Exploring to push boundaries

2021-04-07


Exploration is inextricably linked to the history of Rolex. Whether scaling the Himalayan peaks, crossing the polar ice caps or probing the ocean depths, Rolex watches accompanied some of the most challenging adventures of the 20th century. Each of these expeditions was an opportunity to test and improve the reliability and robustness of Rolex watches, using the world as a living laboratory. The constructive feedback that Rolex received proved invaluable for further developments.

The Explorer, launched in 1953, was born out of this shared experience, following the successful ascent of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Later, the Explorer II, introduced in 1971, carved out a place in the world of exploration thanks to its functions and ability to withstand the most extreme conditions. It became the watch of choice for polar explorers, speleologists and volcanologists. These two watches continue to accompany exceptional people on their expeditions to the far corners of the Earth on quests to better understand the planet and find solutions for its protection.

In the past century, exploration has pursued three successive goals: to discover unknown parts of the world, to defy the limits of human endurance, and to observe the planet in order to better protect it. In these three challenges, Rolex has accompanied explorers on their intrepid journeys.

Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on their climb to the top of Everest.

DISCOVERY

The successful ascent of Mount Everest by Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953 was hailed around the globe. Rolex played its part by equipping the expedition with Oyster Perpetual watches. The same year, following the mountaineers’ achievement, the Explorer was released. Its creation had been years in the making. As early as the 1930s, Rolex had begun to equip expeditions to the Himalayas in a bid to observe how its watches would behave in the extreme conditions at high altitude. After every trip, the climbers gave feedback on how the watches had performed, which enabled the brand to make improvements for future models. Just as a watch’s movement is propelled by the motions of the wearer, so watchmaking techniques advanced thanks to the explorers’ experiences, and Rolex timepieces have gone on to accompany many more voyages of discovery to the remotest areas of our planet.


FIRST TO THE TOP OF THE WORLD

Mount Everest is a climber’s ultimate challenge. In May 1953, two members of a British expedition reached the summit of the legendary peak. Their achievement was hailed around the world, and Rolex played a part in it.

Every day spent on Everest is a question of survival. The body is tormented by the relentless cold, lack of oxygen, and pressures from the harsh environment. It was in these unforgiving conditions that, on 29 May 1953, two exceptionally courageous and determined men became the first to set foot at the top of the world’s highest mountain, at 8,848 metres (29,028 feet). For the members of their expedition, they represented the final hope of reaching the summit, as the monsoon snowstorms were expected in the coming days. Fuelled by an extraordinary resolve, New Zealand’s Sir Edmund Hillary, a beekeeper and experienced mountaineer, and Nepal’s Tenzing Norgay entered history by managing to succeed where the numerous previous attempts had failed.

The expedition was led by Sir John Hunt and organized by the British Joint Himalayan Committee, a British entity set up to oversee attempts on Everest and which was co-founded by the Royal Geographical Society and the Alpine Club. The expedition team itself comprised 16 members, but the logistical constraints of such a venture meant that hundreds of porters would be needed to carry the tons of essential supplies required throughout the trip. This material included dozens of packages containing sophisticated equipment scrupulously inventoried and ready for use. From specially designed climbing boots to tents tested in wind tunnels, nothing had been overlooked to give this new attempt every chance of success. Rolex, too, was part of the adventure, for the expedition material also included Oyster Perpetual watches. “The Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches, with which members of the British team were equipped, again proved their dependability on Everest,” wrote Sir John on his return. “We were delighted that they kept such accurate time. This ensured that synchronization of the time between the members of the team was maintained throughout. […]. They performed splendidly, and we have indeed come to look upon Rolex Oysters as an important part of high climbing equipment.”



THE HIMALAYAS: A LIVING LABORATORY

High mountain ranges provide an excellent environment in which to measure a watch’s reliability and robustness. For Rolex, the Himalayas were the ideal living laboratory.

