The Trick to Getting BASE-Jumping Insurance? Be American.

Many travel insurance providers don’t cover the deadly sport of wingsuiting. But the case of one American man whose $161 plan covered the $175,000 cost of his air evacuation and treatment shows that it’s possible—under the right circumstances.

Oct 12, 2016
Outside Magazine

If BASE-jumping were as popular as, say, downhill skiing, World Nomads wouldn't be able to afford to cover the sport—since the likelihood of severe injury and death claims would soar—unless the cost of coverage were much, much higher.    Photo: Dan Krauss/Aurora Photos

On August 26, a 28-year-old Italian man live-streamed his death while BASE-jumping in Germany. Armin Schmieder's last words, delivered to Facebook friends and fans in German, were reportedly, "Today you fly with me." He slipped the camera—still rolling—into the pocket of his red-and-blue jumpsuit then leapt. For 25 seconds, Schmieder flew through the air before the camera microphone picked up a hard thud of impact, then silence.

Wingsuit pilots have been dying in mid-air collisions for years. Just a week earlier, Uli Emanuele, another Italian BASE-jumper, also filmed his death while jumping in Switzerland's Dolomite mountains. According to the BASE-jumping forum Blinc, there have been some 300 BASE-related deaths since 1981—wingsuited and otherwise—caused by everything from wind to electrocution to high-velocity contact with a cliff.

But some survive their mid-air misfortune. Take the recent case of American Coleman Sperando, a 21-year-old physics student at the University of Florida, and part-time skydiving instructor, who traveled to Switzerland in early August to BASE-jump in the country's mountainous Lauterbrunnen Valley. With around one hundred jumps under his belt, Sperando was experienced. But on his way down last summer, he collided with a cliff—at least twice—and became stuck on a rock ledge 1,700 feet off the ground. He remained there for 13 hours, until rescuers arrived by rappel to find him, miraculously, alive. He was later diagnosed with a broken leg, punctured lung, a concussion, cerebral bleeding, and various other bone fractures.

Sperando's choice of leisure activities confirms his taste for risk. But the thrill-seeking young man had been circumspect in at least one regard: before going to Switzerland, he'd purchased a travel insurance plan that covered BASE-jumping through an Australian company called World Nomads. Their slogan: “Explore your boundaries.” 

“We believe in supporting adventurous travelers,”  Phil Sylvester, the head of communications at World Nomads, says. “So we negotiate with underwriters around the world to cover as many of those activities as possible. We like to think that we're the market leader as far as long-duration and adventure travel goes.” 

Most people buy travel insurance in case of unexpected trip cancellation or interruption. But emergency medical costs incurred abroad are also a major concern. At least they are for most of the world's travelers: Americans don't purchase travel insurance as often as travelers from other countries, Sylvester says. When Australians travel, for instance, around 85 percent of them buy travel insurance. (This seems to be for good reason: "Australians are really shit skiers," Sylvester, who is Australian, says. "They go to Japan or North America and just get smashed up.") The number of insured travelers in the U.S. is closer to 15 percent. Only a fraction of those, according to World Nomads data, are "adventure travelers" looking to protect themselves from the voluntary risks they plan to take outside of the U.S.

"We don't have words like 'act of god,'"—a common insurance industry phrase denoting an unforeseen event outside human control, like an earthquake, which no one can be held responsible for—"in our policies," Sylvester says. "That's just stupid. Who can define what that is? So we actually name certain events: We cover this, we don't cover that." The company's so-called "Explorer Plan" costs about $181 per month and covers high-risk activities like heli-skiing, ice climbing, and hang-gliding, in addition to BASE-jumping. It does not, however, cover mountaineering above the height of Everest's Base Camp, running with bulls, or BASE-jumping with a wingsuit, a separate activity from "normal BASE-jumping," which Sylvester prefers to call "plummeting." (The plan settles medical claims up to $100,000 and evacuation claims up to $500,000.)

"It gets down to what's an acceptable risk," Sylvester says. "Running a mile or whatever in an alleyway with a half a dozen bulls charging you is an unacceptable risk." He added, "The only reason we can think that [BASE-jumping] got included in the Explorer policy is that, while it's extremely risky, there's a very small group of people who do it. So our exposure it pretty limited." If BASE-jumping were as popular as, say, downhill skiing, World Nomads wouldn't be able to afford to cover the sport—since the likelihood of severe injury and death claims would soar—unless the cost of coverage were much, much higher.

That kind of calculation—can we or can't we cover a risky activity, and at what price?—is the business of insurance underwriters. World Nomads offers insurance policies to travelers around the world, but relies on different underwriters—affiliated companies that assess risk and decide whether to provide insurance and under what terms—depending on a given client traveler's country of residence. This means that Americans, for instance, are covered in ways that Brazilians or Chinese are not.

"[Sperando] is lucky in so many ways," Sylvester says. "Not only to survive the BASE-jump in Switzerland. But that he's American and our U.S. policy is actually the only one of our policies that covers BASE-jumping."

World Nomads has settled three BASE-jumping claims besides Sperando's in the past three years. "Sadly," Sylvester says, "they were all RMR," or repatriation of mortal remains. Each of those settlements cost the company between $15,000 and $25,000. Sperando's rescue and transport back to the states, however—in a specialized, low-flying air-ambulance—was much more expensive: about $175,000, all told. Not a bad payout for the $161 that Sperando invested in his travel insurance policy.

"A couple more claims like that," Sylvester says, "and maybe we won't be able to cover base-jumping anymore."

Should World Nomads drop its BASE coverage, there are a handful of other travel insurance companies that also offer adventure-oriented travel insurance plans which, as of press time, cover the sport. Travelex, for example, offers a $49 "adventure pack" add-on to its "Travel Select" plan, which covers up to $50,000 in medical expenses and $500,000 for evacuation.

Even the people employed by these companies, who are paid to understand the risk-loving mind of the adventure traveler, can't always figure out why their clients, born without wings, nonetheless try to fly. Sylvester is certainly still grappling with the appeal of BASE-jumping. "Not a lot of margin for error in that sport," he says. "But I guess that’s the thrill of it."

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