Climbing Insurance for Australians and other Mythical Beasts

So, you’re looking forward to your next big international climbing trip… imagining what gear you will take, what crags you’re gonna hit up, the other dirtbags you’re gonna hang out with, and perhaps most importantly, what delicious beverage you will imbibe after sending your project… Man, it all sounds so rad!

Well, not so fast, climbing friends! I’ve got a couple of things to bring you back to Planet Earth, and those things are called “Insurance” and “Product Disclosure Statements”.

Back in the day, when I was a young thing with a broken heart, I took off on a trip around the world. I partook in many worldly rites of passage, protected by some sort of “normal” travellers insurance which my Mum insisted I take out. I left with her fantastic life advice of “keep yourself nice” (thanks, Mum!) and somehow returned many months later with all of my limbs intact. Thankfully, I never had cause to make an insurance claim, but who knows if I would have been covered anyway.

Fast forward 15 years and things are much different. I now know every single word of my insurance agreement and every exact scenario in which they will cover me for before I head overseas. Dude, let me tell you, product disclosures are a minefield.

Up until as recently as March 2017, we climbers could simply join the Austrian Alpine Club (AAC) for about $130 AUD under some strange, clandestine arrangement through their UK Branch. It was the easiest way for Aussies to climb and ski wherever we jolly well wanted and be covered for Search and Rescue costs and medical fees. But the underwriters must have cottoned on to the fact everyone was joining AAC for the sole purpose of cheap insurance and sadly these good ol’ days have come to an end. You can still receive some cover, but for those of us intending to climb longer than the specified eight weeks, or at heights of greater than 6000m in altitude, the AAC cannot cover us.

Similarly, the New Zealand Alpine Club (NZAC) can offer you rescue and medical insurance as an Australian climbing in NZ… but this will not cover you anywhere overseas unless you have a NZ passport. However, it’s worth remembering as it’s a great option if you’re just heading over the ditch for a TMC or a cheeky ski.

Basically, nobody trusts Australians enough in the mountains to insure them. Given our lack of alpine terrain, this is not entirely unfair. So how do we trustworthy, highly-skilled individuals become insured? Right now, I bet you’re clamming up and thinking “I’m a climber, not an insurance broker! I don’t understand this F*#KING SH!T!”

Never fear. I have done all the hard yakka so you don’t have to. This document will bring you up to speed on everything you need to know**. Read on, little ones.

“Normal” Travel Insurance
When I talk about “Normal” Travel Insurance, I’m talking about your basic everyday travel insurance packages that are sold by every man and his dog. I’m here to tell you that they are not as simple and everyday as they state in their advertisements. Sure, if you are heading off on a sojourn to, let’s say Japan, and you are going to eat sushi and stay in posh traditional Japanese house and sit in some onsens, you’re sorted. But most of us climbers actually want to climb and about 100% or more of the time you will not be covered under these normal types of insurance.

A selection of these normal types of insurance will cover you for trekking, though it will stipulate that this must be without the use of ropes and only up to a certain elevation. With some, rock climbing will be included but only if you climb with a guide, up to a certain elevation, and only in certain countries. Basically, if you want to do anything with your personal climbing friends, you will need to prove several things:

  • You have adequate skills, including vertical rescue training and detailed climbing log books
  • Confirm that the area is approved by the insurance company
  • If it is a remote area, you will need to submit your search and rescue strategies in the event of a catastrophic event.

It’s not an easy process, particularly if you don’t keep a log book or have formal mountain rescue skills. It is also not cheap, as you need to purchase the comprehensive package and then an additional ‘high risk activity’ cover for a certain number of days. These need to be specified, so if you have no idea how many days in your year away you will be climbing, then nominating for 365 days cover for ‘high risk activity’ will give you a quote of upwards of $5000 AUD per person (as of November 2017).  If you are not travelling for six months or more, this may be an ok choice, and I would recommend looking at Insure4Less or World Nomads for this kind of cover. Keep in mind, however, that these insurance companies may still want you to climb with a guide.

The alternative for those of us on longer sojourns, without prior knowledge of the exact days we are climbing on, is to take out several separate policies – you’ll need cover for search and rescue (which you will need even if you have ‘normal’ travel insurance), cover for medical insurance, and also cover for personal items including your beloved trad rack.

