With winter taking hold of the Northern Hemisphere, many of us are wondering if our watches are up to the task of skiing, ice fishing, or the odd snowball fight on the frigid tundras of Minneapolis or Manhattan. Perhaps the best way to address this important question is to look to some people who have tested their own timepieces in harsher environs than those where most of us will be snapping Instagram wrist shots. So without further ado, here is a brief listing of some famous polar explorers, and the watches they wore. Certainly this is an incomplete list, so if you know of others, let us know in the comments.
Amundsen is the undisputed king of polar exploration (just look at the guy), having not only led the first expedition to reach the South Pole, but also becomming the first to traverse the Northwest Passage. And he took part in the first flight over the entire Arctic in an airship. On his historic South Pole expedition of 1911, he navigated to the southernmost point on the planet using a finely regulated “observer’s” or “deck” pocketwatch made by Julius Assmann of Glashütte, Germany. Deck watches were commonly used on ships for navigating since they could be set to the time of the bulkier marine chronometers (which were safe belowdecks) and then carried up on deck for making celestial observations.
Sir Ranulph Fiennes: Rolex GMT-Master and Kobold Polar Surveyor
Fiennes has been called, “the greatest living adventurer” and for good reason. He has conquered the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula’s Empty Quarter, been to both Poles, and even summited Mount Everest at age 65. His 1979-1982 “Trans-Globe Expedition” was the first (and to date, only) journey around the globe along its vertical axis (from one pole to the other) using surface transportation only – no airplanes.
Around that time, Fiennes appeared in a Rolex advertisement saying that he had navigated all of his expeditions using his Rolex GMT-Master, enduring the extremes of temperature at the Poles and the heat of the tropics along the way. In the early 2000s, Fiennes left Rolex to join Kobold Watch Company, as not only an ambassador, but also an active designer of watches for this small brand that specializes in “expedition tools.” Kobold’s Polar Surveyor is the best example of Sir Ran’s input: a mechanical chronograph with 24-hour hand and day/night indicator.
Sir Edmund Hillary: Rolex Oyster Perpetual
Sir Edmund Hillary is best known for being the first man to summit Mount Everest, in 1953. On his wrist? A Rolex Oyster Perpetual (and/or maybe a Smiths), a watch that would inspire the legendary Explorer. But a few years later, in 1955, he also led an expedition to cross Antarctica using snow tractors. The trip took three years and became the first to cross the entire southern continent. On this adventure, Hillary wore a Rolex Oyster Perpetual that was gifted him by a Calcutta jeweler, Boseck’s, after his triumphant Everest conquest. The watch was the subject of some controversy when it was to be auctioned by Antiquorum in 2010, but a court order halted the sale and the watch is now on permanent display in a museum in Auckland, New Zealand.
Ralph Plaisted: Omega Speedmaster Professional
Perhaps the unlikeliest of polar heroes was an insurance salesman from suburban Minneapolis. Ralph Plaisted and some of his buddies dreamed up an expedition to the North Pole via snowmobile over beers at a Duluth pub in 1968. The scrappy group saw the trip as a slightly more adventurous option than seal hunting in Canada, and sought support from a variety of sources. Bombardier of Canada provided the snowmobiles for the journey – crude machines that needed constant attention to keep running – while Omega provided a set of Speedmaster Professionals. Gerald Pitzl, the man responsible for getting the team to the Pole, used a sextant and his ref. 145.012 Speedy (the same reference that went to the Moon a year later). Plaisted wrote a letter to Omega following the expedition, which amazingly was the first undisputed overland conquest of the Pole ever, thanking them for their help and concluding with, “ALL WE CAN SAY FOR THE OMEGA WATCHES, THEY ARE GREAT.”
