depends on the qualifications of the guide. The biggest issue is inexperienced climbers with unqualified guides. There is no certification to be an Everest guide – anyone can call themselves a guide, so requiring everyone to hire a ‘guide’ is a placebo for inexperienced climbers,” Arnette says. “The notion that all Everest climbers would be safer if they had a Sherpa guide is a deadly mistake.”
International visitor numbers to Nepal dropped from almost 800,000 in 2013 to around 540,000 in 2015 – a potential disaster for a country that depends on mountain tourism for up to a million jobs and most of its foreign exchange earnings – before recovering rapidly to around 750,000 visitors in 2016. The location of the world’s tallest peak, known as Qomolungma in Tibetan and Sagarmatha in Nepali, 8,848-metre Mount Everest straddles the border between Nepal and Chinese-occupied Tibet. The summit can be attempted either from the northern Tibetan side or by the more popular southeastern route, starting in Nepal. There have been almost 300 deaths on Mount Everest since the first successful ascent of the mountain in 1953 by Nepalese mountaineer Tenzing Norgay and New Zealander Edmund Hillary.
The notion that all Everest climbers would be safer if they had a Sherpa guide is a deadly mistake
In 2014, an avalanche killed 13 Sherpa guides and three other local workers on the mountain. In April 2015, an earthquake triggered a second avalanche which caused 22 deaths and destroyed Base Camp, the most popular start point for attempts on the summit. It also caused more than 10,000 deaths nationwide. Foreign governments issued advisories against 'all but essential travel' to Nepal, which remained in place until autumn 2015.
To reboot mountaineering on Everest (and increase revenue), the government cut the price of an individual permit to climb the mountain from $25,000 to $11,000. On paper, that looked generous. In practice, say some critics, it was an increase. Under the old fee structure, expedition groups of up to seven could buy a permit for $70,000, or $10,000 a head, plus an extra $10,000 for each additional climber up to a maximum group size of 15. As a result, climbing operators frequently combined smaller groups to keep costs for each individual to $10,000, so most climbers made the ascent in groups. Russell Brice, however, believes that more unqualified climbers are attempting the summit. The number of Everest permits issued increased to 373 in 2017, compared with 160 in 2008.
Almost all of those who now climb Everest use the services of commercial expedition operators, according to the British Mountaineering Council. “These vary quite widely in price,” it states. “A western company, which still relies on local high-altitude workers, will charge around $60,000 to $65,000. This will include the services of a western guide who lead the expedition and a high ratio of support climbers, usually Sherpas, to clients.”
Despite the vast percentage increase in the number of people climbing Everest each year since the first attempts on the summit, the mountain has become statistically much less dangerous. From 1921 to 1996, climbers had a one-in-four chance of dying on the mountain. The odds are now closer to one in 60. Those odds are worse for Sherpa guides, who carry much bigger loads and stay longer in some of the mountain's most dangerous areas.
According to the Himalayan Database, avalanches are the biggest cause of fatalities on Everest, causing 29 per cent of deaths on the mountain. Some 23 per cent of deaths are caused by falls, and more than 20 per cent by altitude sickness or exposure.
Climbing Everest is always going to be a risky business, but the mountain is by some definitions less lethal than some other summits. In the Himalayas, Kanchenjunga, K2, Annapurna, and Nanga Parbat have all claimed more lives. In Argentina, 6,962-metre Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside Asia, accounts for around three deaths each year, and more than 100 since records began. And almost as many die in an average year on Ben Nevis – Britain's highest summit, but, at 1,344 metres, a pimple compared to Everest. More than 100 deaths are recorded each year on Mont Blanc, western Europe's highest peak. However, when in 2006 the mayor of St Gervais, a village on the slopes of the mountain, mooted a permit system he was rebuffed by locals, climbers and mountain guides. The suggestion was dropped. The number of fatal and other accidents requiring rescue from such mountains is explained by ease of access, which makes them attractive to large numbers of unsupervised amateurs with little or no mountaineering experience or survival training. Some 100,000 people ascend Ben Nevis each year. Even relatively remote Aconcagua is 'summited' by around 3,000 a year.
And what of travel medical insurance for these adventurers? “We already exclude cover for travel above 6,000 metres, i.e. above Everest Base Camp, due to the risk,” said Phil Sylvester of World Nomads. “We offer travel insurance for normal holiday activities and an assault on the summit of the world’s highest mountain is a teeny bit out of the scope of what one might call a holiday. Specialist insurance befitting such an enterprise is more appropriate.”
However, according to some sources, some insurers have tightened the terms of specialist policies. “If insurance companies make any move it will be to increase mountaineering premiums drastically, cancel them altogether or put serious limits on coverage,” says Alan Arnette.
Higher premiums, tighter limits?
“There are still policies out there that cover to 8,000 metres, normally provided by affiliations with various alpine clubs in each country,” notes Russell Brice. “But even some of those in recent times have changed considerably, sometimes with extra loading even from 5,000 metres, cancellation and curtailment often being removed, especially since the avalanche in the icefall [on Everest] and then the avalanche caused by the earthquake in 2015,” he said.
Most claims relating to the 2014 avalanche arose from the deaths of local staff, who must by law be insured by the Nepalese companies that employ them. Sherpa guides working above Everest Base Camp must have death cover of $15,000, while support staff at the camp must be covered for $4,000. “Most expedition members only claimed curtailment insurance,” Brice told ITIJ. “Since then, the British Mountaineering Club, for instance, has removed this cover. Some companies like ICI Bupa, which used to cover for mountaineering, have now reduced [the altitude above which they will not insure] to the 6,000-metre level and this year some companies have reduced this to 5,000 metres.”
