It's one thing to lose a yak crossing a Himalayan gorge. It's quite another proving the loss to an adjuster working for an insurance carrier or broker thousands of miles away in a windowless cubicle--as mountaineer David Breashears explained in a keynote address at the recent conference of the Vermont Captive Insurance Association.
When Breashears and his team lost a yak transporting supplies to base camp at 17,000 feet during a 1996 expedition to Mt. Everest, the team had to file a $250 claim for the animal and a $150 for the saddle.
The hapless yak lost its footing and plunged hundreds of feet through a narrow gorge, landing in a river fed by ice-cold water tumbling from melting glaciers above.
When insurance adjusters with Chubb and Aon wanted proof of the loss, a member of the team was forced to rappel down several hundred feet and cut off the dead beast's ear as proof.
"They said, 'We can't insure something we don't have a name for,'" said Breashears, recalling the incident nearly a decade ago. "They called it 'yak falling into river.'"
Though the severed ear may have convinced adjusters of the loss, it still wasn't enough to trigger a payout. Losing $400, Breashears said, "was below the deductible."
Yaks are to Tibet what cattle are to America. The animals are easy to replace, so it wasn't hard to find a new yak, the most popular animals used to transport supplies to the Everest base camp, said Breashears.
Luckily, the yak that died hadn't been transporting the team's crucial $186,000 IMAX camera, or its $24,000 tripod, or the thousands of pounds of film.
Losing that equipment would most certainly have secured an insurance payout, but would have also scrubbed that particular Everest expedition.
Climbing from base camp to camps II, III and IV also involved picking through the Khumbu icefall's massive seracs, walls of ice as high as 10-story buildings.
Every so often, these blocks of ice fall as the glacier moves down through the valley. That's when the mountain is "trying to tell you it's alive," said Breashears.
While falling ice may be the mountain's way of talking to climbers below, it's difficult for expedition leaders to explain these risks to the insurance companies.
"It's very difficult to have conversations with the underwriters at Chubb who insure these expeditions," Breashers said.
Breashears and the IMAX team were on Everest to shoot an IMAX large-format movie to deliver images of the mountain that people don't ordinarily see when the mountain is filmed with regular cameras.
During the expedition Breashears and his team helped save the lives of climbers with other teams scaling the summit. A series of storms and mistakes on the part of some climbing expeditions killed eight people in early May, when as many as 65 people were on the mountain at once.
September 15, 2005
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