During the first half of the 20th century, the unconquered peaks of the Himalayas held fascination and appeal for climbers the world over. One in particular captivated the imagination and reigned supreme – Mount Everest. This international attraction for the highest summits, combined with the possibility of testing its watches in real-life conditions, prompted Rolex to join forces with teams of pioneering mountaineers. Between 1933 and 1955, no fewer than 17 expeditions to the world’s highest peaks were equipped with the brand’s watches.

These timepieces witnessed a number of first ascents, starting with that of Everest in 1953 – the world’s highest mountain at 8,848 metres above sea level. It was followed by K2 in 1954, the second highest at 8,611 metres; Kangchenjunga in 1955, the third highest at 8,586 metres; and Makalu the same year, the world’s fifth highest peak at 8,485 metres.


A SWISS TRAILBLAZER IN THE HIMALAYAS

Annelies Lohner was behind an exceptional Swiss expedition to the world’s highest mountain range. Rolex Oyster Perpetual watches were included in the climbers’ equipment.

A young and talented climber from Grindelwald, a village at the foot of the Jungfrau in the Bernese Alps, Annelies Lohner showed remarkable strength of character when she proposed to set up the first Swiss expedition to the Himalayas after the Second World War. A pioneer of mountaineering with a passion for adventure, she managed to persuade the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research to let her lead a team into the Gangotri mountain range, in the Garhwal Himal region of northern India. In the five months from May to September 1947, the expedition achieved the first ascents of Kedarnath, Satopanth, Kalindi Peak (via the north-east face), Balbala and Nanda Ghunti, and made an exploration of the Chaukhamba massif, a group of summits over 6,000 and 7,000 metres. To support the project, Rolex gave each team member an Oyster Perpetual watch to wear throughout the climb. These timepieces were with them at every turn and withstood the extreme conditions without ever letting them down. On their return, the climbers reported on the watches’ watertightness, precision and convenience in terms of the movement’s selfwinding system using the Perpetual rotor. “The Rolex watches that we are each wearing keep surprisingly accurate time. They are very useful and we are delighted with them. The fact that we do not have to wind them is especially appreciated,” wrote André Roch, the expedition guide, from the Gangotri base camp on July 7, 1947.

At the 1948 watch fair after the team’s return, Rolex presented a showcase featuring several watches worn on the adventure, set against a decor depicting the summits that had been climbed.


WATERPROOF IN ICY WATERS
A revolution in terms of its perfect waterproofness, the Rolex Oyster case was tested a few years after its launch by a well-known explorer during an expedition to Greenland.

Dust, and especially moisture, can cause lasting damage to the inside of a watch and undermine its main function as a timekeeper. To solve this problem Rolex developed the Oyster case, under the impetus of its founder Hans Wilsdorf, who was convinced of the need for such an invention. The perfectly sealed case was patented in 1926. To ensure its waterproofness in all circumstances, Rolex regularly asked explorers to carry watches fitted with an Oyster case for testing in real-life conditions. Polar explorer Henry Georges “Gino” Watkins took several Oyster Perpetual watches with him on an expedition along the coast of Greenland between 1930 and 1931. After the trip, he told Rolex of his admiration for these watches, which had been submerged several times along the way and yet continued to work perfectly.

 


THE EXPLORER, A TRIBUTE TO PIONEERS

In adopting touches of 18 ct yellow gold, the new-generation Explorer honours the legacy left by 20th century explorers.

The new-generation Explorer deftly combines the prestige of 18 ct yellow gold and the strength of Oystersteel in a yellow Rolesor version designed as a tribute to the mountaineers and explorers who marked the 20th century. Its 36 mm case, identical to that of the original model released in 1953, is a nod to an era when the world’s highest peaks were still shrouded in mystery and as yet unconquered. At the heart of the new-generation Explorer beats calibre 3230, unveiled in 2020. A supreme example of Rolex expertise in mechanical watchmaking, this movement incorporates the exclusive Chronergy escapement and the blue Parachrom hairspring, and offers a power reserve of approximately 70 hours. Precise and resistant to shocks, temperature variations and magnetic fields, calibre 3230 is the result of a culture of technical innovation spanning almost a century that is focused on a perpetual quest to improve chronometric performance and robustness.

