Fresh from his 13th ascent of Everest, and days before embarking on another adventure among the gnarly, snow-and-ice terrain of Alaska’s Denali, adventurer Kenton Cool talks about his mountaineering career and his new reliance on Montblanc.
When Montblanc decided to focus on its 1858 range of watches this year, it needed a hook to hang it on, a story that explains the collection’s existence, its reason for being. We had seen 1858 watches from the brand before, but they were less refined, standalone pieces not positioned to become a pillar of the maison. But the new collection is sleek and purposeful, the watches are set in a world of outdoor adventure, from the halcyon days of the gentleman mountaineer to the idyll of wilderness glamping – always, of course, with the style and elegance of a Montblanc man or woman.
The collection is inspired by Minerva pocket watches and chronographs from the 1920s and 1930s, reinterpreting the spirit for contemporary wearers. Models range from a simple Automatic, to an Automatic Chronograph, a worldtimer Geosphere, a limited-edition Monopusher Chronograph and Pocket Watches. Materials such as brass and vintage-style straps that age and patinate over time are combined with practical complications and ultra-legible dials suitable for all light and weather conditions.
And these watches are tough. Elegant aesthetic aside, they are finely-tuned and ready to accompany the absolute toughest on a journey of the roughest going, with all models water-resistant to 100m and having been put through in-house testing involving 500 hours of simulated wear. Determined to put its money where its mouth is and, in an act of genuine faith in the product, Montblanc has teamed up with mountaineer Kenton Cool to put the 1858 timepieces to the test.
One of the world’s top mountain-expedition leaders, Cool was involved in the first British guided ascent of the North Face of the Eiger in 2007 with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a partnership that was repeated in 2008 and 2009 on Everest – the first being unsuccessful. Four years later he achieved the Triple Crown of Nuptse, Lhotse and Everest, a feat many thought impossible. He has personally reached the summit of Everest 13 times, the most recent one guiding TV presenter Ben Fogle and Olympic cyclist Victoria Pendleton – who sadly did not reach the summit due to the effects of oxygen deprivation – in May 2018 to raise funds for the British Red Cross.
The Holy Trinity
According to Cool, the partnership with Montblanc, which began in October 2017 and was formally announced at this year’s SIHH, came as a bolt from the blue. Montblanc was previewing the new collection to the watch press in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and wanted a face to represent the ethos of the new watches. They came across Cool and, impressed by his superhuman achievements, asked him to join the world’s watch writers at the preview. Three days later he was in Jackson Hole.
“Since then we have developed a deeper relationship,” he says. “I hope it will last. It’s a brand that I’ve always admired. When I was a kid, we didn’t have a lot of money and I always coveted three things: a nice pen, a good watch and a great pair of shoes. I am very lucky because now I have all three. I work with Grenson shoes, which is fantastic, while Montblanc has given me both pens and watches – although I have been into watches on a personal level for some time and have worked with Bremont in the past. Montblanc fulfilled the aspirations of an 11-year-old boy who grew up with very little materially. I said yes to working with them very quickly and it’s definitely been fun so far.”
Cool believes there are many synergies between Montblanc and his life as a mountaineer – a tough sport that involves blood, sweat and tears but one that is also romantic and elegant. Everything Cool uses needs to be robust, something he recognises in the 1858 watches as well as Montblanc’s writing instruments. “They are built to last generation-to-generation,” he says. “I’ve always worn analogue watches – even on Everest. It confuses people but I love to wind a watch every day wherever I am. Even the best smart watches can let you down when you need them. Analogue is not like that and Montblanc in particular has the kind of German/Swiss precision that makes its products fit for the purpose. It is not an adventuring brand per se, but it is multi-functional. The products are beautiful and they work.”
The functional element of Montblanc was demonstrated earlier this year when Cool’s leather wallet accompanied him to Everest base camp, his pen to Camp 4 and his watch to the mountain’s summit. For his own brand, as a mountain guide and climbing instructor to mainly HNWIs, each tailored trip is bespoke and when clients see him using luxury products, it is unexpected and, hence, memorable.
