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Photograph by Steve Graepel

Risky Business: Life Insurance for Climbers

With contributions from Doug Colwell

Nothing shouts middle age quite like shopping for life insurance. But there I was, answering questions about my height, weight, smoking … and then came the dreaded question: “Have you climbed in the last three years…?”

I quickly try to run the numbers. “In the last three years…?” Stalling, I ask for clarification. “Can you define climbing”?

Clearly I wasn’t selling my low-risk persona and a week later I was sent a questionnaire to parse out my extracurricular vitae—which raised a whole string of red prayer flags.

A few calls later put me in touch with Doug Colwell from HD Insurance. I entered his office I find myself face-to-face with an oil painting of K2’s Abruzzi Ridge … clearly this was my guy. Doug manages risk during the week, but plays in it on the weekend. An active climber, he’s set over 150 new technical routes in Idaho. As a sitting board member for the American Alpine Club (AAC), he’s volunteered countless hours helping the AAC navigate member insurance options. Doug has experience with folks like us—responsible individuals who carefully manage risk. I sat down with Doug to get a top-down perspective of life insurance for those pursuing the vertical life.

Base Cost

Climbers tend to have dirt-bag proclivities; so you first might ask if you even need insurance. Fair enough, not all climbers have the same needs. If you don’t have family responsibilities, the AAC might have something for you. Included with its $75/year member fee, the AAC provides all members with a $10,000 rescue plan: a $5,000 reimbursement package toward domestic (U.S. only) rescue services and another $5,000 toward worldwide rescue and evacuation services, pulling you (or what’s left of you) off the mountain and back home. It’s a cheap and responsible option for the young or un-tethered.

Got a family? Fancy yourself as the next Alex Honnold? Keep reading.

Skeletons in the Closet

Life insurance is purchased to cover the needs of your loved ones after you pass. But it’s also a contract between you and the underwriter. And like all contracts, it’s steeped in stipulations and legalese and should be entered cautiously.

As part of the contract negotiation process, expect the underwriter to have a call-center conduct a phone interview. They’ll run you through a gamut of questions. It’s all good until you trip a line in their code. It can be smoking, past medical issues, family medical history, or a handful of statistically deemed “risky behaviors” like skydiving, SCUBA, or climbing. All the sudden you’ll find yourself rapping off a tower of babbling details, exposing things you haven’t even revealed to your mother. It’s in these nuanced questions that you need to stay at the sharp edge of the discussion.

Consider it like a first date. Do roll out the dirt, talk about your exs? Resoundingly no! It’s a don’t, ask-don’t tell conversation. Same here—this isn’t the time to volunteer that epic in The Park where you dropped your stove and half your rack off The Diamond in the dead of winter. Your partner backed off but you soloed through the night. Great story, but not the one your insurance suitor wants to hear.

Ultimately, underwriters are in the business of helping people. All State realizes that we aren’t all saints; they insure real people with a little chalk under their fingers. But their actuaries have run the numbers to determine when risk management favors good business over risky business.

In preparation, consider these questions before you pickup the phone:

  • When did you last climb? Probably the most important question is when did you last tie in to a rope? If your hardware has been gathering patina since K2 was in theaters, you’re not likely to get off the couch and take it up again. But if your picks are still bloodied from slaying November rime on Dragontail in the North Cascades … well, I’d expect you’d have some further questions. Three years appears to be the magic number.
  • What grade do you climb at? So you still climb. No worries, they have a policy for that. But here’s where you need to start doing damage control. Answer what may seem painfully honest to your beer buddies. I mean, do you really still climb at 5.11c?
  • What type of climbing do you do? Beyond a rope and harness, top roping at the gym and leading mixed routes at Hyalite have little in common. Believe it or not, actuaries know this, too! Again, be honest. If you haven’t swung an axe lately, don’t go there. But if you are currently flicking steel into smears, expect that it’s going to cost you.
  • What’s the length of your climbs (afternoon…days…weeks)? Are you a weekend warrior or are you frequently on extended holiday in Hindu Kush? The longer you hang it out there, the more you expose yourself to risk.
  • Do you have any professional training? While that belay training at the Y probably doesn’t cut it, did you take a course through a guiding service? Better yet, do you climb with guides? Put any of that knowledge you’ve paid for in your corner.
  • How safe are you? If you do get the climbing questionnaire, use this as an opportunity to identify yourself as a safe, low-risk candidate. Share a dialogue about how you protect your belay, how you regularly clean your gear, how you prematurely retire gear before it sees signs of ware and tear.

Honesty is the Best Policy

A key component to the process is being honest … with yourself and with your agent. If you haven’t picked up an axe or roped up in 3+ years and have no existing plans to do so in the next 2 or so years, you’re all good. If your policy is in place and you get that call from your Camp 4 squatting years to head off to the Valley … you’re still covered. Things happen, plans change, they (mostly) understand. The trouble starts if you are already saddled up and indicate otherwise, which would be considered a breach of contract.

A word of advice? Don’t try and game the system! You are entering a legal contract. And because it’s about money, insurance companies are certain to check in from time-to-time—particularly in that posthumous time before funds are paid out. In the least, not answering honestly will void your contract. Worst case, it could leave your loved ones high and dry.

Find and Advocate

Doug left me with this. “Work with someone who can get a proper picture of you as an individual, assess you as a person, learn your true risk and match you with the best-suited underwriter”. Like most things associated with climbing, hasty decisions don’t pay off. Only here, your biggest risk is likely being unnecessarily tabled at a much higher rate, costing you hundreds, if not thousands of dollars a year.