The Nepal Heli-evac Scam: Everything You Need to Know

Trekkers in Nepal are warned about a scam involving helicopter evacuation for those suffering altitude sickness.

Photo © iStock

UPDATE AUGUST 2018:

"A government fact-finding committee submitted a 700-page probe report to Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari on Monday recommending that—from the next tourist season in September-November—all rescue activities be entrusted to the Nepal Police to stop the insurance scam that has damaged the country’s reputation." Read more.

Your health and safety comes first

AMS can hit the most experienced trekkers, and at the first sign of symptoms you should descend and get medical advice if the symptoms continue. Any experienced guide will tell you a helicopter evacuation is the fastest way off the mountain, but be aware you might be taken for a ride in an entirely different way than you expect.

Scams aside: if you need to get off the mountain fast whether you’re suffering from AMS or another medical emergency, then you should put your health first.

Our emergency assistance team’s priority is to help get people off the mountain to get medical assistance by the most appropriate means necessary. We have 24/7 access to a medical team who can triage symptoms and provide appropriate advice, and we have access to trusted local partners who arrange evacuations to receive appropriate medical care. As Lisa Fryer, Head of World Nomads Emergency Assistance says, “By calling us first, it also means we can pay for any medically necessary services up front and our travellers will not be out of pocket".

The Nepal heli-vac scam

In the midst of genuine medical evacuations, there are a few opportunistic operators who either inflate the cost of helicopter evacuations by charging single-trip prices for a full helicopter, fly hikers who may be at risk to higher altitudes to try to guarantee an insurance payment, or strong arm unwell trekkers to take a pre-arranged helicopter by telling them they’ve already guaranteed payments with insurers, when in fact no call has been made.

Some trekkers have also told us that guides have arranged helicopters for people who may be slowing the group down, and through a network of agents and associated medical centres create documentation to guarantee payments that show AMS was suspected, and in some cases, agents have harassed travellers to call their insurer from their hospital bed to relay pre-canned stories, or been forced to stay multiple nights in hospital even when AMS symptoms may have improved with the decent.

Some guides and agents are paid a commission of 10 to 15% for arranging helicopters, and with evacuations costing around $ 6000, this substantially boosts a local guide’s income. However, insurance fraud is not limited to local trek leaders, as some companies will supply fake documentation to justify a fast ride down for trekkers who just don’t want to walk out.

Our insurers would never place travelers at risk to negotiate a helicopter evacuation price when it’s medically necessary, and our emergency assistance team consult extensively with trusted local operators and medical teams to get our travelers to safety, and ensure the helicopter operator and/or medical provider is paid appropriately for their services. But we also work with those local operators in Nepal to ensure that costs are not over-inflated.

Inevitably higher costs translate to higher insurance premiums for all travelers – whether you're heading to Nepal to hike or not. So, we work really hard to educate both travelers and our insurers on the risks and realities in Nepal, to keep insurance premiums affordable.

Why your trip of a lifetime is ruined

Aside from unnecessary costs (which will inevitably be passed on to all travelers), there's another reason to be aware of the risk of unnecessary evacuation; unless you genuinely need emergency medical treatment, your trip of-a-lifetime is over. You’re not going to have the great experience the rest of your party will talk about forever. When are you going to be able to find the time to come back and complete this trek? How will you ever get this group of friends together again? You’ve been ripped-off not directly monetarily, but they stole your experience!

What is altitude sickness?

Altitude sickness, also known as Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS), becomes a major risk above 2,400 meters (8,000 feet). Most people will feel short of breath as they acclimatize, however headaches, vomiting, difficulty sleeping, diarrhea, and the onset of pulmonary edema or fluid on the lungs are serious symptoms. If you find yourself suffering from nausea, breathlessness, sleep deprivation, severe headaches, vomiting or diarrhea, you should descend to a lower altitude until your symptoms improve and seek medical advice.

Go to this Travel Safety article to read more about altitude sickness, its causes, symptoms, and treatment.

What to do if you have AMS

If you suspect you’ve got AMS, don’t wait, descend and get medical advice. Do borrow the guide’s satellite phone and call the World Nomads Emergency Assistance team to advise us of your location and symptoms. We can provide you with support and advice, have our medical team assess your condition, and pre-authorise your evacuation and treatment working in conjunction with local doctors and operators.