So, if Montblanc gets sporting legitimacy plus access to Cool’s clients through the partnership, what is it that Cool wants from the relationship? “I look for something long term,” he says. “It is easy to have transactional relationships – I just call a manufacturer and nine times out of ten, I will be given cheap gear. But I prefer to have an actual association with a brand. I have been with Land Rover for eight years now and Lyon Equipment for 12 years because I like to be part of a community and a culture. This benefits both parties, but it only happens over time. I also need to get invested in a brand and have to believe in it. If I was endorsed by a fast food company, for example, it wouldn’t resonate as I am always conscious of the nutrients I consume.”
Following an earlier trip to Nepal in February, where he wore the Geosphere, Cool chose to wear the 1858 Manual Small Second with blue dial on his latest scaling of Everest with Fogle. He smiles as he says he had only three things to remember at the peak, one of them being to photograph the 1858 on top of the world. “Any amount of time at high altitude affects memory,” he says, shaking his head. “Of the three things I needed to do, I failed on all. There were oxygen problems, so I gave my supply to Ben and my cognitive reasoning was affected. I am so cross I didn’t get the picture, but at least I kept the client alive!”
Despite low temperatures of -25 degrees, the 1858 was not treated with any special lubricants and worked perfectly during the climb. A surprise for some watch lovers, Cool is more nonchalant. “It worked all the way to the summit of Everest,” he says. “It wasn’t serviced before I went, but why wouldn’t it work? These things are so well engineered that generally they surpass what the average person needs. I doubt anyone else would put their watch through such tough testing, but the point is that they are capable of it.”
And that capability, as well as trust in the product, is paramount when you are tackling a phenomenon like Everest. Calculating how much oxygen is left in a cylinder and when it needs changing is essential, as is adhering to turnaround times. Experience has shown that mobile phones don’t like cold and, for Cool, analogue is the only way to go – something he has stayed true to since he received his first Timex Mickey Mouse watch as a child – save for a brief hiatus into Casio a couple of decades ago.
“I wear watches 24/7,” Cool says. “The only exception – for obvious reasons – is when I’m rock climbing. Some people tend to wear luxury timepieces only for special occasions, but they are tools and deserve to be worn all the time. I have worn many watches in my career from Kobold to Bremont, and all have survived intact. When I was younger, the desire to wear a watch was materialistic. I grew up in a very wealthy area, but we were not well-off as a family. Watches were aspirational. The green-eyed monster came out when I saw a gorgeous timepiece on someone’s wrist and I don’t think there is anything wrong with that, as long as the aspiration doesn’t take over your life. Today, I travel the world and see great poverty, so material things mean less but, now and again, the seven-year-old in me comes out and I just want the pen and the watch.
The Peaks and The Troughs
Cool has had many highlights in his professional career, including first reaching the Everest summit in 2004 and a particularly hard ascent of Nepal’s Annapurna III in 2003. He laughs as he remembers: “I still recall my first climb ever, which was near Swanage when I was 17. I was so scared that I ran to the top without using the metal pegs. A climb changes every time, so no two ascents are ever the same. I feel lucky to have had a life that has allowed me to experience such beautiful things and to have met so many people. I love company. I bore myself within five minutes, so I’m not a big person for solo stuff. I like sharing the tears and laughter, the sunsets and sunrises – it enriches my life.”
Despite serious injury in 1996, when he suffered a fall from a rock face, shattered both heel bones and had to endure a year of surgery and therapy that threatened to end his career, Cool says retiring was never an option. “I couldn’t picture life without it,” he explains. “Of course, I would have found something to do, but the problem is that a climber doesn’t conform. We are renegade misfits. When I thought the sport would disappear from my life, it pushed me on. It was a huge uphill battle and I suffer from chronic pain, but the mountains have a pull. I would die behind a desk. I love freedom and the unknown and it was destiny that I ended up doing what I do.
“My wife is adventurous herself, so she gets it. Naturally, once our children came along, my priorities changed and my personal trips have dramatically reduced. But my wife is incredibly understanding and, at times, she actually sends me away, saying: ‘You need to do it, so go and do it.’”
And are we likely to see the team from Montblanc heading for the hills with Cool soon? He laughs as he says: “Mont Blanc is my bread-and-butter and my climbing partner Rob Bennett guides would-be adventurers on it frequently. I met the maison’s ambassador, Hugh Jackman, at SIHH and it would be great to get him climbing. And Rob is really keen to do something with Montblanc on Mont Blanc, or in its shadow.” What could be more perfect? And remember, you read it here first.