Ok, after that title, I’m going to make a full disclosure right here, right now. I’m not sure we’re going to get to the truth about Rolex and Smiths and who wore what to the top of Mt. Everest in 1953. In doing my research for this article, I found fascinating information, and references which contradict each other.
Let’s start with my own personal generic understanding, which I’ve stated here and there in my past writings for Everest Journal and others. I’ve developed this understanding through the reading and research I’ve done for various assignments over the last three years. As such, it’s not based on rigorous or scientific research. It’s more offhand knowledge.
However that may be, as I understand it, Tensing Norgay wore a precursor to the Rolex Explorer to the summit of Everest while Hillary wore a Smiths and kept the Rolex in his pocket.
Now, as we’ll see in a minute, I’m about to challenge my own understanding.
As late as 2013, Hodinkee was saying a watch had been found that Sir Edmund Hillary wore to the top of Everest. I’ve no doubt the watch was Hillary’s. However, I think it’s debatable whether he actually wore the watch to the summit. More on that below.
I’ve also read reports that Rolex was a sponsor of the 1953 climb. But other reports refute that claim, saying Smiths was in fact, a sponsor. Would both brands have been sponsors? Two watch brands? That would be hard for me to believe, but it could be so. Regardless, it’s obvious that watches of both brands were present on the historic climb.
Tenzing Norgay was presented with a Rolex in 1952 as reward for accompanying the Swiss expedition (one source says two expeditions), led by Raymond Lambert, among the first expeditions to attempt the climb from the Nepalese side. This gift Rolex was apparently the watch Tenzing wore to the summit in 1953. And there’s reliable evidence that it was none other than a gold Datejust!
However, careful reading of subsequent testimonials by Hillary and the climb’s leader, Sir John Hunt, don’t specifically say what watches were worn. Rather, Hillary states in Smiths ads from 1954: “I carried your watch to the summit. It worked perfectly.”
At this point, let’s take a step back. Rolex apparently lent watches to Hillary and Tenzing Norgay for testing on the 1953 climb. Thus, Hillary’s was returned to Rolex at the end of the expedition. Meanwhile, the claim is that Tenzing turned down his lent piece in favor of the watch Rolex had given him the year before in recognition of his contributions to the Swiss efforts the year before. Hillary’s watch was kept by Rolex for decades Before they eventually gave it to the Beyer Watch and Clock Museum in Zürich, Switzerland.
And there’s a Smiths watch, apparently given by Sir Edmund himself, in the museum of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers in London which curators claim was worn by Hillary to the top of the world: “Worn by Sir Edmund Hillary during his successful climb to the summit of Mount Everest, May 29th 1953”
Now, even that statement can be interpreted two ways. Notice that it does not say the watch was worn on the summit. And “… during his successful climb…” could be interpreted as Hillary wearing the watch at some point on the multi-day climb to the summit, but not necessarily on the summit itself.
Now you see where conspiracy theorists get their proclivities.
And so, in my opinion, there’s still doubt about who wore what watch to the summit of Mt. Everest in 1953. I do think the evidence for Tenzing Norgay’s Datejust is fairly compelling however.
But really, my favorite tidbit from all this research isn’t even about the watches. It’s this quote from Sir Edmund Hillary. Upon meeting his friend George Lowe in base camp after summiting, he simply said, "Well, George, we knocked the bastard off."