DEFYING THE LIMITS

Without a watch, an explorer cannot complete their challenge. It is the sole item of equipment with which to manage time, a critical factor in accomplishing their journey; it is the key to their survival. For those who test the limits of their endurance in extreme conditions, it is an indispensable tool. Its resistance, precision and legibility must never fail, especially in situations of complete solitude, where there are no visual reference points, no clear distinction between day and night. The watch, like its wearer, must be able to stand up to the most inhospitable environments. Rolex has accompanied explorer Erling Kagge in conquering the ‘three extremes’, including crossing Antarctica alone and unassisted; mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who climbed the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 metres without supplemental oxygen; adventurer Rune Gjeldnes, the first person to cross the Arctic Ocean unsupported, and doctor Christine Janin, who was the first woman to reach the North Pole unaided and without the assistance of dogs, and then scaled the highest peak on every continent. In defying the limits, they opened new horizons by pushing back the frontiers of human resistance.


ERLING KAGGE

CONQUERING THE THREE POLES

Norwegian Erling Kagge is no stranger to extreme challenges. He achieved a triple feat in becoming the first person ever to reach the ‘three extremes’: the North Pole, the South Pole and the summit of Everest. An exceptional accomplishment, for which he drew on remarkable inner strength.

No dogs to pull the sleds. No planes to air-drop supplies. Nothing but their bodies to transport them. Morning temperatures of –54°C. “It was impossible. But if anyone could do it, we could.” This is how Erling Kagge described his journey in the company of Børge Ousland, another impassioned adventurer. In March 1990, the two men were the first to reach the North Pole on skis without any outside assistance. With their minds firmly focused on one goal: to get there under their own steam, using their courage, conviction and determination.

Two years later, this time in Antarctica, Kagge was alone. In 1992-1993, the explorer became the first to reach the South Pole, solo and unsupported. A journey of more than 1,300 km in over 50 days, without speaking to anyone. He had no contact with the outside world. Every step was a battle against the cold, hunger and fatigue. The exploit earned him a place on the front cover of TIME magazine in 1993.

The following year, the Norwegian embarked on a third venture: again unaided, he reached the top of Everest. With this crowning achievement he made history as the first person to reach the so-called ‘three extremes’, otherwise known as the ‘three poles challenge’: the two poles and the highest mountaintop. To accomplish such feats, Kagge has constantly pushed himself beyond his own limits. The ability to surpass oneself, he believes, is based on unfailing optimism, an appetite for sustained effort, the relentless pursuit of one’s dreams, and the ability to not allow personal barriers to get in the way.

Given what he has achieved, this adventurer of the extreme is a man who commands respect for demonstrating the ability of human beings to dig deep within themselves to excel at what they do, no matter the environment or conditions. On his expeditions, every victory has been won through constancy and perseverance. And Kagge is not only the winner of a triple sporting feat. He is also, first and foremost, a philosopher who advocates happiness and often says, “We need challenges – and difficulties – to be happy.” 


ED VIESTURS

TIME MANAGEMENT ON THE MOUNTAIN

Ed Viesturs has climbed all summits above 8,000 metres without oxygen. His watch, along with a few essential time-management rules, helped him make it to the top. 

With razor-sharp focus and determination, Ed Viesturs, a seasoned mountaineer and Rolex Testimonee, achieved the feat of climbing the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 metres (26,000 feet) without supplemental oxygen. For Viesturs, his wristwatch is a key part of his equipment as it directly impacts his safety and success.

