You’ve seen the pictures. A tour group of average, everyday travelers summiting Mount Kilimanjaro, recording it on Instagram and encouraging their friends that they can do it, too.
They very likely can. Africa’s highest peak, Kilimanjaro is known as a “walk-up” mountain, because the climb doesn’t require technical equipment typically used on steeper and higher peaks. As a result, 50 percent of those trekkers joining qualified tour groups and taking 6-8 days to summit, will likely capture those Instagram photos at Kilimanjaro’s 5,895-meter tall peak (approx. 19,300 feet above sea level).
But while the gradual climb, low required technical climbing skills and wide popularity might make Kilimanjaro a travel bucket list item, trekkers are advised to not underestimate the risks inherent in its altitude, nor underestimate the likelihood that their favorite travel insurance company may not cover their care and/or their evacuation to a medical facility.
Travel insurance for high altitude treks is “very limited,” said Marinel de Jesus, founder & CEO at Brown Gal Trekker/Peak Explorations, a travel company that specifically serves mountain climbing travelers. Most typical policies will exclude climbing adventures that require ropes, ice axes, or other technical equipment, and/or are led by a guide specializing in higher altitude trekking.
To protect her clients adequately, de Jesus has conducted extensive research for her company. “For my high-altitude trips, I have gotten denied by so many companies who won’t insure my clients above 4,000-5,000 meters.”
“You cannot go to the Himalayas with most travel policies, because once you get into a country like Nepal, you’re already above their altitude limits,” said Dan Richards, CEO of Boston-based Global Rescue, a membership organization structured like AAA that will evacuate ailing trekkers to a place where they can be treated, and then coordinate their transport back to their home hospital.
Global Rescue has already coordinated 77 extractions in and around the Himalayas in the first five months of this year, Richards said.
Gordon Janow, director of programs, Alpine Ascents International, a Seattle, Washington expedition operator, said more travel insurance companies covered these kinds of trips up until a few years ago, but pulled out because they realized they didn’t have the in-house knowledge to accurately assess and qualify an insured for reimbursement.
“The reality of adventure tours is that anything can happen,” said de Jesus. “I have had treks where a donkey got someone back to where they could get medical care, and all we had to do was negotiate with a local person to come get them out.”
But de Jesus has also had an older client evacuated by helicopter. “They got exhausted at Everest base camp, though they also were suffering from another sickness at the same time. When we got him to a village at a lower altitude, he felt better.”
Because underwriting these types of trips can be so tricky, popular insurance companies like Allianz Global Assistance typically do not offer high-altitude activity plans. “By excluding coverage for extreme activities, we're able to keep travel insurance prices low for all travelers,” said Dan Durazo, Allianz USA communications director.
Even for popular climbs like Machu Picchu, specialty travel insurance may be required. On its website, Machu Picchu Trek Guide notes how the Inca Trail’s Dead Women’s Pass tops out at 4,200 meters. Even the Huchuy Qosqo Trail, the lowest of the alternative trails, is higher than 4,000 meters, the website says.
Partly as a result of more travelers looking to summit high peaks, Squaremouth, the travel insurance aggregator website, has measured a 10 percent increase in what it terms “Hazardous Sports” coverage during the last 12 months.
Specialty insurance recommendations
Machu Picchu Trek Guide recommends travelers hoping to visit the famous ruins use Worldnomads.com, and specifically request insurance for above 4,000 meters.
Brown Gal Trekker’s de Jesus recommends specialty insurance from AIG Travel Guard. She also has used RoamRight and TripAssure. A spokeswoman for Thomson Safaris, Watertown, Massachusetts, said they urge their clients to obtain insurance and direct them to AIG Travel Guard.
Janow at Alpine Ascents strongly encourages insurance for his clients and recommends RipCord. Janow said for mountains in the U.S., like Denali National Park, your client’s park entrance fees will cover evacuations.
A review of TripAssure’s website turned up a quote for its Assure Sports & Recreation Series coverage, costing about $550 for a trip valued at $4,000 for someone in their 50s. The same policy at the same trip value for a traveler in their 40s was priced at about $440.
TripAssure’s plans offered emergency evacuation coverage of up to $500,000, which can be critical in the event that a helicopter or other expensive evacuation plan needs to be deployed to get a traveler out of a remote location. A client only needing evacuation coverage, should be able to insure a trip for less than $200, Janow said.
Global Rescue sells short-term memberships that cost $119, including “worldwide field rescue,” ideal for a single trip. For enthusiasts who might take multiple trips in a year, an annual Global Rescue single membership costs $329, while family memberships start at $579. The company employs medics and physicians to coordinate care through six operations centers in five countries.
Richards at Global Rescue warned agents also to be aware of whether their clients are not covered for other increasingly popular high-altitude activities, like heli-skiing.