The specific cause of the tragedy in 2015 was not the altitude per se, says Mike Welby, Director of Dogtag, a British specialist insurer, pointing out that earthquakes can occur at any altitude. Dogtag, he says, offers a 'Summit Super Extreme' level of cover for high altitude mountaineering, which limits coverage to a maximum of 7,500 metres. “Going to the top of Everest, given that it is over 7,500 metres, is out for us,” Welby said. Dogtag's altitude limit also rules out the world's 13 other 'eight thousanders', all of them in the Himalayan and Karakoram ranges.
Lower levels – but more claims
Despite large percentage increases in the number of climbers attempting Everest, the absolute numbers are still relatively low and the number of those involved in fatal or serious accidents is even smaller, so insurers and assistance companies do not see many claims. However, claims arising from lower level trekking in Nepal (which attracts more than 100,000 trekkers each year) and elsewhere may be a greater cause for concern, with issues that include inadequate cover and reports of inflated claims for unnecessary rescue flights.
Mountaineers attempting the world's highest summits are likely to be well aware of the need for specialist cover, and expedition organisers generally insist that their clients should have such cover. However, trekkers limiting their activities to lower altitudes and non-technical climbing may not realise that they too should invest in a policy with a higher level of cover.
“Most basic travel insurance policies exclude mountain climbing or trekking above a certain altitude,” cautions Chun Wright, an attorney specialising in adventure law who has acted as an advisor to the US Adventure Travel Trade Association. “Mountain climbing is typically viewed as any climbing that requires a guide or special equipment. Many policies also exclude trekking at high altitudes. Such exclusions would not cover popular non-technical hikes to places like Kala Patthar on the Everest Base Camp trek, which stands 5,643 metres/18,514 feet, and Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, 5,895 metres/19,341 feet, where altitude sickness strikes. These treks are popular with active travellers of all ages, from millennials to baby boomers, who may not realise that basic travel insurance policies may not cover these treks.” Specialty policies for adventure activities typically cover trekking at high altitudes, usually with limitations in the 5,000 metre to 6,000 metre range and usually include helicopter evacuation, states Wright.
some insurers have tightened the terms of specialist policies
World Nomads provides adventure travel policies underwritten by companies including Millstream, AIG, Bupa Insurance, Zurich Brazil, Nationwide Mutual and underwriters at Lloyd's. “Some activities for some travellers will require an additional premium for high-risk activities,” says Phil Sylvester. “For example, however, looking at the policy for UK country of residence, hiking up to 3,000 metres is covered at the base premium. Up to 4,500 metres there's an additional 40 per cent loading and up to 6,000 metres its 125 per cent. We don't offer cover above 6,000 metres, nor do we cover any hiking that involves ropes, picks or specialist climbing equipment at any elevation; but within those special conditions, a regular World Nomads Explorer policy is adequate for low-level hiking. Remoteness or ruggedness is not a factor.”
Today, there are more helicopter rescues originating from trekkers than real rescues of mountaineers, says one Himalaya expert. Some sources estimate that helicopters fly around 1,500 rescue missions in Nepal each year. Four years ago, ITIJ's sister publication AirMed & Rescue Magazine (20 March 2014) reported allegations by insurers and emergency assistance companies that helicopter charter brokers, trekking guides and agents were colluding to make unnecessary calls for helicopter rescues in order to earn commission from potentially fraudulent flights. Nepal's chaotic political situation, with frequent changes of government and of tourism ministry staff, means that since the earlier allegation no effective attempt has been made to tackle the issue.
On the other side of the world, in Argentina, a permit to climb Mount Aconcagua costs up to US$1,200, a fraction of the cost of an Everest permit, and includes free treatment by multi-lingual doctors at the mountain's base camps and, if needed, emergency helicopter evacuation. Introducing a similar system on Everest would no doubt make insurers happy.
As the Nepal route to the top of Everest becomes more crowded, some expedition organisers are choosing to ascend from Tibet, on the Chinese side of the mountain.
Until around 10 years ago, China charged considerably less than Nepal for a permit to climb Everest. Since 2010, the cost of a permit to ascend from the Tibetan base camp has increased and is now roughly the same as a Nepali permit. To offset that (and the additional cost of visas for China and Tibet and an 'aliens permit' to travel within Tibet beyond Lhasa), China has made some investments in infrastructure. Whereas Nepal's base camp can be reached only by helicopter or by a 10-day trek, a sealed road now leads to within a few kilometres of the Tibet base camp. At an altitude of 5,200 metres, it also boasts accommodation in a government-run lodge and a 'yurt hotel'. China has also invested in an airport capable of handling large civilian jets at Shigatse, about 180km from Everest, where it has also announced a new 700-million yuan ($112m) hospital with facilities including a hyperbaric chamber. In December, Tibet announced the opening of its first helicopter air ambulance centre, based in Lhasa and affiliated with the Red Cross Society of Tibet. Such infrastructure improvements are likely to attract more expedition organisers – and may benefit insurers and assistance companies too. Several India and Nepal-based expedition organisers continue to assert that helicopter assistance is not available on the Chinse side of the border, a claim that is refuted by Phil Sylvester of World Nomads. “We do, and have done, heli-vac out of Tibet. We picked up in Lhasa and took the patient to New Delhi. We use an Indian agent that has clearances. There are no special issues for us, and no impact on the policy or premiums.”