If evacuation is really necessary we can help get you off the mountain quickly. But in most cases, mild AMS simply requires you to descend to a lower altitude for a short period until you recover, and then you can catch up to your party – so years later you can all stand at the bar in the pub and talk about that great adventure you had together.

Your health and safety

Our number one priority is to get people off the mountain to get emergency medical assistance by the most appropriate means necessary. We are in no way encouraging you to stay at altitude if you are ill. We're not expecting you to be doctors and assess your own condition (remember we do have medical staff on call 24/7 through our emergency assistance numbers and they can give you advice) and respect your decision to seek medical assistance. If you are ill we will help you get appropriate medical care as quickly as practicable.

Nor is this about our profit, these scams have been running for many years and we've paid the bills. But as travelers, we think it's time the community acted together to stamp out this greed and profiteering. The rising costs are hurting you because of increasing premiums, and those people who have been unnecessarily evacuated from the mountain have been cheated of their travel experience. We hope that by raising awareness of the scams we, as a community of travelers, can bring pressure on the opportunistic and unethical operators to mend their ways.

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26 Comments

  • John Salatti said

    I certainly appreciate the tips about different ways to handle AMS. At the same time, I find it ironic that, Phil Sylvester, the author of the article, points the finger at guiding companies for having financial incentives to take advantage of a trekker's distress, when clearly Word Nomads and other insurers have a clear financial incentive to keep that trekker on the mountain and have their own paid (and thus biased) medical staff who can somehow evaluate that trekker over a phone and advise about how to stay on the mountain. Such advice may indeed be right and appropriate, but I would suggest a little more humility and self awareness about one's own financial motivations. The fact that Sylvester and the editors did not see their own conflict of interest or willfully ignored it is at minimum disheartening.

    Reply

  • Chris Parrish said

    I have to say I am quite surprised by this article and it is not something that should be pushed to travelers. Any experienced mountain guides will tell you AMS is not a simple diagnosis or something that should be taken lightly. It effects people differently and can have severe consequences including death if not immediately handled. It is wrong to talk about the guides that take people up and down the mountain this way as from personal experience and experiences of so many others, they have more passion and care for the mountain and the clients than you can imagine. They understand that your safety and health should not be taken lightly. I have suffered from AMS and will tell you that when something feels wrong it probably is and take it from me, trying to push through makes things a lot worse. Real medical professionals would not normally tell someone to risk it either. I have to say while I get the idea that this article is supposed to be helpful it's far from that and pretty poorly put in my opinion. This advice could get someone seriously hurt by being "diagnosed" over the phone rather than knowing their own body and listeneing to experienced guides. The trip can always be reattempted but your life is not worth risking it.

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  • Rick Shaw said

    This article is so self serving that World Nomads should be embarrassed by its blatant bias. It would be far better if World Nomads provided an independent third party number to call for second opinion assessment of AMS symptoms and possible remedies, including evacuation by helicopter. Having just returned from an Everest Base Camp trek, I have seen how quickly AMS can debilitate some people and how difficult and dangerous it would be for a person so afflicted to hike out to an elevation low enough to make a medically significant difference. It would also be helpful if the article specifically described "mild" symptoms of AMS that can be treated on the mountain and more serious symptoms requiring evacuation.

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  • Jason said

    Really?

    Tour companies in the Himalayas own hospitals and helicopters??

    That's pretty amazing for a hiking company, don't you think?

    Which companies would they be?

    Reply

  • Daniel said

    I absolutely agree with what all of the previous commentators have said already. This is some pretty bad advice from World Nomads and this article should be taken down before somebody gets hurt or even worse. If there really is going on some sort of scam World Nomads should find other means to combat those rather then pushing it to their clients, confusing them in a what might be life threatening situation. I have been in the Himalayas and Everest myself and I have seen people dying in front of my eyes because of AMS and assessing conditions and options over the phone by some medical staff seems ridiculous to me. If in doubt, better get out! No trip of your lifetime is worth your life.

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  • Shaun Doyle said

    I was in Nepal 3 weeks ago doing the trek to Everest Base Camp. Unfortunately a man got AMS and his friends dragged him down the path as quickly as they could in hope to get to lower altitude. He died on the path from AMS.

    If you get AMS - get evacuated urgently. Don't risk it.

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  • Katie said

    This article is outrageous. AMS is dangerous and people can and do die from it in Nepal every year. Mountain guides are trained to recognize its symptoms. If someone has symptoms and needs to descend quickly it can literally be a matter of life and death. This article comes across as self serving and irresponsible.