“When climbing, time management is the most significant factor in my success, and ultimately my survival – particularly on the day of the summit ascent,” he explains. “Each half hour counts. It’s crucial to know at what time I need to be back at my highest camp after attempting the summit. From that I calculate timings for the entire day, including when I need to begin my descent. An early start is critical for climbing during the colder, safer conditions of the day, and allows for more time to deal with delays or anything unexpected. The descent is the second part of the challenge. I have a rule of turning around by 2 o’clock in the afternoon at the latest, whether or not I have reached the summit. Having time to get down safely with enough daylight and energy is paramount. Some climbers have found themselves in life-threatening situations because they turned back too late. The cold, darkness, fatigue and lack of oxygen can become serious issues.” On each of his climbs, Viesturs wears an Explorer II with a white dial that he received in 1994. “It has never failed me and includes all the features I need for mountaineering: it’s self-winding, robust, and the hands are easy to read against the dial, even in the dark. A durable crystal is also an advantage as it may hit rock and ice on an ascent. I have to admit it’s probably the most important piece of equipment I have with me. I am a serious clockwatcher during my climbs. My watch – and the time it tells – is the key to my safety.”


RUNE GJELDNES

THE PERCEPTION OF TIME AT THE POLES

Rune Gjeldnes is an explorer with several firsts to his name. In polar regions, his watch sets the schedule, down to the very last minute.

In the vast white polar landscape, when the sun never sleeps, the notion of time becomes relative. A watch is therefore crucial for an explorer to be able to structure their days and make regular, coordinated progress. Among other adventures, Rune Gjeldnes was the first person to cross the entire length of Greenland, the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica - on an expedition entitled The Longest March and sponsored by Rolex - on skis, unaided. During his polar expeditions, his Explorer II enables him to follow a crucially important routine. “Time on expeditions is everything and nothing. During the first month, we count the days. After that, we concentrate on the goal as opposed to what day it is. That said, time and punctuality dictate how the entire day is organized: getting up on time, packing up on time, and following the most effective trekking routine, which is 50 minutes skiing and 10 minutes rest. And, at the end of the day, we need to know what time to stop, set up camp and eat – all done as quickly as possible to ensure we get enough rest. During the final 14 days of my solo expedition to the North Pole, I focused my attention on time management and calculating how long I had spent pushing forward on my journey. That was what led me to success. It’s a real relief to keep to a carefully scheduled routine.” To keep time on his side, he says he needs an excellent, trustworthy watch. “Each minute counts in hostile environments – a precise watch is indispensable. It’s also useful if it displays the date, like the Explorer II. Even though we tend to lose the notion of a calendar on an expedition, it’s always nice to know whether it’s the 20th, say, as opposed to the 23rd.”


CHRISTINE JANIN

PHYSICAL AND MENTAL LIMITS IN EXTREME ENVIRONMENTS

The human body is capable of adapting to even the worst weather conditions as long as it has been trained correctly. Explorer and doctor Christine Janin defines the physical and mental attributes required to survive in the world’s most inhospitable regions.

“At an altitude of 8,000 metres, at –40°C or even –50°C, we retain only around 10 per cent of our physical capabilities,” explains mountaineer, polar explorer and doctor Christine Janin, who was a Rolex Testimonee from 2001 to 2006. In addition, the constant danger gives rise to a mixture of physical and psychological stress. “High-altitude mountaineering and polar exploring therefore require a person to be in perfect shape, as well as optimistic, brave and determined.” People who manage to reach the Earth’s geographical extremes are part of a distinct group in terms of physical endurance and exceptional mental resilience.

“The key to a successful climb or expedition is to be in excellent shape when you set off. For that, you must have trained very thoroughly, and have begun preparing several years earlier in order to gain sufficient experience and adapt the body to the conditions you are going to face.” Danger is everywhere. Extreme cold, violent winds and the lack of nearby rescue teams are risks both on mountains and in polar regions. When climbing, the lack of oxygen in the air can cause acute altitude sickness and affect a person’s state of mind. Sometimes, they become perilously fixated on reaching the summit at all costs. The only means of keeping oneself safe is to be disciplined and very focused. “Staying alive ultimately comes down to self-confidence, knowing your abilities and your limits, your physical state and being able, at any point, to give up on your adventure thanks to a crystal-clear risk analysis of the situation,” adds Janin.

In these environments, where each move has to be calculated and time carefully monitored, explorers constantly strive to maintain a balance, both mentally and physically. This extraordinary effort is in order to achieve one aim: to excel. “Summits are conquered metre by metre, breath by breath. On the way, we discover qualities we didn’t know we had that enable us to get to the top. We then feel immense joy in realizing that we know how to face up to dangers and overcome challenges posed by the environment.”


