Back in 2002 a Swiss friend called me to let me know that Rolex would sponsor an expedition called "Everest 1952/2002" - I questioned him "Why aren't they waiting for 1953 as the summit was conquered that year and not 1952?" Here is what I was explained.
Anyone who knows Rolex heard at least once that on May 29, 1953 Edmund Hillary, John Hunt and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay reached the Everest summit using the south pass while wearing Rolex Oysters.
What is less known is that one year earlier (1952) Hans Wilsdorf helped another team (also wearing Rolex chronometers) that failed by 200 meters to reach the "top of the world".
The story started in 1951 when the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research obtained the authorisation to explore the south face of the Everest next spring 1952.
The expedition would put together the best swiss climbers from that era Lambert, Wyss-Dunant, Chevalley, Dittert, Asper, Flory, Roch*, Aubert and Hoffstetter) plus a sherpa named... Tenzing Norgay (!).
The lead climbers of the "spring" 1952 team
(from left) Jean-Jacques Asper, René Dittert, Ernst Hofstetter, Gabriel Chevalley and André Roch*
All these men were offered by Wildorf a Rolex watch even though only 2 of them would attempt the summit.
It is interesting to note that a collectors claims owning André Roch Rolex, the watch would be fully engraved at the back but I never had any chance to verify this information and afaik, the owner never showed the back of it keeping it for his eyes only.
Here is Roch's watch (maybe redialed a pre 6350 with a bubbleback?)
Strangely enough, Rolex often use an other watch (scan under) to illustrate the Everest adventure but I really doubt a bubbleback had been used for the climb, doubts shared by Dowling and Hess who also believe the watch used on the Everest was a pre Explorer type of watch with a Precision dial (so more in the look of the Roch's watch).
The watch Rolex used to advertise the Everest Success.
In 1988 Sotheby's London auctioned one of the watch worn during the 1953 (not 52) expedition and, as you can see, the dial does not mention "Explorer" and also looks more like Roch's watch than from the BB shown by Rolex.
The above watch is to be compared with this very early 6150 Explorer (Precision dial) sold in 2001 by Christies.
Yes, one year before he succeeded with an english expedition, Tenzing Norgay already attempted to reach the Everest summit twice (both times with Lambert) with a 100% Swiss team and he could have made it before Hillary.
The History initially imagined by Hans Wilsdorf was that the Everest would be conquered by a team of climbers wearning Rolex... but a Swiss team not an English one!
(that is when we have to remember that Wildorf was a marketing genius even before being watchmaker).
More than a swiss team, the 1952 crew was made only with Geneva area climbers. A Geneva team on top of the world with Geneva made Rolex watches, that was Hans Wilsdorf initial dream.
Rolex on top of the world.
Of course there were sentimental reasons* for HW to imagine History his way but also marketing reasons as what's best to promote a Swiss product if not by Swiss heroes. Also remember that at the time Rolex motto could well have been "Lets create an achievement and lets promote it".
*(HW left London for Geneva in 1912)
Hans Wilsdorf depict himself (pipe and bow) reading the Daily Mail and Mercedes Gleitze's exploit.
A 1954 advertising created by Wilsdorf to promote the Explorer watch.
The 6 first Explorer 1 created by Rolex.
To comeback to the historical facts, both 1952 Swiss Expeditions sponsored by the Swiss Foundation for Alpine Research and Rolex were including Tenzing Norgay and Raymond Lambert and both attempted the summit via the South-East Ridge route.
Tenzing & Lambert.
The South-East Ridge route.
The complete 1952 Everest Swiss "Spring Team" during briefing :
To make the story short the "Spring Team" failed and here is what happened the day Raymond Lambert and Tenzing Norgay attempted the summit :
".../... on may 28, Lambert and Norgay were only 200 meters away from the summit, they had already been walking for five hours in an extremely difficult weather with a strong wind blowing.
Since they left the base camp five hours ago both men only made a progression of 600 meters (!) mostly because they could not use properly their oxygen masks that were not working as they should probably due to the cold. Even worse, they rapidly understood that the amount of oxygen they took along would not be enough to reach the summit, the reserve of oxygen was just enough to go back and reach the camp."
The two climbers were exactly 245 meters away from success at 8 595m. They knew that they could reach the summit but they also knew that if they did so they won't be able to come back because of the oxygen issue and the weather getting worse. They finally decided to go back to the base camp located at 7,900 meters where the other expedition members were waiting for them. Before going back, Lambert decided to stick in the ice the famous 'Bally flag' to show the point they reached and the way for the next team trying the ascent.
Sir Hillary will find the flag during his 1953 climb and will bring it back to Lambert, this flag is now exposed in the Musée de Penthes.
Back in the 52 attempt; Lambert and Norgay were so exhausted that they couldn't walk the last few meters to the camp and were dragged to the tents by their companions.
The next day, after examining the global situation (oxygen and weather) they all decided to put an end to the attempt as they could expect no lessening of the weather in the next few days.
They decided to try again in autumn.../...
