Roger Cox: The 60th anniversary of Hillary and Tenzing’s Everest ascent

Hillary, left, and Tenzing on Everest. Picture: PA

Hillary, left, and Tenzing on Everest. Picture: PA

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Sex sells – and so, it seems, do round-number anniversaries. This month, to mark the 60th anniversary of Hillary and Tenzing’s historic first ascent of Everest on 29 May 1953, there will be celebrations all over the world, and so much money will change hands that you’ll be able to hear the cash registers ringing from here to Nepal.

Granted, one or two of these 60th birthday events will have a purpose other than to make money: a joint expedition mounted by the Indian and Nepalese armies, for example, to clear rubbish from the world’s highest peak, stands out as a rare beacon of altruism. The expedition leaders hope to remove between eight and nine tons of detritus from the mountain, left there by climbers too knackered to carry it down themselves. There are also various Everest-related books due to be published in the coming weeks, and as everybody knows there’s no money to be made in publishing any more I suppose these projects should also be considered non-commercial. Other than that, though, it seems as if everyone and their granny is out to get a slice of the fat, juicy, Everest-at-60 pie.

As you’d expect, companies offering 60th anniversary trekking and climbing holidays in Nepal are cleaning up – the numbers of people looking either to hike to Everest Base Camp or attempt some or all of the route to the summit are reportedly through the roof. As early as last summer, one UK-based tour operator revealed that bookings on its Everest-related trips had doubled for the 60th anniversary year, and if you’re hoping to bag a last-minute trekking holiday to the Everest area this month... well... good luck.

You can’t blame these companies for making the most of the occasion, of course – they’d be silly not to. Still, there’s something a bit sad about the idea of all these extra people descending on Everest for the 2013 climbing season, potentially leaving far more junk behind them than the hardy squaddies of India and Nepal will be able to carry down on their backs.

But perhaps we should leave the trekking companies alone – helping people to achieve their dreams is, after all, a noble calling, even if it can sometimes create a bit of a mess. Instead, let’s turn our attention to the faintly ridiculous world of Everest-related product placement.

One of the great unanswered questions following the conquest of Everest was: who summited first: Hillary or Tenzing? (For decades, both men maintained a diplomatic silence until it eventually emerged it was Hillary.) As far as luxury watch manufacturers are concerned, however, a much more pressing question is: what brand of watch were the two climbers wearing the day they made history?

Sensing a marketing opportunity of epic proportions, two different watchmakers, Rolex and Smiths, had been careful to equip key members of the 1953 expedition with their latest models. In the aftermath of their success, both companies released advertisements that seemed to suggest their timepieces had been favoured. Smiths ran an ad with a quote from Hillary: “I carried your watch to the summit. It worked perfectly.” Rolex, meanwhile, had a slightly less specific ad with the wording “In the same year when the roof of the world was conquered by a Rolex equipped Everest expedition, the Rolex Company produced a special ‘Oyster’ model...”

When I asked a Rolex spokesman who was right, he told me: “You ask a question whose answer has been buried with Hillary and Tenzing, I am afraid. Rolex was the sponsor of the expedition, but also English Smiths watches from London were used. Even Hillary and Tenzing’s sons Peter and Jamling don’t know the answer.”

Of course, the lack of certainty over whether Hillary and Tenzing were wearing Rolex watches when they summited Everest hasn’t stopped Rolex from releasing a new limited-edition timepiece, dubbed the Hillary Tenzing Explorer. Sets of three customised watches in a presentation box designed to look like a packing crate from the 1953 expedition have just been released, priced at a cool R28,800 (£24,570) excluding VAT. And yes, sorry – all 88 sets have already sold out.

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