THE EXPLORER II, A CUTTING-EDGE TOOL WATCH

The new-generation Explorer II incorporates the latest in technical developments by Rolex and, now completely updated, is ready for new adventures.

With hour markers and hands standing out in sharp contrast against the white or black lacquer dial, and a 24-hour display via an orange hand and engraved bezel, the Oyster Perpetual Explorer II has been recognized for years by alpinists and explorers as a benchmark timepiece. Its remarkable technical performance has proved invaluable in the extreme conditions that are its calling.

The new-generation Explorer II comes with an entirely redesigned and reproportioned case and bracelet as well as an optimized display. The Chromalight hands and hour markers are covered or coated with an exclusive, optimized luminescent material that offers a longerlasting intensity of glow in the darkness. A further notable enhancement is that the Explorer II is now equipped with calibre 3285, a movement at the forefront of watchmaking technology. Designed as an essential expedition tool, the Explorer II has new advantages that count towards successful missions.

PRESERVATION AND KNOWLEDGE

Human beings have set foot in the furthest reaches of our world. The poles, mountain peaks and depths of the earth no longer seem so inaccessible. Yet, explorers are still exploring. Today, mystery is not what drives them to discover the world; they aim for more than simply going where no one else has been. Theirs is the ambition to better understand our planet and learn about its fragility to be in a better position to protect it. In 1957, Rolex participated in the International Geophysical Year when, for the first time, scientists from around the world pooled their knowledge to help comprehend our planet. It was a time that saw exploration take off and a new era of scientific expeditions. Volcanologist Haroun Tazieff, biologist Nigel Winser, geologist Francesco Sauro and explorer Alain Hubert number among the adventure scientists that Rolex has supported in the tireless quest to broaden knowledge about the planet in order to preserve it and to give it a future. In 2019, Rolex went further and launched Perpetual Planet, an initiative that supports several projects designed to advance knowledge, improve human well-being and protect the environment.


ROLEX AND THE INTERNATIONAL GEOPHYSICAL YEAR

The brand’s commitment to scientific knowledge is a cornerstone of its history and identity. The International Geophysical Year provided an opportunity for Rolex to demonstrate this interest.

The Sun is a ball of very hot gas, with cycles of varying magnetic activity. During very active phases, it emits strong radiation. In the early 20th century, how the phenomenon impacted Earth was still little understood and this triggered one of the biggest scientific research operations ever led: the International Geophysical Year. The project, which lasted from July 1957 to December 1958, a period of maximum solar magnetic activity, was directed towards developing human knowledge in a number of branches of earth science and about Earth’s interaction with its planetary environment, including the Sun. It encompassed 11 different scientific fields, from the study of cosmic rays to the aurora borealis, and from seismology to oceanography.

Rolex took part in the International Geophysical Year by loaning several watches to the British expedition in charge of establishing a scientific base – the Halley Research Station – in Antarctica and carrying out meteorological observations of the earth, the atmosphere and space. From 1955, when the first men set out to build the station, until they returned following a successful mission, the watches performed perfectly.

“When I first put on my own watch […] it became part of me – an unquestioned, reliable part – doing no more than gain a matter of seconds per week, although exposed to such extremes of temperature as a hot cooking stove, or digging out stores in minus 60° Fahrenheit,” wrote surgeon commander David Dalgliesh. And Doug Prior, the expedition’s carpenter, commented shortly before the end of the project : “With regard to the performance of the watch, I honestly could not find a single fault with it. I had hundreds of mortises to cut with mallet and chisel; so not only did the watch have to contend with the extreme cold temperatures but also with the terrific jarring every time I hit the chisel.” Once again, Rolex watches stood out for their ability to endure harsh conditions without compromising their performance.