Air Zermatt SAR (Source: Red Bull)

Search and Rescue Insurance
Thankfully for us, there are fantastic Search and Rescue teams who will come into the mountains and far-flung places to help us out when we are in serious trouble. I’m not talking about when you have rolled your ankle or run out of coffee, I’m talking serious accidents from which you need to be airlifted out, ASAP.

Before you go to a different climbing area or country, it really pays to check what rescue services these areas have. For example, in New Zealand, the SAR teams are outstanding. Most are volunteers and it’s free to be rescued… just ask Ryan about his free sunset flight along the West Coast of New Zealand! Having said that, if you’re going to spend a lot of time there, perhaps you could throw a few bucks at these volunteer organisations to help them out with equipment and training. Just sayin’.

Regardless of there being a number of free rescue services in many of the countries we’ll be visiting in South America next year, we both felt it prudent not to rely entirely on this, particularly seeing as we are not local climbers in these areas.

Basically, you have two Search and Rescue Insurance options as Australians: one is Ripcord (an arm of Redpoint Resolutions) and the other is Global Rescue. Both of these organisations offer an annual membership, as well as short-term cover options. Both companies are based in the USA and, as such, offer additional medical, cancellation and personal items insurance to citizens of the USA. But for everyone else, you will need to seek elsewhere for that cover.

Both organisations offer a large medical rescue budget ($500K – 750K USD). This means they will transport you or reimburse the rescue transport costs if you require extraction from remote areas. However, only Ripcord offers reimbursement of a field ‘search’ scenario – and this is only up to a value of $25K USD (though, as most of us are aware, the option for ‘search’ in many places is limited).

Another important point to keep in mind, is that these insurance companies require you to have 2-way communication through satellite phone or a fancy GPS-style PLB (i.e. InReach Explorer). Your device has to be linked to them but it’s easy to call them to set up this step. Luckily, I personally have never had to use these Search and Rescue services, however, I do have experience using satellite communication devices and know they can be tricky. I highly recommend testing your device before heading off on expedition… not when you have frostbite and a broken leg.

A good comparison of these services including testimonials can be found here.

Medical Insurance
I’ll tell you one place you don’t want to go without comprehensive Medical Insurance cover – Trump-Land aka Obamacare-no-more. If you need some IV fluids or stitches while you’re Stateside, just get them to take your kidney out to help pay for it.

Even though medical care may be much cheaper everywhere else in the world, it’s still worth thinking about. If something serious happens like appendicitis, or kidney stones (in Antarctica if you’re Ranulph Fiennes!), or broken bones, you’re going to have to get help quickly and it might not be cheap. In many countries, particularly in South America, you will have to pay upfront in the hospital before they operate on you or fix you up, which is something to keep in mind when looking at your everyday bank account on your travels.

Now, because you are most likely an Australian if you’re reading this, here’s where it gets complicated… Up until recently, Global Underwriters offered cover (the ‘International Diplomat’ package) to people residing in Australia, and this would have been the best type of cover for climbers heading above 4500m, as long as they had the right qualifications (i.e. vertical rescue and log books). However, in late 2017, they changed the wording so that Australians cannot be covered if living in Australia. If you have evidence and can show you have been living elsewhere before gaining insurance, you can get coverage (and this includes residing in Antarctica – gee, thanks!). This is important because they will not cover your medical costs or your transportation home in the event of an emergency evacuation, therefore, you will be wasting your money.

The only suitable alternative that I have been able to find for Australians residing in Australia is the HCC Atlas package, which covers climbers with appropriate qualifications, but only up to 4500m. Why they have chosen this elevation limit, I do not know, but seeing as La Paz sits at 3640m, climbing in Bolivia (or Peru for that matter) will be a risk. That said, you will most likely be rescuing yourself in many of these places as they are so remote… or at least getting yourself to below 4500m before hitting the SOS button on your satellite communication device!

As you can assume, the total cost of medical insurance cover varies with the budget threshold and excess choice. And while it is far from your mind now, it is important to consider that a loss of a limb or eye/ear will only give you a 50% reimbursement of the total ‘Accidental Death and Dismemberment’ budget. Charming, I know.

