Everest: A Pinnacle of Achievement for Rolex
By John E. Brozek
© InfoQuest Publishing, Inc., 2004
International Watch Magazine, April 2004
The first attempt to reach the summit was made in 1921, subsequently followed by eleven more failed attempts over the next three decades. Success was finally achieved on May 29, 1953: At 11:30 a.m., Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, two members of the British Himalayas expedition, led by Col. John Hunt, reached the summit, at 29,035 feet. In doing so, they secured their place in history as the first to reach the “top of the world”—a feat some believed might never be accomplished.
While at the summit, Tenzing assumed a now-famous victory pose with his ice axe held high, bearing the flags of Nepal, Great Britain, the United Nations and India, as Hillary took the series of historic photos. Then, after taking a few moments to let the enormity of their accomplishment sink in, the two brave climbers headed back down the mountain, via the South Col route—a feat that took decades to achieve was over, literally, in a matter of minutes. While making their descent, they were met by fellow climber George Lowe where Hillary simply stated, “Well, George, we knocked the bastard off!”
Now, over fifty years later, some 1,200 climbers have reached the summit, many of which did so in their very footsteps—literally. A treacherous 12-meter chimney on the Southwest Face—some 259 feet from the summit—is actually named the Hillary Step after Edmund chopped each step from the ice upon their final ascent. Thus, they had, in deed, left their mark on the mountain.
George Mallory, a member of the 1921 expedition, lost his life on the mountain in 1924. His body was discovered seventy-five years later, reminding us of how lethal this mountain can really be. When Mallory was asked why he wanted to climb Everest, he replied, “Because it’s there.” Many brave climbers after him have shared his philosophy and enthusiasm, but unfortunately some of them also shared a similar fate.
Reinhold Messner, the first man to reach the summit without oxygen (1978), and two years later, the first to complete a solo summit, said it best, “Mountains are not fair or unfair, they are just dangerous.” Truer words have rarely been spoken. Mountains like Everest demand your respect, and with anything over 7,600 meters considered the Death Zone, there are countless dangers facing a climber at any moment. Thus, these brave explorers bet their very lives on the performance and accuracy of their climbing gear. One such piece of equipment was the Rolex Oyster Perpetual Chronometers used by many of the expedition members to synchronize their ascent and to measure oxygen use—a fact celebrated in numerous Rolex advertisements.
However, this has also been a source of controversy over the years, with many asking the question, “Which Rolex did they wear?” While it was originally believed that Rolex equipped the expedition with prototypes of the soon to be released Explorer, it is more likely that Rolex simply named its “new” creation in honor of these brave men.
In fact, the Rolex worn by Tenzing to the summit wasn’t an Explorer at all, but rather a stainless steel Bubbleback on a simple leather strap given to him by his longtime friend and fellow climber Raymond Lambert and currently on display in Geneva at Rolex headquarters. Hillary, on the other hand (no pun intended), apparently wore a watch from the English company Smiths (A.409 15 jewels. 28mm.), which he endorsed in a series of brief advertisements, as follows: “I carried your watch to the summit. It worked perfectly.” It is important to note that Hillary also wrote endorsements for Rolex after the 1952 expedition, including the following: “Its accuracy is all one could desire and it has run continuously without winding ever since I put it on some nine months ago… I count your watch amongst my most treasured possessions.”
It’s worth mentioning that some members of the 1953 expedition were pictured wearing two watches—one on each wrist. With that being said, it is possible that Hillary also wore a Rolex on the expedition, but simply wore the Smiths during the summit leg of the climb. Others believe he may have worn both to the summit or that he possibly wore a Rolex while he simply “carried” the Smiths in his pocket. Whatever the case, it has remained a mystery to this day, and it is not likely that we will ever know for certain.
Other endorsements after the expedition included the following by Col. John Hunt: “They performed splendidly, and we have indeed come to look upon Rolex Oysters as an important part of high climbing equipment.”
While Rolex continues to celebrate the Explorer with the conquering of Mt. Everest, it appears that many seasoned climbers (including Reinhold Messner) have come to prefer the Oysterquartz—a watch that has recently been omitted from the Rolex catalog.
To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary, their sons Peter Hillary, and Jamling Norgay returned to Everest. Norgay supported the expedition from Base Camp (at 17,600 feet), vowing not to return to the summit after his ascent in 1996, while Peter made the tribute climb to the summit where he made an emotional phone call to his father.
Since the summit in 1953, Rolex has perpetually maintained its commitment to the Everest expeditions, including the “Geneva – Everest 1952 – 2002” expedition, for which Rolex was the principal sponsor, and again equipped expedition members with Rolex Chronometers. In a world of uncertainty, there’s one thing you can count on: As long as man is willing to brave the unknown, a Rolex will likely be right there on his wrist.