ROLEX AND NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC

Discovering the world to better protect it. This, in essence, sums up Rolex and National Geographic’s shared commitment towards the planet for future generations. With the aim of helping to protect ecosystems – notably oceans, rainforests and mountain environments – the brand’s concrete involvement alongside National Geographic extends to the four corners of the globe. This recently strengthened partnership was originally forged in 1954, almost seven decades ago. Synonymous with exploration, National Geographic can count on Rolex as a valuable ally in its long-term commitment to pioneering initiatives in exploration and protecting nature; two complementary areas of activity for building a sustainable future. 


HAROUN TAZIEFF
VOLCANOLOGY BENEFITS THE PLANET

Many explorers and scientists from around the world have become Rolex Testimonees. Renowned French volcanologist and speleologist Haroun Tazieff was one of them. His thirst for a deeper understanding of the world repeatedly took him to the rims of volcanos to analyse the temperature changes in the gases and magma caused by eruptions. His celebrated expeditions were fuelled by a desire to collect essential data for understanding natural sites; information that today helps raise awareness about the planet’s fragility. Already back in 1979, Tazieff had warned about the dangerous role of huge CO2 emissions in the global warming that Earth now faces.


FRANCESCO SAURO
SPELEOLOGY HELPS US UNDERSTAND THE EVOLUTION OF LIFE

Francesco Sauro is an Italian geologist and 2014 Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate. He organizes speleological expeditions to remote, lesser-known regions of South America, among others. From the table top mountains between Brazil and Venezuela, he abseils with his team deep into the bowels of the Earth. As he explores these subterranean caves, where no human being has ever ventured, he gathers precious evidence that gives greater insight into the world. His expeditions have led him to prove the existence of unique life forms – such as colonies of bacteria in some of the deepest caves – which give a window into the evolution of life on the planet.


NIGEL WINSER
STUDYING THE DESERT TO PLAN FOR THE FUTURE 

For Nigel Winser, a researcher who participated in a Royal Geographical Society mission that was supported by Rolex, understanding nature is the key to our future. He says that if we are to make the right decisions about climate change, field scientists must gather and share data on our fast-changing ecosystems. This Kenya-born life scientist directs scientific research programmes studying the natural world, aiming to ensure a safe, sustainable planet. As a field scientist, he has carried out important biological surveys in the Sahara, West Ethiopia, and Kenya, and sees the desert sands as living laboratories for biodiversity and climate change studies.


ALAIN HUBERT
SCIENCE AND EXPLORATION TO PROTECT THE PLANET

Alain Hubert is a Belgian explorer and a Rolex Testimonee. His many accomplishments include the longest crossing of Antarctica, a trek of over 4,000 km. During his various explorations of the poles, he has always called on science to bring attention to the devastating effects of global warming. He created an international research station in Antarctica for this very reason. His work consists of taking measurements and samples in extreme environments. The data gathered are used to understand the evolution of ecosystems and confirm the nature and speed of climate change. Hubert considers exploration and observation in the field crucial for obtaining scientific data to build up prediction models.


ROLEX: A PERPETUAL DRIVE FOR INNOVATION

To be able to design and manufacture watches that are precise and reliable in any situation, Rolex has always given high priority to research and development.

Spurred by its founder Hans Wilsdorf, Rolex has focused since its early days on producing ever more precise and reliable watches. Constantly geared towards innovation, the brand gained unique expertise as it found technical solutions to watchmaking challenges. Over time, the brand achieved substantial research and development potential, with the result today that Rolex can call on the expert knowledge and proficiency of in-house specialists in statistics, astrophysics and materials science to continually enhance the quality of its watches. This never-ending quest for excellence was demonstrated for example in 2015, when Rolex redefined its exclusive Superlative Chronometer certification. Originally created to certify the chronometric precision of a Rolex watch movement, it is now applied to the performance of the watch after casing. Every watch produced in the brand’s workshops systematically undergoes a series of tests conducted by Rolex in its own laboratories and according to its own criteria. This testing is carried out to ensure superlative performance from a watch on the wrist in terms of precision, power reserve, waterproofness and self-winding. After successful completion of the test protocol, the watch receives a green seal symbolizing its Superlative Chronometer status, as well as an international five-year guarantee. 

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