Nepal cracks down on lucrative helicopter rescue scams

Climbers forced to abandon ascents at first sign of illness to be flown to private hospitals

Nepal has ordered a review of the way summit helicopter rescues are conducted after uncovering a multimillion-dollar scam in which climbers were pressured, sometimes by having their food spiked, to take costly flights down mountains.

Insurance industry figures said the scam, which had been operating for more than five years, had caused at least one unnecessary death and involved dozens of helicopter companies, tour operators, hotels and hospitals.

Thousands of climbers had been forced to abandon their ascents at the first sign of illness and take expensive helicopter rides to private hospitals, according to an investigation by the Nepalese government.

Their bills were allegedly charged to insurance companies, with kickbacks given to the trekking guides, hotels and sometimes the climbers themselves.

One investigation on behalf of insurers estimated there had been more than 1,600 helicopter rescues so far this year, of which about 35% had been fraudulent, costing the companies more than $4m (£3.1m).

Several international insurers warned that they would pull out of Nepal by 1 September if the government did not act.

On Sunday, the tourism ministry issued new directives ordering helicopter companies, trekking operators and hospitals to submit every rescue invoice to a new government committee within 10 days of the bill being issued.

Unspecified legal action was also proposed against 15 Nepalese companies accused of unnecessary evacuations or hospitalisations, with more to be investigated in coming months, according to sources monitoring the inquiry.

‘He became quite aggressive’

Danny Kaine was nearing the halfway mark of his five-day trek to Everest base camp in June when he told his guide he had a headache.

“Instantly he said, we need a helicopter, we need to get you out,” the experienced British trekker said. “He became quite aggressive.”

Kaine was flown to a private hospital in Kathmandu where he underwent a series of tests. “My final bill was $12,800 – for a headache,” he said. “I could’ve taken two Advil and it would’ve been fine.”

Unbeknown to the trekking company, Kaine had been hired by three insurers to investigate why 2017 had been the most expensive year on record for the companies.

He said the growing popularity of climbing Nepal’s famous peaks and the allure of Mount Everest had led to a proliferation of trekking companies offering climbs at heavily discounted rates.

“The majority of the trekking companies involved in the fraud are charging a lot less than legitimate companies, maybe $500 for a $1,000 trek,” said Kaine, who works for the medical assistance company Traveller Assist. “They are losing money on each trek and need to make it up.”

Kaine said he had uncovered examples of budget-conscious travellers paying $500 to trek to Everest base camp and upon arriving, being offered $750 by trekking companies to feign illness and be evacuated by helicopter.

“The heli company would pay the trekking company $2,000 in commission, which they make back from the hospital that pays them a commission to bring them foreign patients, who they then over-treat and over-bill the insurer for,” he said. “There’s money at every level of this.”

An investigation by the Nepalese government starting in June found evidence that guides were putting baking soda in food given to tourists, causing diarrhoea and creating an excuse to fly them off the mountain.

“We’ve heard of cases where tourists have been made deliberately ill,” Prakash Sharma Dhakal, the official who led the inquiry, told Agence France-Presse earlier this month.

“In our investigation, we’ve seen a profit margin of up to 63% by some companies … and hospitals have issued bills of up to 6m rupees (£40,700).”

‘Instagram plays a huge part in this’

Tim Riley, the managing director of the insurance company True Traveller, said the problem had emerged as rescue companies started investing in helicopters around 2010. “They need to get their money back,” he said.

His company also covers tourists climbing Mount Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa, from which it has paid for one helicopter rescue in eight years. “We’ve covered about 40 in Nepal last year, and even that’s massively down on the past,” he said. “In 2013 we had six in one weekend.”

Kaine said the scam was a symptom of the growing popularity of climbing holidays in Nepal, fuelled in part by social media posts that showed off the beauty of the summits and made them seem accessible.

“Five or ten years ago, people didn’t think Nepal or Everest were possible,” he said. “Instagram plays a huge part in this. Year on year, there’s between 20-30% more travel insurance sold for Nepal in the past five years.”

A record 373 permits were issued to foreigners to climb Everest from the Nepal side in 2017, leading to warnings the mountain was becoming dangerously overcrowded.

Veteran mountaineers have complained that budget companies have flooded the market in the past decade, attracting inexperienced climbers and cutting costs on safety and equipment.


Michael Safi in Delhi

The GuardianTramp

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