From the side window, I couldn’t see a possible landing spot. It was all boulders and scree falling steeply away from the bottom of the sheer face. But we continued to angle in, the rotors clawing for air at this altitude with a throb that echoed off the cirque of rock walls. Even through my earplugs, the sound was deafening. Then, I felt the skids touch down and saw the radiating arc of dust and pebbles from the rotor wash. Jens, our pilot, gave the signal to open the door and get out. Our small group of climbers slipped out the sliding door and assumed the duck-walk position necessary around helicopters and quickly moved to safer ground. I covered my face to protect it from the gust. Then, just as quickly as we landed, the Bell 212 lifted straight up and veered away behind the peaks. I pulled back the sleeve of my fleece jacket and glanced at the Rolex Explorer II on my wrist: 9:35a.m. Fifteen minutes ago, I was back at the lodge finishing my coffee. Now, I was getting ready to scale a rock slab in a remote corner of the Bugaboos, in Canada.
Helicopter-supported hiking, or “heli-hiking”, is the summer version of its more glamorous winter counterpart, heli-skiing. While both are enthusiastically practiced in Alaska, New Zealand and the Alps, there is little dispute that the use of choppers to reach remote wilderness for play was born in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia. In the 1960s, Hans Gmoser, a transplanted Austrian mountain guide, established a backcountry lodge in the shadow of the vertical slabs of the Bugaboo mountains as a base camp to take clients into the steeps for powder skiing and rock climbing. Somewhere along the way, he got the idea that using a helicopter to ferry skiers to the peaks would save a lot of time and effort, and allow them to get right to the fun stuff. It was only a matter of time before someone thought a similar use for the birds in the summer would be a good idea. Heli-hiking was born.
After a couple of days hiking on windy, exposed ridgelines and a crevasse-riddled glacier, I decided to opt for something more vertical, which is how I ended up at the bottom of the 8,000-foot Mount Trundle staring up at a 1,000-foot wall. Via ferrata, Latin for “iron way”, is a method of rock climbing using a steel cable strung on a vertical route with bolted anchors. The cable provides insurance against falls, assuming the climber keeps at least one of the carabiners that is attached to his safety harness clipped on as he’s ascending. After shimmying into my harness and securing my helmet, I followed the small group to the base of the wall. One by one, we started climbing, clipping onto the cable and scanning the rock for foot- and handholds. While my primary focus was on safe climbing, the glint of the Rolex on my wrist reminded me that granite can do some nasty things to stainless steel, not to mention that a clasp failure would surely send the watch into the talus below, to be shattered and lost forever. I started to have second thoughts about wearing it.
If the Rolex Submariner is the original sports watch, then the Explorer II would be the original extreme sports watch. Introduced in 1971 as a timepiece for cave and polar exploration, this was a watch with a very narrow target market. Though it was never a big seller for Rolex, the Explorer II is perhaps the purest emblem of what Rolex does best, thanks to its purpose-built design and legendary build quality. It remains the only Rolex sports watch, along with the equally capable Sea-Dweller, to have not been rendered in a precious metal. While the original Rolex Explorer had a bulletproof backstory — the summiting of Everest with Edmund Hillary in 1953 — it still remained, by the ’70s, a small, quaint watch, belonging to an earlier era and devoid of complications or even crown guards. So, Rolex created its bigger, badder descendant. The Explorer II was housed in a burlier 40mm case and featured the same protective crown guards as the Submariner. It also sported a fixed, engraved 24-hour marked bezel and an extra hand on the dial. That oversized blaze-orange hand gave the ref. 1655 its Italian nickname, “Freccione”, or “big arrow”.
Powered by the same cal. 1575 movement as the GMT-Master, the extra hand traveled the dial once in 24 hours, pointing to its corresponding time on the outer bezel. Unlike the GMT-Master, whose bezel rotated and thus could display time in a second time zone, the Explorer II was meant only to tell its owner whether it was 2:00 or 14:00. In the dark underworld of a cave or in the perpetual blackness of the polar winter, time can be confusing and a reassuring glance at the wrist could be reorienting. With its singular uncompromising purpose, the original Explorer II was a pure tool. True to its name, it became the watch of choice for real-world explorers like French spelunker Jean-François Pernette and Tyrolean mountaineering legend, Reinhold Messner. It was a promotional photo from the 1970s showing Messner high on a rock wall rakishly wearing a scarf around his neck, a Fila alpinist’s sweater and a ref. 1655 Explorer II on his wrist, that comforted me on my climb. If the greatest climber in history wore his Rolex up the mountain, surely I could, too.
