What do Rolex Watches and Mount Everest Have in Common?

August 5, 2019 Chloe Wenborn

We recently had the opportunity to delve into the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG)’s outstanding archive collection while it was going through an extensive digitization process. We found some outstandingly precious items and some fascinating information that we thought you would be interested in.

The Society’s archive is a unique collection with over two million items that trace back over 500 years of geographical discovery and research. We were delighted when we found, as part of this incredible archive collection, archived pieces relating to the British Mount Everest Expedition in 1953!

The British Mount Everest Expedition 1953

The 1953 Team in the Western Cwm,
30 May 1953 Photographer: Alfred Gregory (RGS-IBG S0001222)

The British Mount Everest expedition of 1953 was coordinated by the Mount Everest Committee, founded in 1921 as a joint collaboration by the Society with the Alpine Club, London. As a result, the Society has the world’s largest archive linked to attempts to reach the summit of Mount Everest. This expedition, led by Colonel John Hunt, was to be the first attempt on Mount Everest from the Nepalese side. It was also the ninth mountaineering expedition to attempt the first ascent of Mount Everest, and the first confirmed to have succeeded when Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay reached the summit on Friday,  May 29, 1953.

The expedition was a feat of human resilience taking the climbers just over 3 months to reach the summit. They started on  March 10, 1953 leaving from Kathmandu and embarking on its 175 mile walk which took seven days to the Everest region.  A further nine days later they reached a small settlement at 12,000 feet where the team spent 3 weeks acclimatizing.

On April 12th Base camp was established at 17,900 feet.  The route up had to be identified with marker flags to prevent people from getting lost. At camp 3 all team donned their high altitude equipment, including specially-made high altitude boots.

Edmund Hillary putting on his specially designed high-altitude boots. Photographer: Alfred Gregory (RGS-IBG) S0001206

There were several more camps before the final one at 27,900 feet. The first attempt for the summit was made on May 26th by Tom Bourdillon and Charles Evans. Then, on May 28th the final attempt for the summit was made by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay.

A five-man team helped the pair to establish a camp as high up the mountain as possible giving them the best chance of reaching the summit on the big day and then they were left on their own.  The pair spent the night of May 28th hardly sleeping and breathing oxygen, wedged inside a precariously positioned tent

At 6.30 AM, Hillary and Tenzing crawled from their tent.  By 9 AM they had reached the South Summit and then had a grim struggle up the ridge.  At 11.30 AM, Hillary and Tenzing stepped on to the top of the world’s highest mountain.


So, What Do Rolex and Mount Everest Have in Common?

We were surprised to discover that they actually have a lot in common!

Swiss firm Rolex supplied members of the 1953 expedition with timepieces and phials of synthetic oil called ‘Rolex Artic Oil’ to maintain the watches’ performance in such high altitudes and harsh conditions. Within the Societies archives, we found the initial correspondence between the expedition organizers and Rolex in which they discuss giving the expedition members the watches. 

Letter from Rolex to the British Mount Everest Expedition Team of 1932

Rolex was an official supplier to the 1953 expedition and had provided timepieces for earlier Everest expeditions from the 1930s onwards in a ‘Himalayan Roll of honour’, including the first flight over Everest in 1933.

The watch selected to be worn by the expedition members was the Rolex ‘Perpetual Oyster Model’  - the name ‘Oyster’ had been adopted following the company’s creation of the first waterproof and dust-proof wristwatch with a hermetically sealed case in 1926.

Reading this today you can see, from the correspondence on the watchmaker’s side, that there is huge respect for these brave men. The determination to test the performance of the watches at the highest altitude is clear and the sense of honor from being part of the expedition is palpable. The model worn by the expedition was then named the ‘Explorer’ by Rolex in honor of the achievements of Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, and the wider expeditionary team who successfully survived the high-altitude conditions. The watch had a high visibility dial and was able to function at a wide range of temperatures from -20° - 40°.

The Oyster Perpetual Explorer was launched later in 1953 to celebrate the successful ascent and it immediately acquired iconic status. Rolex also used images of the expedition widely within its advertising.

Letter from Rolex to the British Mount Everest Expedition Team of 1932

Advert for Rolex including comments from Colonel Hunt

Today, Rolex, as a Corporate Benefactor, supports the Society's Picture Library - with its unique images of Everest - and contributes towards conservation of the RGS’s vast Collections.

Work has started on collating material from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) archive. Hopefully, you enjoyed the Everest exploration story.  We'll be sharing more exploration stories here and more widely as we dig deeper into the archive.  

About the Author

Chloe Wenborn

Social Media and Content, Wiley //I work with Librarians to create content for The Wiley Network and @WileyLibraries.

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