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  • Katie said

    How about instead you tell people to familiarize themselves with the symptoms of AMS and to make sure as soon as they have ANY symptoms they let their guide know and stop the ascent until they have acclimatized. By the time someone reaches the point of needing an evacuation they have already ignored early signs. And by the time they reach the point of needing evacuation they don't have time or probably even the capacity to make a phone a call. They would be in serious condition at that point.

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  • rick baldwin said

    World Nomads is just saying,"don't panic",think & consider other alternatives. I usually suffer discomfort above 9,000 ft. But a days rest or descending puts me back into the trek.

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    • Annie said

      I would've given them this benefit of doubt before Rick, but not after having been totally screwed by their insurance and learning the hard way how World Nomad treated customers who actually run into insurance needs on a trip. Self-serving, and only looking out for all the ways they don't have to pay out in case of emergencies.

      Reply

  • Jordan Owen said

    All, If I may be humbly clear upfront, I am not wanting to approve or deny the quality of this article. I do want to add a few points I do know to be true. I did a feasibility study in Nepal for the possibility of adding a 1st world standard Air Ambulance program. In my travels and interviews I did find out that the point of "guide services owning helicopters and hospitals" is actually true in one case I know of. To be fair, I will keep the names of the parties involved out of this. One helicopter operator who does "rescues" in the Himalayas' is a sole owner of the company, he also is a co-owner in a second helicopter service. This owner is a part owner of a hospital in Kathmandu. In addition, he is related to a very famous group of Sherpa guides as well as a funding source to their company. So yes it can be intertwined. I have heard and sympathize with your stories of death and danger as I am a 25 year Paramedic in the Sierras of California/Yosemite. I do also know there is a common "over utilization" of the helicopter services by both some guides and customers "faking" a complaint only to not have to trek back from where they came. Something I found interesting as well, some guides and huts have made special relationship arrangements with the helicopter companies to trade "emergency calls for supplies" meaning, one hut or guide needs food supplies, beer or alcohol, fuel, goats or generator up on the hill they find someone that "needs or wants" to go by helicopter and they make the call, many times at the evac insurance companies' expense. What was most alarming to me, HELICOPTER SAFETY and TIME DELAY for transport of REALLY SICK patients. The country has the highest aviation crash rate in the world. The helicopters would not pass inspection from and FAA or European aviation authority. The pilot requirements (as there are some really great qualified pilots there), there are also some very inexperienced as well. Secondly, I watched a team get a request for a HACE victim on the mountain, they proceeded to drag me to the market to buy beer and liquor, two 50 lb. bags of rice and a goat. We headed back to the airport and loaded the mess onto the ship 2 HOURS later! I watched them take off shaking my head. I asked the owner of the helicopter (also the hospital owner) if this was how things operate here? He said "Yes, this is Nepal". He concluded that he already received pre-authorization for the flight for $25, 000. "Today is a good day" he said. I was shocked. Now with all that said. Nepal and the people are amazing. I only wished I was able to accomplish what I had set out to do. The country is surely in need of an honest and qualified air medical program to support all of your endeavors. Please be safe out there and use your great judgement to have a safe and wonderful time. I hope I don't offend anyone as I see all side of the concerns written here. Namaste.

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    • Sherpa karma said

      i am climbing guide and i am guiding here since 16 year of i agree some of your point but as you mention can you declare as you wrote > helicopter owner is a part owner of a hospital in Kathmandu. In addition, he is related to a very (famous group of Sherpa guides }as well as a funding source to their company.

      could you write clearly name of helicopter company name of trekking company and name of famous sherpa
      i would like to you Request to you write clearly with all name so people can see which one good which is bead,
      thanks

      Reply

  • Mihai said

    I don't have anything to comment to such a bad article except to praise all the fantastic comments above!
    Maybe it was worth reading after all, just for the comments

    Reply

  • LUIS GHIVELDER said

    Very interesting comments indeed. At first I also thought like most people that this was just the insurance company trying to save money, and to some extent maybe it is. But from the comment above we learn that there is in fact a helicopter scam after all.

    Reply

  • Kostiantyn Sokolinskyi said

    my 5 cents - WorldNomads, you would make a far greater job if you educate your clients on early signs of AMS, how to recognize it and what to do not to get to the point when one needs a helicopter.

