It’s been 70 years since Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became legends at the top of the world, dry-freezing legend status in Rolex’s brace of Explorers
As with any story, rumour or urban myth relating to Switzerland’s most cultish marque, you mention the ‘Rolex vs Smiths’ debate at your own risk anywhere near the web or indeed pub. If you must – and we really must, since the Rolex in question, the Explorer, gets a sleek new upgrade this year, on the 70th anniversary of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summitting all 8,848 metres of Everest – it’s always best to start with what we know. Not which man peaked first, but more importantly, which watch?
Celebrated during a magical evening in Kensington on June 12th, the thread running through every talk at a packed Royal Geographical Society theatre was anything but the duo’s achievement; rather that of their entire team, whose dynamic all those years ago holds plenty of lessons for the modern breed of alpinist. (Google Nims Purja’s infamous ‘queue for the summit’ photograph, if you don’t already know it.)
Introducing proceedings, the daughter of the expedition’s leader, Charlotte Hunt recalled her delirious mother getting the phone call downstairs while in the bath on the eve of Elizabeth II’s coronation. She also recognised the humility of her father, Sir John’s decision to defer the ultimate accolade to the next pair behind, rather than let hypoxia get the better of him.
Jamling Norgay (Tenzing Norgay’s son) paid tribute to how the expedition’s 25 sherpas were genuine team members, never treated as ‘bag carriers’ while the team members reaped all the prestige.
An accomplished alpinist in his own right, Peter Hillary wryly shared his father’s most potent bit of advice: “Peter, a posthumous success is overrated; what’s most important is getting down safely.”
It’s small beer by comparison, but for #watchnerds the world over, Sir Edmund managed something else extraordinary: to have two competing watch brands bankroll the expedition.
Rolex was the most heavily publicised expedition partner in 1953 (and seemingly most loyal, given the clocks dotted about the Royal Geographical Society’s historic lecture theatre), and Mr Norgay was dutifully wearing his Oyster Perpetual as he stepped onto the top of the world.
Indeed, later that very year, anyone on Civvy Street could pick up their own Explorer. This year its latest iteration drops, the pinnacle of 70 years’ continuous fine-tuning: up to 40mm across, now equipped with the full suite of Rolex’s futureproof bells and whistles, such as the super-precise Chronergy regulator, ticking rocksteadily regardless of swings in temperature or magnetism.
Since the 1930s, Rolex had equipped numerous expeditions, to constantly learn from real-life conditions. With Everest and the Explorer, however, Rolex proved it had arrived at a watch capable of withstanding high humidity and freezing Himalayan temperatures. It was the start of the ‘Professional’ line, and the crystallisation of Rolex as the go-to ‘tool’ watchmaker.
But while Norgay played along, Hillary himself had quietly left his own Explorer back at base camp, choosing instead to wear a Smiths Deluxe to the summit – one of 13 that Britain’s biggest watchmaker had issued, prepared at their Cheltenham workshops with a special lubricant to withstand low temperatures. Sir Edmund presented it in person to the City of London’s Worshipful Company
of Clockmakers in the same year, having reported back to Smiths that the watch had performed “very well”. You can now admire it at the Science Museum, next door to the RGS.
But with Smiths long gone and waiting lists for steel Rolex Daytonas and GMT-Master IIs as they are, what else do budding alpinists have to choose from, with true Everest pedigree, which won’t have you laughed out of Kensington’s esteemed institutions?
It is another Rolex Explorer. Only bearing the suffix ‘II’, demarcating the no-nonsense core model’s upgrade to GMT status: the addition of a 24-hour hand in other words, popping with urgent-orange luminescence thanks to the watchmaker’s proprietary Chromalight paint. And now with the option of an icy-white dial.
Should you be particularly unfortunate on the actual ice, the Explorer II’s GMT function packs another handy tool, in navigating your way home the boy scout’s way. To earn your explorer badge, simply set the 24-hours hand to the local time zone, rather than ‘home’ time (according to the 24-hour bezel, not the 12-hour dial) and point the 12-hour hand at the sun, holding your watch flat. That’s north… sort of.
Photography Tonje Thilesen
Creative Director Juan Felipe Rendon