The bottom of the climb was easygoing, and I moved quickly. Though I was wearing heavy mountaineering boots instead of proper rock-climbing shoes, I had no problem getting purchase on the narrow ledges and wide cracks. About 200 feet up the wall, though, came the first tricky section, where the route disappeared around a corner. This required blindly reaching around for a handhold while also maneuvering into position to clip a carabiner into the cable on the other side of the slab. Stepping around, my foot flailed at open air until finally finding a small knob of rock on which to plant itself. I committed to the move, and as I shifted my weight, I felt a moment of panic. Though I was securely clipped into the rope on one side of the corner, my lone foothold was on the other, requiring me to balance on that foot and hold on with one hand, while my other hand had to move the carabiner along the cable. As my calf muscle fatigued, my left foot hammered like a sewing-machine needle. Finally, I managed to get around the corner and onto a small ledge. I realized I had held my breath during the move and was now gasping for air.
In the mid-’80s, the Explorer II got a refresh. Its dial got the more familiar circular hour markers and Mercedes handset. The 24-hour hand was reduced in size and painted red instead of orange. A white-dial version was introduced. Though it remained the most purely utilitarian watch in the Rolex lineup, some of the magic of the original was lost, and the watch languished in display cases, bought only by those who appreciated its minimalist magic, as well as the odd cave explorer.
A few years ago, ahead of the BaselWorld watch fair, a teaser image made its way around the Internet, showing a distinctive orange hand against a white dial. Could Rolex be introducing a new, modern Explorer II? Indeed, when the watch was officially unveiled, it was a hit in the watch community. Rolex endowed the watch with a larger 42mm case, solid-link bracelet with its excellent Glidelock clasp, blue Chromalight luminescent dial markers (for dark polar nights) and, most importantly, a return to the orange hand, which was now driven by the cal. 3187. This motor allows for independent setting of the 24-hour hand for second-time-zone tracking, a function its predecessor never had. The movement also features Rolex’s Parachrom hairspring, which renders it more resistant to temperature fluctuation and magnetic influences, making the watch even more perfectly suited for polar excursions. While this may not be on the minds of most Rolex buyers these days, it is evidence that Rolex hasn’t forgotten its tool-watch roots.
Seven hundred feet off the deck and the wind was increasing. From my vantage point, I could see clouds roiling up, out of the valley. Mountain weather is fickle, and though rain wasn’t forecast, my eyes told me different from the weatherman from in his warm office in Calgary. I hoped we would make the summit before any rain started falling. Wet hands are cold hands, and those friction footholds would become more difficult if the granite was slicked with rain. We shortened our break on a small ledge and kept moving. There was one more tricky bit before the top, a rising traverse on a sliver-thin ledge with a bulge of rock in the middle. One by one, climbers negotiated the move, and then it was my turn. Getting past the bulge required wrapping my arms around the rock like a bear hug and inching my feet along the ledge. As I shimmied across, I felt the Rolex bracelet snag on a crack in the rock and felt the clasp snap. Instinctively, I looked down, expecting to see the watch falling out of sight into the pile of rock hundreds of feet below. But it did not, and I was happy to see it still on my wrist when I got past the difficult part. But there was no time to rest with the weather turning.
The remainder of the climb leveled off into a series of awkward crawls and a scramble over one large boulder, and then there was no more mountain to climb. Our little group congratulated each other, and I pulled on a heavy jacket to fend off the wind on this exposed outcrop. I now had time to examine the bracelet of the Explorer II. Two of the links close to the clasp had nasty gouges in them, but otherwise, were no worse for wear, and the clasp held tight — mere battle scars, souvenirs from a day of climbing.
After a hastily consumed lunch and some hero photos, we packed up and picked our way across the knife-edged Black Forest Ridge and down a steep scree slope to the valley below. With the clouds thickening, the decision was quickly made to call for a pickup. Within 10 minutes, I heard the thwack-thwack of the Huey echoing off the surrounding peaks. We huddled together as Jens set the bird down next to us, but kept the engine near full power. The rotor wash was powerful, pebbles and debris sandblasting me as I waddled to the open door and climbed in. We lifted off and angled over our climb. As I glanced out for a last look at our route, raindrops spattered the acrylic window. I looked down at the Rolex and smiled. 13:50. I would be back at the lodge drinking a beer by 14:00.