In 1953, when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first men to summit Mt. Everest, the world’s tallest peak, the sport of mountaineering was very different than it is today. In modern times, each spring is an opportunity for the wealthy to buy their way to the top of Everest. Permits to climb the mountain are sold at a seemingly unlimited rate by the Nepali government, and it’s not uncommon to find traffic jams en route to the summit, a space as large as a few ping pong tables, perpetually crowded with exhausted climbers taking selfies in the crystal clear Himalayan light. The British Mount Everest Expedition of 1953 was the ninth attempt to reach Everest’s summit, and it was by no means a guaranteed success. Previous expeditions had been cut short by bad weather, poor planning, mishaps with oxygen supplies, and death. The expedition in 1953 didn’t exactly go according to plan, either. Led by Colonel John Hunt, Hillary and Norgay were not the mountaineers initially chosen from the team of 15 to make the first (and most likely) summit attempt. Delays in traversing the Lhotse Face led to a series of decisions that put Hillary and Norgay, briefly, and nearly depleted of oxygen, on the summit, all alone, and forever in the history books.
Rolex, as part of their constant shrewdly and brilliantly market every watch they’ve ever made, gifted Hillary and Norgay simple Rolexes to wear on their Everest attempt in ‘53. The watch in question was not, as so many believe, what we now know as the Rolex Explorer, but a simple Oyster Perpetual. Time only, with a white dial and easy to read triangular applied indices all around. The idea here was that the pair would wear the watches throughout the expedition, and send them back to Rolex after for testing (and, one presumes, quite a bit of commercial activity). Rolex had a history of sponsoring expeditions in the Himalayas and frequently provided timepieces to mountaineers for testing purposes, dating back to the 1930s.
But there was another watch brand represented on the mountain during that historic expedition: the British watchmaker, Smiths. Hillary used Smiths gear on many of his expeditions, and when the news of the successful summit attempt reached the UK, Smiths was eager to jump on the bandwagon, claiming in advertisements (using Hillary’s own words) to be the watch worn at the summit. All these years later, it’s impossible to know for sure what, exactly, was on Hillary’s wrist when he reached the top (although we can be reasonably certain Norgay was wearing his Rolex).
Ultimately, Rolex and Smiths each benefited from marketing their watches as “Everest watches” for a period of time. Smiths success, however, was much shorter lived. Rolex was able to parlay the Everest expedition into a marketing campaign that really hasn’t stopped since 1953, while Smiths went belly-up in the wake of the quartz crisis of the 1970s.
Regardless of the details of who actually wore what and when, one thing that there is no doubt about when it comes to the 1953 Everest expedition is that it set the table for Rolex to introduce one of the absolute key watches in their history, the Rolex Explorer. Introduced not long after the successful expedition, the Explorer was marketed as a simple and pure tool watch, capable of any human feat, in any condition you can imagine. Waterproof to 100 meters, instantly legible with a high contrast black dial, and sized with the idea that it should be small enough to stay out of everyone’s way until called upon, the Explorer is in many ways the ultimate all-purpose, everyday sports watch. It could easily go from a mountaintop on one vacation to a diving excursion on another, and handle whatever nightlife you chose to throw at it with style and panache to spare in between.
Rolex spun off the Explorer to a new model, a sequel of sorts, the Explorer II, in 1971. This watch, with a brightly colored and oversized 24-hour hand, was intended to be used by spelunkers who would inevitably lose track of their own circadian rhythms during extended periods exploring caves. Between these two Explorers, Rolex created what are perhaps the most quintessential watches for men (and women) who require something simple, reliable, and legible doing all manner of insanely brave things. As with all of the best purpose-built sports watches, they’ve been adopted and loved even by those who explore little more than the neighborhood grocery store or a PTA meeting (treacherous though these tasks may be).
The Explorer series has always been a low profile choice in the Rolex catalog and thus loved by collectors and enthusiasts a bit more than the general public. They lean toward the technical or professional side of Rolex, as opposed to the commercial, and therein, I think, lies the charm. Early Explorers, with their matte dials and jangly bracelets, are almost comically humble. You hold one in your hand, and maybe see some still radioactive lume flaking off the hands, and briefly question the watch’s durability. The case, though, is built like a tank, and the movement ticking away inside is designed by Rolex specifically to withstand the worst shocks a watch can endure. The kind you might experience at the literal top of the world.
Great watches that have a history behind them give you a little taste of that shared human experience every time you look down to check the time. It doesn’t matter if you have zero interest in personally getting to the top of Everest or any other Himalayan peak – owning the watch that was inspired by that incredible human effort, and understanding its importance, helps to keep the story alive for generations to come.
Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates and exclusive offers