    This should not be a 10 line article. There's plenty of good material on the web which you can structure and provide a thorough well-thought article. Such an article will provide way more benefits to the nomads aspiring climbing highest passes on this Earth.

    You could also craft a high quality article on what to do and what not in Himalayas. Water, rest, sleep, structuring your day - there are tons of things that mountain people know and most 1st time trekkers do not.

    Keep your nomads informed and they will stay safer and require less insurance payments from your side. Pure profit for you indeed.

    Reply

  • Bec Coles said

    This article is poor, but the helicopter scam does exist. This is a much better article about the situation https://www.thebmc.co.uk/helicopter-rescue-nepal. I have personally witnessed a very sick individual not being taken to local medical facilities. I now know that this was probably due to the trekking guide and/or teahouse owner wanting to call in the helicopter themselves to get the rescue commission which competing rescue companies offer. This helicopter evacuation didn't arrive until the following morning, remember evacuations are not instant and highly weather and availability dependent, this seriously risked the person's health, luckily they were OK.

    If trekking in the mountains in Nepal, make sure you know whether you can get medical advice, there are excellent medical posts on the main treks. Also, know the symptoms of AMS and if AMS is suspected or you're unsure, descend, descend, descend.

    Nepal is a wonderful country and the people are lovely, I've had many fantastic trips and continue to plan more, being aware of this situation means that forewarned is forearmed. Wishing everyone fantastic trips to Nepal, once is not enough.

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  • Josh said

    I did the Annapurna Circuit, Annapurna Base Camp, and Everest Base Camp treks a few months ago. A few facts on the ground:

    - The helicopter rescue industry is a total scam. Not only does everybody make tons of money from kickbacks, but guides will intentionally drive sick clients higher in hopes of triggering a rescue and collecting. The rescue is $20-25k. Chartering the helicopter for the same route is $5-6k. In the Khumbu (Everest region) there is a constant stream of helicopters all day long. The guides start salivating at any hint of a headache.

    - The primary cause of HACE/HAPE in trekkers is guided tours. If you are not feeling well and you are part of a group, you are going to be put in the position of forcing everyone to be delayed/turned back, or you will be encouraged to take a pill and push on. Guided groups are on a schedule, and they are sticking to it. Even if you are independent of a group but have a guide, you will have to argue, insist, and finally outright demand that they do what you want or need. People who can't or won't stand up to the pressure get sicker. And you can't escape by just having a porter and not a guide -- all the porters are wannabe guides, and are looking for a piece of the action.

    - There are some lovely people in Nepal, but with rare exceptions they are not associated with the trekking industry in any way.

    Although obviously self-serving, the advice they give is sound (with the exception that your guide does not have a sat phone, but cell phones work -- that's how they arrange kickbacks with the lodges). My problem with their advice is the one time we did need to call when my son collapsed from Carbon Monoxide, all they would say is that they don't give any advice because they cannot examine the patient, and I have to decide what to do on my own. I'm not talking about medical advice: they wouldn't tell me whether or not we should find a doctor (we were in a remote area) -- the very thing they are telling you to call and ask about in this article.

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  • David said

    Been to Nepal trekking 14 times (as recent as 2014, 2016 and 2017). The "helicopter rescue scam" is very much alive and operating. (Saw it on our last trek in Manaslu... 3 trekkers slowing group down, so helicoptered out - - guide said this.)

    I am surprised at the very negative comments directed at World Nomads for this article.

    I do worry that if these scams continue, no insurance company will cover helicopter rescue in Nepal.

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  • Petrus said

    World Nomads is between the rock and the hard place to write about this helicopter business and they have to choose their words carefully. The problem is real and getting worse. Most people commenting this clearly do not understand what is actually going on. Only a few later comments are even remotely sane.

    It goes like this: a person/company owns both the air operator and a hospital in Kathmandu. They have close connections, or also own, trekking agencies. The agencies lure customers with a promise of fast and cheap EBC trek, but the aim is not to get them to the Base Camp, but to make them sick. Either by ascending too fast (AMS) or by tainting their food to cause stomach problems. The agency also requires them to sign a paper where they promise to evacuate themselves if they slow the group down.

    Each sick trekker (most of them) gets his/her own helicopter to maximise the costs, or at least the invoices are written that way. The "patient" is flown to the Kathmandu "hospital" where she/he is kept prisoner for 4 days, passport taken away, at $1000 day.

