Expedition costs and insurance

Deep breath everyone - a blog post on expedition budgets in the modern climate - the bane of every expedition leader's life. I've been prompted to cover this topic by recent experiences I've had securing funding, getting insurance cover and sourcing services and supplies for polar expeditions.

In a way, the decade from 2000-2010 was somewhat artificial and in other ways revolutionary to the way polar expeditions are perceived and undertaken. It saw the rise of commercial operators in both the Arctic and Antarctic - for the first time in history it was possible, at a cost, for a novice to choose a polar expedition, 'Add To Cart' and then head off to icy climes to chase their dream. With the increase in the polar market, previously reserved only for professional travellers, film-makers and scientists, competition arose. In the Arctic, companies in Russia, Canada, Greenland, Denmark and Norway began to offer ever-cheaper packages to see the most inaccessible places on Earth. It became genuinely affordable to fly to the Arctic, stand on the North Pole for a brief moment before being ushered home again. In the Antarctic similar happened with companies ALE and ALCI but prices did not dip as low.

The old-guard of polar travel stared in bemusement as the projects they took years to plan independently were being offered on websites. Bookshops started to fill with almost identical tales of skiing last degrees to Poles or being guided there from semi-permanent tent villages - these details often being enthusiastically omitted from the promotional material or even the text itself.

In the 1980s and 1990s expeditions to the North Pole and South Pole attracted enormous corporate backing and made their way onto the comments and letters pages of broadsheet newspapers - a genuine curiosity. These included the ill-fated Scott expedition recreation by Roger Mear and Robert Swan in 1986 and Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud's 1992/3 partial Antarctic crossing. These are just British examples and there were others from Norway, Canada and Russia, such as the 1995 Weber/Malakhov North Pole unsupported return expedition. 

Those undertaking such remarkable journeys did however have to pay a price for their unusual travels in a world before North Pole champagne flights for wealthy businesspeople. There was little precedent for their plans, no specialist polar equipment made in bulk and no polar expedition insurance policies. Clothing had to be made from scratch or improvised and houses had to be offered as collateral to cover a potential aircraft evacuation from the ice. Very high risk stuff.

Fast forward to 2005 and you could buy a polar expedition, albeit artificially shortened in nature, off the shelf for £35,000 and have a polar expert to lead you all the way there. Contrast this against the budgets of £250,000 into the millions from just a decade before. Insurance ceased being as serious as putting your own house down as a bond. Months of search and rescue cover could be gained from IHI, Fortis and others for hundreds of pounds.

Did it get out of control? Was this wrong? Did the Poles become too accessible? Can it ever be right to deny someone access to the world's wilderness?

Now, in 2011, I'm starting to see evidence - initial signs - that things might be going full circle and returning to the way they were. After insider information pointing to a massive increase in insurance claims, helicopter rescues and a huge reduction in sponsorship available, the party may be over for affordable, commercial polar tourism. As an example, travel on the Greenland icecap is now constrained to strict time-windows, UK insurance companies now all refuse to offer off-the-shelf cover and Greenland Home Rule charges over £400 for a previously free permit application. One of the very few foreign insurance companies who will cover an icecap crossing demand that the leader has completed the expedition before - novices are out of luck. Now, even when an offer of insurance is given it can be over £50/day of travel.

On the topic of funding, the number of full-scale expeditions attempting Poles has collapsed in recent years to the levels that used to be normal - a handful each year. There is less money being given to expeditions. As a reaction, glory-hunters give up and innovative travellers turn their attentions to low-cost but equally intriguing expeditions (an example is Dave Cornthwaite). Professional polar travellers simply try new avenues and bide their time, waiting for the opportunity to attempt their big projects.

It would be easy to blame the insurance companies for being miserly and spoiling the fun. However, I've seen the behaviour that leads to such crazy rescues and expedition failures with my own eyes. I've seen the causes of the insurers being extra cautious and saying it's not worth their risk. In one season in the Arctic, I saw a team whose eyes popped out of their heads when I explained basic realities of their trip to come - and who had still not packed the day before they were due to start. I saw a team arrive in the Inuit community without any plans for how they would get onto the glacier to start. I received emails from a polar expedition guiding company asking me to guide for free, thereby sending the message that a guide was considered of no value. A good guide is the ultimate safety device a commercial expedition can have. Having secured a free guide, the expedition lasted days before being plucked from the ice at the cost of the insurers. I'll leave it to you to decide who is responsible for the crackdown on expeditions.

I am not an advocate of free access to expeditions for all. I am a passionate advocate of access to expeditions for the professional, the prepared and the conscientious. Perhaps the changes will be good for all of us.

Alex Hibbert2 Comments