Rolex and exploration cover

Defying the limits

Chapter two

Without a watch, an explorer cannot complete their challenge.

It is the sole item of equipment with which to manage time, a critical factor in accomplishing their journey; it is the key to their survival. For those who test the limits of their endurance in extreme conditions, it is an indispensable tool. Its resistance, precision and legibility must never fail, especially in situations of complete solitude, where there are no visual reference points, no clear distinction between day and night. The watch, like its wearer, must be able to stand up to the most inhospitable environments.

Rolex has accompanied explorer Erling Kagge in conquering the ‘three extremes’, including crossing Antarctica alone and unassisted; mountaineer Ed Viesturs, who climbed the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 metres without supplemental oxygen; adventurer Rune Gjeldnes, the first person to cross the Arctic Ocean unsupported, and doctor Christine Janin, who was the first woman to reach the North Pole unaided and without the assistance of dogs, and then scaled the highest peak on every continent. In defying the limits, they opened new horizons by pushing back the frontiers of human resistance.

Conquering the Three Poles

Erling Kagge

Norwegian Erling Kagge is no stranger to extreme challenges. He achieved a triple feat in becoming the first person ever to reach the ‘three extremes’: the North Pole, the South Pole and the summit of Everest. An exceptional accomplishment, for which he drew on remarkable inner strength.

No dogs to pull the sleds. No planes to air-drop supplies. Nothing but their bodies to transport them. Morning temperatures of –54° C. “It was impossible. But if anyone could do it, we could.” This is how Erling Kagge described his journey in the company of Børge Ousland, another impassioned adventurer. In March 1990, the two men were the first to reach the North Pole on skis without any outside assistance. With their minds firmly focused on one goal: to get there under their own steam, using their courage, conviction and determination.

Two years later, this time in Antarctica, Kagge was alone. In 1992-1993, the explorer became the first to reach the South Pole, solo and unsupported. A journey of more than 1,300 km in over 50 days, without speaking to anyone. He had no contact with the outside world. Every step was a battle against the cold, hunger and fatigue. The exploit earned him a place on the front cover of TIME magazine in 1993.

The following year, the Norwegian embarked on a third venture: again unaided, he reached the top of Everest. With this crowning achievement he made history as the first person to reach the so-called ‘three extremes’, otherwise known as the ‘three poles challenge’: the two poles and the highest mountaintop.

To accomplish such feats, Kagge has constantly pushed himself beyond his own limits. The ability to surpass oneself, he believes, is based on unfailing optimism, an appetite for sustained effort, the relentless pursuit of one’s dreams, and the ability to not allow personal barriers to get in the way. 

Given what he has achieved, this adventurer of the extreme is a man who commands respect for demonstrating the ability of human beings to dig deep within themselves to excel at what they do, no matter the environment or conditions. On his expeditions, every victory has been won through constancy and perseverance. And Kagge is not only the winner of a triple sporting feat. He is also, first and foremost, a philosopher who advocates happiness and often says “we need challenges – and difficulties – to be happy”.

Erling Kagge in the South Pole

Time Management on the Mountain

Ed Viesturs

Ed Viesturs has climbed all summits above 8,000 metres without oxygen. His watch, along with a few essential time-management rules, helped him make it to the top. 

With razor-sharp focus and determination, Ed Viesturs, a seasoned mountaineer and Rolex Testimonee, achieved the feat of climbing the world’s 14 peaks over 8,000 metres (26,000 feet) without supplemental oxygen. For Viesturs, his wristwatch is a key part of his equipment as it directly impacts his safety and success.

“When climbing, time management is the most significant factor in my success, and ultimately my survival – particularly on the day of the summit ascent,” he explains. “Each half hour counts. It’s crucial to know at what time I need to be back at my highest camp after attempting the summit. From that I calculate timings for the entire day, including when I need to begin my descent. An early start is critical for climbing during the colder, safer conditions of the day, and allows for more time to deal with delays or anything unexpected. The descent is the second part of the challenge. I have a rule of turning around by 2 o’clock in the afternoon at the latest, whether or not I have reached the summit. Having time to get down safely with enough daylight and energy is paramount. Some climbers have found themselves in life-threatening situations because they turned back too late. The cold, darkness, fatigue and lack of oxygen can become serious issues.”

