The Great Watch Climb: Mountaineering Watches

This article was originally written by watch journalist Roberta Naas and published in the May/June 2022 Issue of the WatchTime print magazine.

In the past decade, we have witnessed more and more professional climbers and explorers tackle the world’s tallest and most treacherous mountains wearing rugged timepieces designed to withstand unfathomable extremes. It is a phenomenon, though, that will reach far into the future.

For just about a century, top watch brands have been inextricably linked to explorers and mountain climbers as they strived to reach new heights, conquer new summits and explore Earth’s greatest mountains. Each expedition in real life, where watches went to extremes with explorers brave enough to push the boundaries, resulted in better, stronger, more precise timepieces. Today, watch brands continue to accompany climbers to mountain tops worldwide with timepieces that can go the distance.

The Rolex Explorer continues to accompany adventurers, scientists and explorers around the world. This Oyster Perpetual Explorer is created in Oystersteel and yellow gold with black dial and Chromalight display on the numerals.

Almost 70 years ago, in 1953, Rolex made history on the wrist of Sir Edmund Hillary when he and Tenzing Norgay became the first explorers to summit Mount Everest. For that successful climb, Rolex (which had begun furnishing expeditions to the Himalayas with watches decades earlier) equipped the expedition with Oyster Perpetual watches. Those timepieces made it to the summit intact and still working precisely — attesting to the strength and durability of watches, as well as man. The now-famed Explorer watch that was able to withstand those extreme conditions was launched later that year, followed by evolutions ever since.

A couple of decades after Sir Edmund Hillary’s daring 29,032-foot Mount Everest ascent, in 1970, adventurers Naomi Uemura and Teruo Matsuura became the first Japanese to reach the South Peak of Everest from the steeper Southeast Ridge. Uemura was a fan of the Seiko dive watch and during that climb, he wore a Seiko 6159-7001 watch. He continued to believe in Seiko watches for his expeditions: when he became the first adventurer in the world to reach the tallest peaks in all five continents later in 1970. He went on to wear that watch on a two-year solo dog sled expedition from Greenland to Alaska in 1974 and, while he disappeared forever in 1984 on the descent from Denali, Seiko honored him last year on what would have been his 80th birthday by creating a modern interpretation of the watch, the Seiko Prospex Diver’s Automatic. Each of these expeditions, and the many others over the years that led to physical conquests and fulfillment of knowledge, were reallife tests for the timepieces before the extensive laboratories of today existed. The watches were put to harsh tests of altitude and temperature changes, water resistance and so much more, and as climbers rose to new heights, the watch brands accompanying them did, too.

The Seiko Prospex 1970 Automatic Diver’s watch is a modern re-interpretation of the original worn by Naomi Uemura in his Southridge ascent of Mount Everest.

Today, certain watch brands are keen on continuing collaborations with explorers, adventurers, and others to make their watches better, stronger and more wearable to the everyday consumer who wants reliability and durability. The ultimate goal is also to equip today’s explorers with the tools they need to get the jobs done.

Pushing the Limits Without Oxygen 

Montblanc is one such brand that supports adventurers. In fact, the brand partnered with Reinhold Messner a couple of years ago, in 2020, to create the 1858 Geosphere that was named in his honor. He was one of the first to climb Mount Everest without the assistance of supplementary oxygen in 1978 (and also summited Everest solo two years later).

Now, as Montblanc wants to real-life test its newest 1858 Geosphere Zero Oxygen watch on Everest, Messner suggested working with mountaineer Nimsdai, Nirmal, Purja, who is began his ascent in May 2022. An ex-Gurkha and an honoree of the British Military, Purja has accomplished the fastest ascents in a single season to the world’s 14 highest peaks. The current expedition to Mount Everest is being done without supplemental oxygen — something Purja has not accomplished before.

The Montblanc 1858 Geosphere Zero Oxygen Chronograph LE290 watch boasts a titanium case made without oxygen inside. It houses the first chronograph movement for the 1858 Geosphere watch, the new automatic world time MB 29.27 caliber.

The 1858 Geosphere Zero Oxygen watch accompanying him was made in an oxygen-free environment at Montblanc’s workshops. By allowing no oxygen inside the watch case, fogging as climbers endure drastic temperature and altitude changes is eliminated and the movement delivers greater precision and decreased oxidation. Additionally, special oils are used that can perform at temperatures below 50 degrees Celsius. The 44-mm watch is made of titanium to ensure light weight, especially given Purja’s equipment weight minimums. While the watch has been tested to Montblanc’s 500 Hours standards and is certified, this adventure is the ultimate real-life test.

In a Watches & Wonders Geneva 2022 preview, both Nicolas Baretzki, Montblanc’s Global CEO, and Laurent Lecamp, the brand’s Managing Director of Watches, said the relationship with climbing is all about pushing new boundaries while remaining authentic. “We have three key pillars in our strategy,” says Baretzki, “which include working with authentic people and differentiating ourselves with innovative and distinctive elements.” (He went on to say that the third pillar is offering undisputed perceived value.) These important mantras are what led to the development of the Zero Oxygen watch.