Reinhold Messner: Omega Speedmaster Professional
Since first learning about horology, he has garnered extensive knowledge in the area, and spends a lot of his time sharing his opinions among other writers, collectors, and dealers. Currently located near New York City, he’s a persistent pupil in all things historical, a writer on many topics, and also a casual runner.In 2018, the British Royal Air Force will celebrate its centenary year and in recognition of this, Bremont Watches E Type Replica Watch Company, has established a new limited edition chronograph GMT watch known as the Bremont 1918 — available in stainless steel, rose gold, and white gold variants, each with a distinct dial colour. A connection to the RAF is nothing new for the British watchmaker, which has always associated itself with and taken style inspiration from aviation.The Bremont 1918 includes a 30-minute chronograph, another hour hand for monitoring a second time zone in a 12-hour format, an AM/PM indicator for the next time zone, and the date. It is powered with the grade BE-16AE, which is a modified Valjoux 7750 and defeats in 28,800bph with a 42-hour power reserve, and features a COSC certification. To be pedantic, we should note that the strict definition of a GMT watch implies it displays the next time zone in 24-hour format — but with the AM/PM indicator, well… close enough. Like previous Bremont limited editions, a lot of effort was put towards the design of the rotor, which in this case apparently has metal and wood veneer from 4 different planes from the WW1 and WW2 eras — a Bristol Blenheim, a Supermarine Spitfire, a Hawker Hurricane, and a 1917 SE5a.
At the other end of the Earth, some two decades later, another Speedmaster found glory. Tyrolean Reinhold Messner is believed by most to be the world’s greatest mountaineer, thanks to achievements such as being the first to summit Everest solo, and without the use of supplemental oxygen. In 1989, he turned his attention to Antarctica, attempting to become the first person, with his partner, Arved Fuchs, to cross the entire continent on foot. He later deemed the expedition a living hell, and more difficult than any of his exploits in the mountains. Though Messner is best known for wearing Rolex watches for many of his alpine expeditions (such as an Oysterquartz for the 1980 solo summit), for the “Würth-Antarktis-Transversale” he chose an Omega Speedmaster Professional.
Will Steger: Yema Bipole Duopoly
At the same time Messner and Fuchs were trekking across Antarctica, another Minnesotan, Will Steger, was leading a momentous expedition to cross the same continent, but using dogsleds and taking a much longer route. The 1989-90 “International Trans-Antarctic Expedition” was ambitious for a number of reasons, not just the conditions and distance. Steger assembled a thoroughly international team, with representatives of France, Japan, the U.K., Russia and China, in addition to himself, which brought with it its own issues of language and cultural barriers.
Though Steger had used Rolex watches for past expeditions (he was only the fourth person in history to reach both Poles), for the 1989 expedition, he used a quirky watch made especially for him by the French brand, Yema. The watch, called the Bipole Duopoly had a 48mm titanium case, long velcro Kevlar strap, and quartz movement. But its most useful and distinctive feature was an anti-magnetic sidereal solar compass and reversible dial that allowed navigation for both the North Pole and South Pole. It’s incredibly rare, and not the prettiest watch in the world, but without question the most purpose-built one in this list.
Ben Saunders says his specialty is “dragging heavy things around cold places” and indeed, while other explorers have opted for snow machines or dogsleds, Saunders has opted to “man haul” to the Poles, on foot or on skis. In early 2014, he and partner Tarka l’Herpeniere retraced Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated 1912 South Pole attempt, trudging from the coast to the South Pole and back. Their achievement set a record for the longest polar journey on foot. Near the end of the “Terra Nova” expedition, Saunders posted a watch on Instagram via sat phone from his tent on the frozen tundra. It was the special edition Bremont diving watch he had been wearing for the entire journey. Called the Terra Nova, it was a titanium version of Bremont’s Supermarine 500, replacing the elapsed-time diving bezel with one with compass bearings and adding a 24-hour GMT hand for staying oriented in 24-hour daylight. Bremont released a limited series of this capable watch, all of which quickly sold out.
Mike Horn: Panerai Pole to Pole
If there’s anyone who can rival Ranulph Fiennes in the adventure department, it’s Mike Horn. The South African explorer’s list of feats is awe-inspiring, from trekking the entire length of the Amazon unsupported to circling the Arctic Circle solo. For this latter expedition, dubbed “Arktos,” Horn wore a special Panerai of the same name that had an antimagnetic shield around the movement, and a compass bearing bezel. Horn is a longtime Panerai devotee (or vice versa) and he is currently on a two-year expedition to circle the globe by its polar axis, for which Panerai has made another special edition watch called the Pole 2 Pole – a version of its Luminor Submersible GMT with a titanium case. Of this list, it is the only polar watch still out in the field unless some of our intrepid readers are out having wintry adventures of their own.
Top Photo: Courtesy The New York Times