Global Rescue Weighs in on Annapurna Rescue Controversy

If you’ve been following the Himalaya climbing season closely this year you probably already know that there was a dramatic rescue of a climber who went missing on Annapurna last week. Malaysian alpinist Wui Kin Chin summited with his team last Tuesday, but ran into trouble on the descent and ultimately had to be left behind. A day later it was determined that the climber was still alive when a helicopter swept over the mountain looking for him and spotted him waving his arms high up on the slopes. This prompted a rescue team to be airlifted to Camp 3, but due to some logistical challenges they were unable to reach Kin Chin until Thursday. Eventually they were able to bring him safely down the mountain, but not until after he spent 43 hours at altitude without food, water, or more importantly bottled oxygen. The result was severe frostbite in his arms and legs, although the full extent of the injuries is still being determined.

Kin Chin has now been airlifted back to Singapore where he is said to still be in critical but stable condition. He faces a long and painful struggle ahead which will most likely result in a loss of digits and possibly limbs. But he is alive and most are calling it a minor miracle that he managed to survive so high on Annapurna for so long. That was the good news from this story, which continues to generate headlines and create controversy as two of the principle players involved point fingers at one another.

The logistics of the expedition to Annapurna that Kin Chin was a part of were handled by Seven Summit Treks, who also coordinated the rescue attempt on the ground. The team has been very vocal and outspoken in its criticism of Global Rescue, the company that Kin Chin paid to handle his evacuation coverage should an emergency arise. Representatives of Seven Summit Treks have accused GR of refusing to assist in the rescue effort, not providing oxygen bottles for the rescue team when they went up to retrieve the missing climber, and generally being slow to respond to help. In fact, they say that it wasn’t until Kin Chin’s wife called and pledged to pay for the search and rescue operation herself that the helicopter the ultimately found her husband went into the air. The image painted by SST is that Global Rescue was very uncooperative and caused the Malaysian mountaineer to suffer longer than he had to alone on the mountain.

As you can probably imagine, Global Rescue has their own side to the story, some of which was shared on a website called Travel Insurance Fraud Nepal yesterday. Yes, that’s right, travel insurance fraud is so prevalent in Nepal that there are actually websites dedicated to the situation. We’ve covered the fake rescue fraud topic ad nauseam here on The Adventure Blog, so I won’t go into it yet again. Suffice as to say, there is a definite tension and lack of trust between insurance providers and tour operators in the Himalayan country.

In the article, which you can read in its entirety here, Global Rescue says that a search wasn’t initiated straight away on Wednesday of last week because its membership services don’t include search as part of the package. In other words, they can help with rescue and evacuations, as well as medical attention, but the company doesn’t contract with any partners in Nepal that handle searching for missing climbers, trekkers, or travelers. Furthermore, GR says that Kin Chin’s last known position was above Camp 4 at 7500 meters (24,606 ft), which is above the safe and legal operational limits of a helicopter. They could not authorize anyone to fly at that altitude to search as it is prohibited and as a company that operates around the world Global Rescue must adhere to local laws and regulations.

Seven Summit Treks worked with Simrik Air when conducting the search phase of the operation. The company’s helicopters did indeed fly high enough to spot Kin Chin, although in doing so they risked great danger to themselves as well. Thankfully the pilot was skilled, talented, and lucky enough to not run into any trouble, but you can probably understand why Global Rescue wouldn’t encourage anyone to conduct that mission themselves.

When questioned as to why Global Rescue didn’t provide bottled oxygen at Camp 3 to help the rescue team, GR representatives stated that the company is not in the business of mountaineering logistics. It doesn’t provide oxygen bottles for any companies operating in the Himalaya or any other mountains for that matter and isn’t in a position to deliver those kinds of supplies. It is up to the mountaineering operators to handle those details, particularly since they work with the companies that provide the bottled oxygen closely.

The Global Rescue rep goes on to address the so-called delays in their response, whether or not they reimbursed anyone on the ground for their expenses, and a number of other topics. Most notably however, the company says that they did agree to pay for Kin Chin’s rescue helicopter on Wednesday of last week, but later discovered that the climber’s wife had been billed for those expenses too. Double-billing is a major aspect of the ongoing insurance fraud in Nepal, with operators finding ways to bilk money out of as many parties as possible. As if that wasn’t enough, the GR rep also alleges that other unnamed parties in Nepal demanded $50,000-$100,000 in fees for the rescue to move ahead. Those fees were not paid by Global Rescue.

As you can tell this situation is a complex one with people on both sides pointing fingers at one another. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but it is important to understand that Seven Summit Treks and Global Rescue have been at odds in the past over similar situations. SST has been implicated in the fake rescue scandal, while GR has rightfully refused to conduct rescue operations with anyone that isn’t one of its partners. The result is difficult situations like the one that played out last week, with hostility and tension from both sides.

It should also be pointed out that Global Rescue often answers questions about its capabilities by saying that it is not an insurance company. You’ll even find it in the article linked to above. Yet on its website, the clearly states that it is provides “Medical Evacuation, Insurance, & Security Extraction Services.” You can see where that would be a confusing message for the average observer. (Editors Note: A representative from Global Rescue contacted me to clarify this issue. It seems that while GR is NOT an insurance company in any way, they do act as a reseller of insurance for IMG. That does help to see the distinction a bit more clearly.)

I suspect we haven’t seen nor heard the last of this situation, but at the end of the day Kin Chin is at the very least still alive. Thankfully that was the ultimate outcome. We can let the other parties involved play he-said, she-said for awhile as we sort everything else out.