Watches with Experiences

Another brand that anchored into the mountain climbing field in 2021 is Officine Panerai with its partnership with professional alpine climber, National Geographic photographer and filmmaker Jimmy Chin. Chin has climbed Everest, trekked on foot across Tibet’s 275-mile Chang Tang Plateau and is one of the only people ever to ski off of the summit of Mount Everest. He is also the co-producer of the documentary Free Solo, which tracked climber Alex Honnold’s ropes-free solo climb of El Capitan in Yosemite National Park.

The Panerai Submersible Chrono Flyback Jimmy Chin Edition watch was created in two versions, one for customers who also were invited on a Jimmy Chin climbing experience, and one not involving an experience. Both versions were 47-mm brushed titanium cases housing an automatic mechanical movement with Incabloc anti-shock device.

Chin was a perfect partner for Panerai, which had already collaborated with other extreme explorers, including Mike Horn, and had created special edition watches with them that were sold with an “experience.” The same held true of the Jimmy Chin relationship, where Panerai produced the Submersible Chrono Flyback Jimmy Chin Edition watch in two versions: one (in a limited edition of just 14 pieces) for customers who also were invited on a Jimmy Chin climbing experience in summer of 2021 in the Grand Tetons, and one not involving an experience.

Both versions were 47-mm brushed titanium cases housing an automatic mechanical movement with Incabloc anti-shock device and have since sold out.

As to the Jimmy Chin experience: customers joined Chin in his hometown of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a climb of the Grand Tetons. Most came away with an incredibly humbled respect for the risk-taking and physical abuse Chin takes daily. Panerai continues its relationship with Chin, but future watch plans are currently under wraps.

New Comfort Zones

Vacheron Constantin — a brand not typically associated with scaling Everest — also embarked on new mountain adventures as far back as 2018 when it entered into a collaboration with climber and adventurer Cory Richards, who is also a National Geographic photographer and a member of Vacheron Constantin’s “One of not many” marketing campaign.

The Vacheron Constantin Overseas Dual Time Everest limited edition titanium and stainless- steel watch inspired by Cory Richards and his Everest climbs.

Richards has survived avalanches, including one that was a near-death experience, has summited Everest without the use of supplemental oxygen, and, in 2019, made a third ascent to Mount Everest via one of the most perilous routes, the North-East Ridge. For that trek, he took a specially made Vacheron Constantin Overseas watch with him. Its performance was stellar, encouraging the brand to create a special edition in honor of Richards, and an ensuing Everest-inspired watch.

In fact, Vacheron Constantin recently released the Overseas Dual Time Everest limited edition watch inspired by Cory Richards and his Everest climbs. It houses a new mechanical self-winding movement developed in-house by Vacheron Constantin that consists of 234 components and offers 60 hours of power reserve. As with all Vacheron Constantin, the watch carries the Hallmark of Geneva seal attesting to its quality standards. The watch offers second time zone, day/night indicator and date synchronized with local time. Crafted in titanium and stainless steel, the watch is created in a limited edition of just 150 pieces.

Bremont is known for working with Aldo Kane, record-setting adventurer.

Beyond Thrill Seeking 

More and more, today, the list of thrill-seeking brands hoping to test their watches to the fullest, is growing. Bremont, for instance, already tests its Martin Baker watches by ejecting them out of planes strapped to Martin Baker ejection seats. This brand also recently teamed with Aldo Kane, a world-record-setting adventurer who began his career in the Royal Marine Commandos, and today provides safety services for television and aerial crews in extreme places around the world. Recently featured in Welcome to Earth with actor Will Smith, Kane has been seen scaling cliffs, heading into volcanoes and testing his Bremont S501 watch “beyond endurance.”

So, what’s the point other than giving watch brands the chance to test their timepieces in ultimate real-life settings to continually improve quality and durability? Making sure they can offer real-life people the watches that can go the distance with them. Watch lovers may not all be extreme adventurers who want to scale Everest, but they might want to climb more achievable mountains to follow their dreams — even if it’s running a mountain path.

One of the newer Casio G-Shock Move watches (GBDH1000-1A7), worn by mountain runner Joseph Gray, offers altimeter, barometric pressure, temperature and heart rate, among other things.

To that end, Casio has the answer with its newest G-Shock Move sports watch. Associating with mountain runner Joseph Gray, an 18-time USA National Champion and the only African American member of the U.S. Mountain Running Team, G-Shock outfits him with the GBDH1000-1A7 watch. This piece shows off its smart side with the ability to receive GPS signals for location access, and to offer heart rate monitoring and vital information such as altitude, barometric pressure and temperature changes.

As horizons widen, and the sky seems to no longer be the limit, what watch works for you?

To subscribe to the WatchTime print magazine, click here.    

Leave a Reply