Great Expeditions, Great Watches

A handful of watches have come through in the clutch on epic expeditions.

The Apollo Project / NASA

Throughout modern history, a number of expeditions to the highest peaks, lowest valleys, and farthest reaches of the earth have shared at least one tool in common: a watch that could keep up with the rigors of travel and the harshness of climate. This is the expedition watch — an essential tool that can survive the elements, be trusted at a glance, and fade into the background when not needed. These are some of the watches that have come through in the clutch on epic expeditions.

Rolex Explorer


On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and his sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first men to stand atop the world’s highest peak, Mt. Everest. While the now-defunct Smiths watch brand was a sponsor of the summit, Hillary seems to have worn both a provided Smiths Deluxe and a Rolex Explorer. In the words of Hillary himself, the Rolex “experienced considerable extremes of temperature, from the great heat of India to the cold temperature at over 22,000 feet, and seemed unaffected by the knocks it received on rock climbs.” The original Rolex Explorer may lack some of the sophisticated technology found on modern expedition watches, but its resilience under pressure continues to define the genre.

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Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th


In October of 2012, Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner broke the speed of sound in free fall after jumping from a capsule at 120,100 feet (39,045 meters) of altitude. The temp up there was a brisk -65 degrees Celsius. On Baumgartner’s wrist was a standard-production, steel-cased Zenith El Primero Stratos Flyback Striking 10th, housing the brand’s famous El Primero mechanical chronograph movement. It would become the first watch to break the speed of sound — and it still worked perfectly when Felix touched the ground more than nine minutes after the initial jump.

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Rolex Deepsea Challenge


In 1960, Captain Don Walsh and Jacques Piccard descended to the deepest known point on earth, the Mariana Trench, some 10,916 meters below the surface of the Pacific Ocean. Strapped to the outside of their vessel, the Trieste, was a Rolex Deepsea Special, made specifically to withstand the extreme pressure experienced under more than seven miles of water. In 2012, James Cameron became the third man to visit the Mariana Trench, and again, a Rolex made the trip with him. The Rolex Deepsea Challenge was strapped to the sub’s exterior, and thanks to a 904L steel case, a high-performance nitrogen-alloy steel RINGLOCK system and a grade-5 titanium case back, it returned unscathed.

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Breitling Emergency


During a hunting trip 120 miles northeast of Anchorage in 2012, outdoorsman Mark Spencer became stranded along the Susitna River within the Alaskan Range. While Spencer did have a handheld personal locator beacon activated, it was his Breitling Emergency that led rescuers to his exact location. The Brietling houses a small antenna that, when pulled out, broadcasts on the 121.5MHz aircraft emergency frequency. It’s exactly the type of tool that’s better to have and not need than the other way around; that it has a titanium case and 24-hour chronograph is a great bonus.

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Omega Speedmaster


Sending men to the moon and bringing them safely back to the earth is arguably the ultimate expedition. Though Buzz Aldrin wore his Omega Speedmaster Professional on the moon, it was lost in shipping on the way to the Smithsonian once he returned to earth — and in fact, the watch is often remembered for something else. When things went wrong on the infamous Apollo 13 mission, the crew was forced to rely on their wits and their mechanical tools to make it back home at all. The Omega Speedmaster was used to time two 14-second course corrections, which were guided by Captain Jim Lovell, using a gunsight to align the capsule with Earth. Without power, the capsule was a damp 38 degrees Fahrenheit, so the Omega’s ability to continuing working in adverse conditions proved immeasurably valuable to the crew of three.

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