Scaling the heights of the world’s tallest mountains is growing in popularity, and mountaineering is no longer the pursuit of an elite few. David Craik looks into the travel insurance cover currently available for those aiming for the top
The recent Nepalese earthquake claimed thousands of lives, not only in the historical capital Kathmandu and surrounding local villages, but also on the slopes of the iconic Mount Everest. Apart from the obvious lessons about the preparedness of Nepal’s buildings and emergency services to cope with such a disaster, the quake also highlighted two clear facts about mountaineering: one, its inherent danger, and secondly, its growth in global popularity given the television pictures showing mainly Western climbers cowering in their tents at Everest’s base camp.
Until 1985, Nepal allowed only one expedition on each route to the summit of Everest at a time. In 2013, 658 people made it to the summit, up from 500 in 2012. According to latest figures from Sport England, 93,000 Brits go mountaineering on a weekly basis, up from 16,000 the previous year; and in Alaska, 1,204 climbers attempted the 6,193-metre peak of Mount McKinley (36 per cent reached the top) – the biggest mountain in North America – up from 755 climbers 30 years ago.
When considering such an increasingly globalised and dangerous activity, with 248 deaths on Everest alone between 1921 and 2013, travel insurance has an important role to play. But who are the main providers, and are they doing enough to meet climbers’ needs?
British insurer World First covers trekking and mountaineering up to an altitude of 1,000 metres as standard on its single and multi-trip policies in the Alps and Himalayas. And it offers cover for higher climbs such as trekking to Everest base camp and mountaineering up to 5,600 metres. It also offers access to 24-hour emergency assistance, emergency repatriation and specialist medical insurance for those wanting to hit the trail but who have pre-existing health issues. An adventurous climbing trip, however, will be expensive. A premium for a 42-year-old taking out a World First Standard single trip (excluding the US, Caribbean and Canada) policy for a week’s trip comes to £51.82. Adding an Activity Pack 8, including trekking and mountaineering up to 6,000 metres, will cost an extra £259.10.
in Alaska, 1,204 climbers attempted the 6,193-metre peak of Mount McKinley… up from 755 climbers 30 years ago
Australia-based World Nomads covers trekking and hiking up to 6,000 metres but states it does not cover ‘mountaineering’, which it defines as ‘using support ropes, crampons and ice picks while usually staying overnight in camps up a mountain’. It says travellers have to pay particular attention to these definitions, particularly when ‘many travel insurance policies don’t cover up to 4,000 metres and the Everest base camp has passes over 5,000 metres’. “We work with a number of insurers around the world,” says general manager Chris Noble. “In all but one case, our insurers do not cover what would be considered mountaineering. They have an aversion to this in particular. Most of our insurers cover trekking up to a certain height, but when we get into requiring ropes, they’re not fans. We haven’t seen a massive increase in demand for mountaineering coverage, but there is certainly a desire for more travellers to get to places like Kilimanjaro and base camp Everest. They’re bucket list destinations for most people and of course we want to support that. The unfortunate outcome is that as insurers extend the height limits, you see more cases of altitude sickness, more injuries and more claims. Prices go up.” He says this scares off most travel insurers: “There are concerns over being able to properly assess whether participants are fit and healthy enough to do the activity. You have that added risk of altitude sickness, particularly in places like Nepal, which can affect each traveller differently. That, coupled with the cost of the subsequent air evacuation, makes most insurance companies quite nervous.”
Daniel Durazo of Allianz Global Assistance in the US illustrates this, saying that Allianz ‘specifically excludes’ claims that result from participating in extreme activities. “This includes mountain climbing or any other high-altitude activities,” he says. “I’m not aware of any claims related to mountaineering and we have not seen increased interest in coverage.”
there is certainly a desire for more travellers to get to places like Kilimanjaro and base camp Everest. They’re bucket list destinations for most people
Tom Bishop, head of travel insurance at Direct Line in the UK, adds: “Direct Line covers walking, hiking and trekking up to an altitude of 3,000 metres as standard. We will also consider cover up to 5,450 metres as an extension, subject to underwriting conditions and an additional premium. We advise that, in all cases, customers take appropriate safety precautions, such as using local guides.”
This trepidation amongst established insurers has largely forced global mountaineering clubs to take insurance into their own hands and to develop their own specialist policies. This is summed up neatly on the American Alpine Club website, which states that: “As a climber, finding a half-decent insurance package can be a real challenge. Apparently, the insurance industry has decided that only deranged lunatics climb. Since we all deserve insurance for ourselves we have partnered with some incredible companies to provide insurance packages that are actually designed for climbers. Nicholas Hill Benefit Group and Adventure Advocates have made health insurance, accident insurance, trip insurance, and life insurance affordable for all of us.” The Club’s Climbing Friendly travel insurance plan offers coverage for trip interruption, cancellation and lost, stolen or damaged equipment. Starting from $18 a month, members can get coverage for all accidents, no matter how they occur, and get access to air evacuation and repatriation.
The NZ Alpine Club, meanwhile, has a master travel insurance policy, renewed annually, through ACE Insurance. General manager Sam Newton says that the worldwide cover is exclusive to the organisation. “The two main restrictions for climbers under our policy are that cover stops at 7,000 metres, and only New Zealand [NZ] residents/passport holders can access it,” he explains. “Australia-based members can insure for journeys to NZ but not to any other country, although that may change at some future date. Because our policy has been set up for adventurous travellers, it does not aim to compete with mainstream leisure travel policies offered by other NZ-based insurance companies. Some uninformed people say premiums are expensive, but based on the cost of claims experienced we believe otherwise. We cannot say what the recent Nepal earthquake will do to premium rates, but although ACE Insurance received some claims from members when the earthquake struck, such as curtailment and baggage, the overall claim estimate does not currently appear to be excessive.”
