One of the beautiful things about climbing is the ability to see the world on the cheap. But be warned: Rescues—especially internationally—are the opposite of cheap. A helicopter ride out of some hairy situation can cost $10,000, depending on your altitude and position. If you’re climbing in the U.S., rescues are often free to the victim, but it’s still wise to have some basic insurance. If you’re headed out on an expedition overseas, rescue insurance becomes critical. Here’s a look at what questions you should be asking, and a few companies to look into.
Will this plan cover medical bills? Rescue insurance is not the same as medical insurance. Some plans cover hospital stays, while others pay only for “trailhead-to-trailhead” rescue expenses. If you already have medical insurance, check out exactly what it will and will not cover, since many rescue-insurance companies won’t pony up unless they know your other insurance options have been exhausted.
Is the country you're visiting covered? Many rescue-insurance companies that promise “global coverage” do not, in fact, cover the whole globe. For example, GEOS specifically excludes Russia and most of Africa, and some plans exclude places with known armed conflict and civil unrest, such as Pakistan and even Nepal.
Is the type of climbing you plan to do covered? You may need to buy a hazardous-sports rider with your insurance plan to have climbing covered at all. Even plans that cover “climbing” may not cover free-soloing, bouldering without a crashpad, climbing during “extreme” avalanche conditions, and accidents that happen during professional photo shoots. In general, most plans have an elevation cap or charge more the higher you plan to go.
How do you plan to communicate with your insurance company? Many companies want to be in the loop when decisions about the rescue are being made. Global Rescue—the company that provides rescue services to members of the American Alpine Club—asks that it be called before you initiate the rescue. In some regions of the world, including the Himalayas, helicopter rescues generally are not initiated without a cash deposit or a guarantee from your insurance company that someone will foot the bill. Make sure your company’s phones are staffed 24/7.
What's the length of coverage? Some companies will let you purchase by the day; others sell in blocks of time up to a year. If you have insurance that stretches for an entire year, and you’re planning to go on multiple expeditions, check to see if there’s a cap on the number of times you can use the policy.
How will you get home? Some rescue companies—such as Global Rescue— promise to fly you to any hospital in the country of your choosing. Others make no commitment beyond the trailhead, or they’ll fly a “companion” to you if you’re hospitalized overseas for more than a week.
Laura Snider is a climber and writer living in Boulder, Colorado.