Contrary to the aforementioned “Normal” Insurance packages, the cost of the HCC Atlas package for a whole year is relatively cheap at around $1000 USD, depending on your budget threshold and excess choice.  But, with the ever-changing market, I suggest contacting a global health insurance broker such as these guys who can contact the primary insurance companies directly to get the most current information.

Equipment/Personal Belongings Insurance
Read 99% of “Normal” Travel Insurance product disclosures and they will tell you they don’t cover items stolen from an automobile… so if you are a dirtbag climber living out of your car or perhaps a Toyota Hiace named “La Tortuga” in my case, you won’t be covered when some bandit comes to rob you while you’re out searching for empanadas.

But what about my home and contents insurance, I hear you say? First of all, I don’t have a fancy house with insurance and many of the houses I’ve rented don’t have windows that lock (or even close sometimes) so I wouldn’t be covered anyways. Secondly, 99% of contents insurance policies will only cover you for 30 days of overseas travel, so if you are going long-term, this will not do. Given how much we’ve invested in gear for various climbing disciplines (sport, trad, snow and ice), as well as our beloved van, we want peace of mind for our entire trip.

After contacting a million companies, I have found two companies plus a couple of potential of other options. Another US-based company named Clements Worldwide were able to offer the best deal for full comprehensive cover against vehicle and personal belongings, including electronics equipment. The personal belongings can even be covered when in transit (e.g. shipping container between Texas and Colombia), though the van cannot be covered for this. The best thing about this company, besides from being quite reasonable in cost, is that they do not expect you to have everything triple locked in compartments within the van at all times. They also understand that break-ins most likely occur at night… read any other insurance PDS and I guarantee that you will not be covered for theft from a vehicle at night. WTF.

The only downside in the Clements Worldwide insurance option, is that they cannot offer cover in the USA. This is because they have built these options for specifically for members of the military, foreign diplomats, missionaries etc.  One can assume they’re probably not doing a roaring trade covering dirtbag climbers, so we’re less of a consideration.

An Australian based insurance company, Aviso Group, may offer a solution for cover in the USA or even in South America, but I’m 99.9% sure this would not include vehicle insurance. They were also hard to contact for a quote, but you might have better luck.

Lastly, if you do need vehicle and personal belongings insurance for the USA, I warn you that it doesn’t come cheap, and only two companies now offer this type of insurance. These are, Progressive and Thum Insurance. Again, this is a constantly changing market, and if your vehicle has USA number plates, you will have more options than my Czech-plated La Torgtuga!

So my final advice for Australian climbers doing a long-term worldwide climbing roadtrip extravaganza, is to:

  • Confirm what Search and Rescue services exist in the areas which you’ll be climbing in
  • Strongly consider Ripcord membership for Search and Rescue cover
  • Consider what altitude you will climb to
  • Get a Vertical Rescue certification and keep a climbing log book
  • Take a look at the HCC Atlas as your medical insurance option
  • Strongly consider buying a two-way satellite communication device
  • Clements Worldwide seems to be the best option for vehicle and personal belongings/equipment insurance

Hopefully you won’t need to claim on your insurance, but shit happens and you want to know you’re covered! Stay safe!

Morag Stewart
January 2018

**We are not affiliated in any way with any insurance company and the above is merely general advice from one climber to another. All attempts were made to provide correct information but insurance documents were crafted by Satan and are liable to change at any given second, possibly before your very eyes. Always triple-check your PDS before handing any money over!

  1. as of 28/01/2019 Virgin insurance includes “Outdoor rock climbing (with ropes and appropriate
    safety gear)” in their adventure pack.

  2. That’s exactly what I’ve been looking at for the past week! And found mostly what you just described. I’m going to Bolivia to climb 3 peaks around 6,500m and it basically eliminates all online insurance. I’ll have to do the combination of SAR and standard as you suggest.

    1. We climbed in the same region last year, and essentially just had to accept that we were uninsurable above a certain height. It’s not the end of the world, and if anything might encourage a slight increase in prudence! Stay safe, and let us know how you go! We really enjoyed Bolivia.

Thoughts? Opinions? Cries of dissent?

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