The British Mountaineering Council was the first organisation in the UK to offer specialist cover for mountaineers as a service to members. “This was needed because travel covers excluded hazardous sports, including rock climbing and mountaineering,” says spokesperson Tina Gardner. The organisation has five different policies with an ascending scale of activities and search and rescue covered. It extends from trekking up to 5,000 metres, to snow and ice climbing up to 6,500 metres, to climbs and expeditions to ‘remote, difficult and high-altitude peaks anywhere in the world’. It also works with underwriter ProSight to write bespoke cover for each trip on a referral basis.
Gardner says one of the biggest recent challenges has not been the earthquake in Nepal, but rather the ongoing ‘challenge with scams originating from local guides, helicopter charter companies and their agents’ in the country. “ProSight has responded to this by having an agent in Nepal, who understands how these scams work,” she adds, saying that US medical costs have also been an issue for ‘some time’. ProSight works with medical assistance firm Intana Specialty, who can ‘call upon doctors to act on their behalf to limit exposure and costs by being present at the triage stage of any emergency case’. Mark Rands, head of Intana Specialty, says climbers should ensure that they have contact details for local specialist mountain rescue teams as part of their contingency planning. Once a rescue is initiated then Specialty should be contacted to arrange for a ‘higher level of care or repatriation’.
As a climber, finding a half-decent insurance package can be a real challenge. Apparently, the insurance industry has decided that only deranged lunatics climb.
Another challenge relates to the increasing popularity of mountaineering, where a greater frequency of claims has meant increased costs for insurers. “Mountaineering and extreme trekking have become more popular and the frequency of incidents has increased,” confirms Rands. “One of our tasks is to control costs. We investigate whether there was a medical reason for someone to be rescued off a mountain. That’s difficult at times – a broken leg is obvious trauma, but altitude sickness can be difficult to spot. In Nepal, there has often been a spurious use of rescue when there was no medical need. We are a gatekeeper and will undertake audits of helicopter companies in the areas and avoid using them if necessary.”
One Canadian mountain tour operator, who did not want their comments attributed, puts the cost of helicopter rescue in Nepal at $5,000 to $6,000. “We are worried that insurance companies won’t be able to sustain the legitimate requests,” the spokesperson said. “Policies can require that the claimant be hospitalised to validate the claim. However, with altitude sickness, once the claimant has been lifted to lower elevations, effects and symptoms clear up quickly and the doctors will release many of them within a couple hours, and the claim is typically endorsed as valid. We can appreciate that this can be very taxing on the insurance companies that offer mountaineering and trekking evacuation at altitude.”
Russell Dadson is director of Snowcard, a specialist provider of activity travel insurance based in the UK. Its climbing policies cover activities ranging from ramblers, to trekking up to 6,500 metres in the Himalayas and alpinist mountaineering up to 7,000 metres. “People have always climbed but travelling abroad to do it is a recent phenomenon,” he states. “Europe is our big market and we insure the keen enthusiast: people who are fit and healthy and going to established areas and routes. We don’t do the pioneers exploring remote peaks around the world.” He also notes the problems with helicopter evacuation in Nepal, rising from £500 to £5,000 for an average lift in the last five years he says, but also raises the issue of high medical costs in Europe. “Getting injured in the European Alps and getting treated is getting incredibly expensive and affecting premiums,” he says. “In the Alps, most clinics are privately run and they’re where you end up. The pricing is unpredictable, with a leg injury varying from establishment to establishment. We are seeing more £5,000 claims. It is inflationary pressure and the exchange rate differential. We have no control and have to second guess it.” As a result, Snowcard does regular rate reviews with premiums rising between 30 and 40 per cent over the last five years.
Given the variables in this sector, insurance providers and industry organisations are working to mitigate risks and reduce cost pressures. Pierre Humblet, president of UIAA, the International Climbing and Mountaineering Federation, says the industry’s relationship with insurers is complicated by the ‘lack of reliable mountaineering accident statistics’ around the globe. “We know that general public opinion is that climbing is dangerous and this is a reason to be charged with heavy premiums,” he says. “But we know also that if we are able to provide reliable stats we can get a better bid. The insurers have to appreciate that ‘climbing’ is a term describing diverse activities from hiking to soloing big walls or high-altitude summits. A better knowledge of the real risks must be promoted. The risks have also to be balanced with the numerous benefits of the activities concerned, and a better mutual understanding will generate improved and more realistic coverage. We have to fight against false opinions and dramatisation. We would be happy working in conjunction with insurers or international brokers.”
insurers have to appreciate that ‘climbing’ is a term describing diverse activities from hiking to soloing big walls or high-altitude summits.
Dave Rice, director of insurer Dogtag in the UK, is also looking to make changes to its mountaineering coverage to mitigate its risks. It covers climbing and mountaineering above and below 4,000 metres. “We are getting a lot of enquiries about the Himalayan peaks, which will leave us more exposed,” he explains. “We are talking to our underwriters about adding a third level of coverage to accommodate these climbers. But it won’t be open to any Tom, Dick or Harry. We will want to know about preparation and who they are with on the trip before cover is issued.” He says being able to prove physical fitness is paramount: “I’ve seen Olympic athletes getting into trouble on Kilimanjaro. I want to know more about you – are you desk-bound most of the week, and have you any pre-existing conditions which will directly be affected by altitude? We will do this sensibly. We don’t want to inhibit anyone wanting to live their lives.”
It seems that insurers, then, are willing to facilitate the dreams of a growing number of adventure travellers. By better understanding the realities of the sport, though, it looks like policies will be better developed in line with the needs of the mountaineering masses.