    The guide calling for the rescue gets 15% kickback, and the total loot from this scam is divided so that the agency gets 25% and the helicopter/hospital operator keeps the rest. So the operators make a profit of about $7000 from each trekker, instead of the agency only making maybe $400 from an honest trek. Easy to see why this is getting to be an epidemic.

    I have been to EBC several times since 1985 and in the past safe trekking could be done without helicopters. Now, suddenly, everybody and his uncle needs to be rescued by helicopters and AMS, which goes away on its own accord after descent, needs 4 day hospitalisation at the cost of average annual local income par day. Does that not ring a bell?

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  • Petrus said

    Addendum to my own post: BMC article from year 2013 mentions that 70% of helicopter rescues are unnecessary, but that article is already outdated. https://www.thebmc.co.uk/helicopter-rescue-nepal

    I just received a message from an honest guide in Nepal and he confirmed the scam operation in progress and said 80% of the rescues are now these scams only made to make fast buck to the operators, with or without trekker coöperation or understanding. So World Nomads certainly have a good reason to worry about this.

    About five years ago I wrote to several travel insurance agencies asking if they were aware of this emerging problem, and they either did not care to answer or denied it. Things seem to be changing.

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  • Mai said

    Petrus, thank you for your honest assessment. I have been researching EBC trekingk and came to the conclusion that a solo expedition is now much safer than with a guide or an organised tour, especially if I am a slow hiker.

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  • Dipendra said

    It is very pity to say that when somebody get sick in Mountain and Tourist have to call themselves to Insurance Company? Don't client trust on their Guides and Company? Clients have to get down even they get sick at Night or can not walk even? ... Does this writer know where is Everest Base Camp?

    It is true that there are immoral Company Owner, Guides, and Tourist are doing scam on Insurance but it does not mean that Everyone get rescued in Mountain are Scam. While getting altitude sickness, you are on situation on Do or Die, facing with Death every minutes.
    There are many cases that many people have lost their lives due to delayed on rescue and main cause of this is Insurance approval. They take a day to make decision.

    It is very normal when people become immoral and they want to cheat other. As I seen many tourist get lazy to come down same way back and they do ask their guide to talk with Insurance and later get back to city with Helicopter.


    Being as a Company Owner and as a Human, Safety of our Guest is our first priority with any cost.

    ONLY SOLUTION OF THIS PROBLEM IS TOURIST THEMSELVES SHOULD UNDERSTAND WHAT IS THEIR HEALTH CONDITION AND HAVE TO KNOW THAT IS IT NECESSARY TO USE THEIR INSURANCE AND CALL HELICOPTER?









    Reply

  • Phil Sylvester said

    Thought you all might find this illuminating:
    From the Kathmandu Post:
    "A government fact-finding committee submitted a 700-page probe report to Tourism Minister Rabindra Adhikari on Monday recommending that—from the next tourist season in September-November—all rescue activities be entrusted to the Nepal Police to stop the insurance scam that has damaged the country’s reputation."

    http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2018-07-31/govt-moves-to-clamp-down-on-helicopter-rescue-scam.html

    Reply

  • Mountain Sherpa Trekking said

    As a Sherpa We (www.mountiansherpatrekking.com) have been Guiding many tourists and climbers in the Everest region for the last 20 years to show them our Sherpa tradition and history of Everest to give them life time experience that we are so proud of and now it's so sad to hear that today low cost trekking companies in Nepal who are selling cheap trekking package to innocent tourist to Everest region are falling into a big scam. There are many trekking companies, who have no passion for the mountains, environment and social responsibilities. Their guides from those companies are there to make you sick not make your trip a lifetime unforgettable. They will evacuate you by helicopter so that they too get a cut of the commission. It’s really sick and pathetic

    This scam has to stop NOW.
    TAAN, NAM and the Nepal tourism board should take action ASAP..
    Our advice to u all.. Next time you book a trek to Nepal. Do your research well ... book with 100% local Sherpa company who genuinely appreciate your business and will make sure you have a great time.

    Reply

  • Petrus said

    Latest situation: http://kathmandupost.ekantipur.com/news/2018-08-23/global-insurers-threaten-to-stop-cover-for-tourists.html

    No more travel insurance for Nepal unless the scam is stopped.

    All the first commentators here should read the article and contemplate it for a good while, and compare it with what they have written here.

    Reply

  • Joseph Kathuku said

    The scam has reached Kilimanjaro now

    Reply

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