On each of his climbs, Viesturs wears an Explorer II with a white dial that he received in 1994. “It has never failed me and includes all the features I need for mountaineering: it’s self-winding, robust, and the hands are easy to read against the dial, even in the dark. A durable crystal is also an advantage as it may hit rock and ice on an ascent. I have to admit it’s probably the most important piece of equipment I have with me. I am a serious clock-watcher during my climbs. My watch – and the time it tells – is the key to my safety.” 

The Perception of Time at the Poles

Rune Gjeldnes

Rune Gjeldnes is an explorer with several firsts to his name. In polar regions, his watch sets the schedule, down to the very last minute.

In the vast white polar landscape, when the sun never sleeps, the notion of time becomes relative. A watch is therefore crucial for an explorer to be able to structure their days and make regular, coordinated progress. Among other adventures, Rune Gjeldnes was the first person to cross, one after the other, the entire length of Greenland, the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica – on an expedition entitled The Longest March and sponsored by Rolex – on skis, unaided. During his polar expeditions, his Explorer II enables him to follow a crucially important routine.

“Time on expeditions is everything and nothing. During the first month, we count the days. After that, we concentrate on the goal as opposed to what day it is. That said, time and punctuality dictate how the entire day is organized: getting up on time, packing up on time, and following the most effective trekking routine, which is 50 minutes skiing and 10 minutes rest. And, at the end of the day, we need to know what time to stop, set up camp and eat – all done as quickly as possible to ensure we get enough rest. During the final 14 days of my solo expedition to the North Pole, I focused my attention on time management and calculating how long I had spent pushing forward on my journey. That was what led me to success. It’s a real relief to keep to a carefully scheduled routine.”

To keep time on his side, he says he needs an excellent, trustworthy watch. “Each minute counts in hostile environments – a precise watch is indispensable. It’s also useful if it displays the date, like the Explorer II. Even though we tend to lose the notion of a calendar on an expedition, it’s always nice to know whether it’s the 20th, say, as opposed to the 23rd.” 

Rune Gjeldnes in the North Pole

Physical and Mental Limits in Extreme Environments

Christine Janin

The human body is capable of adapting to even the worst weather conditions as long as it has been trained correctly. Explorer and doctor Christine Janin defines the physical and mental attributes required to survive in the world’s most inhospitable regions. 

“At an altitude of 8,000 metres, at –40° C,or even –50° C, we retain only around 10 per cent of our physical capabilities,” explains mountaineer, polar explorer and doctor Christine Janin, who was a Rolex Testimonee from 2001 to 2006. In addition, the constant danger gives rise to a mixture of physical and psychological stress. “High-altitude mountaineering and polar exploring therefore require a person to be in perfect shape, as well as optimistic, brave and determined.” People who manage to reach the Earth’s geographical extremes are part of a distinct group in terms of physical endurance and exceptional mental resilience.

“The key to a successful climb or expedition is to be in excellent shape when you set off. For that, you must have trained very thoroughly, and have begun preparing several years earlier in order to gain sufficient experience and adapt the body to the conditions you are going to face.”

Danger is everywhere. Extreme cold, violent winds and the lack of nearby rescue teams are risks both on mountains and in polar regions. When climbing, the lack of oxygen in the air can cause acute altitude sickness and affect a person’s state of mind. Sometimes, they become perilously fixated on reaching the summit at all costs. The only means of keeping oneself safe is to be disciplined and very focused. “Staying alive ultimately comes down to self-confidence, knowing your abilities and your limits, your physical state and being able, at any point, to give up on your adventure thanks to a crystal-clear risk analysis of the situation,” adds Janin. 

In these environments, where each move has to be calculated and time carefully monitored, explorers constantly strive to maintain a balance, both mentally and physically. This extraordinary effort is in order to achieve one aim: to excel. “Summits are conquered metre by metre, breath by breath. On the way, we discover qualities we didn’t know we had that enable us to get to the top. We then feel immense joy in realizing that we know how to face up to dangers and overcome challenges posed by the environment.” 

Christine Janin exploration

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