Adventure travel insurance: a cautionary tale

Awhile back we posted a story on the importance of travel insurance for adventure travelers. In that article, we discussed the value of carrying travel insurance, which can safeguard someone from trip interruptions or even cancellations, and the loss of baggage that can result in very important, sometimes specialized, gear going MIA. But we also talked about how adventure travelers are often visiting remote places, which can be dangerous if they need emergency medical attention or have to be evacuated from that location. On a recent trip that I took to the Himalaya, I saw that scenario play out in a very real and potentially dangerous way, and I was reminded that it is not enough to just have purchased insurance, you also need to remember to bring the actual policy along with you as well.

A few weeks back I had the opportunity to go on a truly epic trip when I made the trek to Everest Base Camp. This is one of those journeys that is high on the “life list” for a lot of travelers, as you spend 2+ weeks hiking through the Himalaya, staying in rustic teahouses and soaking up the local mountain culture while surrounded by some of the most beautiful and dramatic scenery that you’ll find anywhere on the planet. It is a hiker’s dream come true in a lot of ways, but, as you can probably imagine, it is also a physically demanding experience that many would hardly classify as a “vacation”.

For my trek to Base Camp I signed on with a guide service in Nepal, and one of the prerequisites for joining the trek was that you had to have travel insurance to cover any potential medical needs that might arise. The policy was also suppose to cover an emergency evacuation should the need arise. I was cautioned before my arrival in Kathmandu that I would need to show proof of insurance when I joined the group, and anyone that couldn’t provide that proof would not be allowed to begin the trek. With that in mind, I purchased my insurance, which included special coverage for activities that were deemed dangerous, such as high altitude trekking, and printed off my policy to include with my various other travel documents.

True to their word, proof of insurance was requested in our initial meeting in Kathmandu. There were a dozen of us on the trip, and when we first gathered for that pre-trek meeting the night before we were to set out, our guide handed us a form to fill out. That form included a number of standard questions, including passport information, emergency contact person, and of course, the policy number and insurance company that we had purchased our insurance from. I dutifully filled out the form and handed it back in, not really thinking much about it afterward.

Fast forward a few days and we’ve all settled into the trek to one degree or another. Some members of the group are clearly more comfortable on the trail than others, and the level of suffering ranges from “barely breaking a sweat” to “dear God how much further?” By now, we know that there are a number of potential dangers on the trip, including fatigue, the dreaded “Khumbu Cough”, and other usual suspects such as contaminated water or food related issues that are the bane of any traveler’s existence the world over. But the most obvious danger was from the altitude, which was having an effect on all of us to one degree or another. For most, that meant shortness of breath or headaches. For others, it included loss of appetite or an inability to sleep. But for one of us, it was having a much more dangerous effect. One that could have proven life threatening.

One of the members of our group was a young lady who was traveling by herself, and had decided at the last minute to join the trek to Everest. She loved the thought of an adventure in the Himalaya, and had always dreamed of seeing Base Camp. Unfortunately, thanks to the effects of altitude, she would never reach that point.

The initial signs that something was wrong first appeared a couple of days into the trek. Whenever we would stop for an extended break from hiking, this young lady would invariably fall asleep. Whether we stopped for a short tea break or for an extended lunch, she would quickly nod off in her chair, and at the end of the day, when we’d reach our teahouse, she would be asleep within minutes. At first, these little naps were a point of good natured ribbing, but when they continued, a few of us began to worry.

After about five days on the trail we reached the village of Dingboche, which is located at about 14,468 feet. While there, our intrepid young lady’s altitude sickness became very serious. Her little cat naps turned into her not being able to stay awake at all, and when we spent an extra day there as part of our acclimatization process, she ended up in bed the whole day. When, our guide checked in on her late in the afternoon, he found that she was delirious, slurring her words, and cold barely identify her whereabouts. Soon there after, she became physically sick, and it was abundantly clear that she needed to be evacuated from the mountain, and quickly. Thank goodness we all had travel insurance! After all, it was required to be on the trek, right?

Turns out, it wasn’t really a hard and fast rule that it was required. It seems that while we were all filling out those forms back in Kathmandu, our now very sick young lady didn’t have her policy printed out, and wasn’t unable to complete the form. In her defense, she did try to access her policy via the Internet, but web access was spotty at best, in Kathmandu, and rolling blackouts, an all too common occurrence in that city, didn’t make that process any easier. As a result, she was allowed to go on the trek, even though she hadn’t filled out all the paperwork, and when she was truly in need of a helicopter evacuation, one couldn’t be called because she didn’t have her insurance paperwork in order.

Fortunately, the guides and porters of the Himalaya are an incredibly strong and hearty lot. Knowing that our girl’s life could very well be in danger, a group of porters put her on their backs, and physically carried her down the mountain to a hospital located in another village. Under the watchful eye of the doctors there, and after spending a night in a hypobaric chamber, she was feeling much better the next day. But the trek was over for her. She would descend to a lower altitude, and wait for the rest of us to eventually come down and join her.

The moral of the story is an obvious one of course. Make sure you have all of your travel papers in order before leaving the country, and if you purchased travel insurance, print it and bring it along as well. After all, it doesn’t do you any good to buy that policy, and then not have it readily available on the off chance that you’ll need it. That may seem like common sense, but it wasn’t obvious to that young lady on my trek, who was a very experienced traveler, and had spent time in dozens of countries all over the planet.