Here is an extraordinary video movie about the first 1952 Everest attempt
"Man Against Mount Everest 1954 « (wrongly titled 1954)
Later the same year (september 1952) Lambert, Norgay and 8 other team members ( Dr. med. Gabriel Chevalley, doctor and expedition leader; Raymond Lambert, lead climber; Jean Buzio; Gustave Gross; Ernst Reiss; Arthur Spöhel; Norman G. Dyhrenfurth, cameraman.) were back on the Everest for a new attempt remembered as the "autumn attempt".
Very sadly, during the assault two climbers (sherpas) were killed on the ice slope below the Éperon putting an immediate end to the "automn attempt" (the alpinists rules being to cancell a climb when they loose one of them). So, that second team did not even had the chance to try a summit attempt putting an end to Wilsdorf dream to see some "Genevois" to conqueer the Everest.
In 1963 Lambert explained to the TSR (Télévision Suisse Romande) that during the 52 "spring" climb he spotted an English team of scientists also on mount Everest but near a summit of smaller importance. He and the rest of the Swiss team wondered what these men were doing as obviously climbing a pick was not their main objective?
He will painfully understand one year later what was their mission:
Lambert discovered later that the English scientists he met on a lower Everest summit in 52 were here to study and experiment oxygen masks of a new generation. They also were on the Everest to evaluate the exact amount of oxygen the english climbers would need to succeed one year later. Lambert will admit that Oxygen was the key of failure and success on the Everest, the british being much better prepared.
To comeback to Rolex, that company maybe is a secretive one but not an ungrateful one and they proved it in march 2002 when they sponsored another Everest expedition "Genève-Everest 1952-2002" headed by sons and grand sons of the 1952 expedition men (among climbers Arvis, Vallot, Troillet, Asper, Lambert, Schaffer....).Rolex also sponsored a movie of it "Sur les Traces de mon père" / "On my father's traces").
Incredibly enough one of the original 1952 expedition member (Jean Jacques Asper) also joined the team although he did not try to reach the summit for obvious reasons (scan).
From left to right: Jean-Jacques Asper, member of the 1952 and 2002 expeditions, Yves Lambert, member of the 2002 expedition and Ernest Hoffstetter, member of the 1952 expedition. In the background, Raymond Lambert, member of the 1952 expedition aand father of Yves Lambert. Geneva, 18 March 2002
Once again it is very interesting to note that this was not the 1953 success that was celebrated here by Rolex but the failed 1952 Swiss attempt. Geneva based Rolex really had the desire to see a Swiss team beat the Everest!
From left to right: Ernest Hoffstetter, member of the 1952 expedition, Philippe Arvis, Guillaume Vallot, Jean Troillet, Jean-Jacques Asper, member of the 1952 and 2002 expeditions, Mrs Lambert, wife of the late Raymond Lambert - member of the 1952 expedition, Stéphane Schaffter and Yves Lambert, son of Raymond Lambert.
We all know that History only remembers the winners... not true for Rolex.
Raymond Lambert failed in 1952 but still, Rolex always helped and supported Lambert's son Yves as well as Tenzing Norgay's son and after him, Tashi Tenzing his grandson in their various life plans, education etc. Rolex will go even further by financing a Chorten in memory of Sherpa Tenzing Norgay at the feet of the Everest.
Without Sherpas, no expedition would be possible and for the little story the 2002 team sponsored by Rolex hired Sherpa Apa who has made it 19 (nineteen) times to the Everest summit which is the world record.
Tenzing Norgay and his Chorten Sponsored by Rolex.
So here was the story of a team that failed twice in 1952; but did they really fail, as their experience had been essential to the success of Hilary's team a year later?
After they reached the summit in 1953 Hillary, Hunt and Norgay sent this telegram to Lamberts team : " A vous autres, une bonne moitié de la Gloire" / " For you all, a good half of the Glory" ... a telegram that could have been sent a year before and signed by... other brave men.
Norgay was offered a red silk scarf in 1952 by Lambert, during his successuff attempt with the brits he wore that red scarf to the summit and he then offered it back to Lambert as the 1952 team also deverved to win.
The 1953 winners paying tribute to Rolex
This is partly why I love Rolex so much and also why Rolex means to me a little more than any return on investment and I'm glad VRF is sharing this philosophy with an interest more focused on watches and History than on value and money.
Picture : Lambert and Tenzing 50 years after their father and grand father
I have read some books about the Everest Rolex adventure but to me the 2 best ones are the ones below written by Sir Hillary himself and by Tashi Tenzing grandson of Tenzing Norgay. It is interesting to put the souvenirs in parallel to compare both versions of the climb. A special note on the chapters where Tashi depict Tenzing agony and the sadness he felt when Hillary finally unvailed that he was first on the top, breaking an unwritten pact in between both men "Never unveil who was first".
Also for the ones speaking french, there is an interesting video interview of the Swiss team made in 1963 in which the climbers evocate their souvenirs and in which you clearly see the watch that Lambert is wearing (maybe a later Rolex?).