Field Test: Rolex Explorer II

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: 9.35am. 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.

The new Explorer II sees a return of the bright and distinctive orange arrow-shaped hand of the original 1971 model (photo: Gishani Ratnayake)

Into the Wild

Helicopter-supported hiking, or “heli-hiking”, is the summer version of its more glamorous winter counterpart, heli-skiing. While both are enthusiastically practised 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.

(Photo: Gishani Ratnayake)

One by one, we started climbing, clipping onto the safety cable anchored along the ascent, 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.

 Weather Turns

Seven hundred feet off the deck, 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 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.

The author scales the Bugaboos in British Columbia, Canada, wearing the Rolex Explorer II (photo: Gishani Ratnayake)

Rite of Passage

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 levelled 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. 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.

Despite suffering some knocks, the Explorer II was no worse for wear at the end of it — only proudly bearing some hard-won battle scars (photo: Gishani Ratnayake)

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.


This is a condensed version of an article from REVOLUTION’s archives, available here.

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