The Kathmandu Backstory: Michael Kobold And Sir Ranulph Fiennes On Conquering Everest, Being Loyal, And Literally Exercising Gratitude
Few people would willingly give up a Rolex ambassadorship for . . . well, for pretty much anything. In fact, I’d be quite certain that when adventurer/explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes did so, it was probably the first time it had ever happened.
For Rolex to offer someone payment and free watches in exchange for wearing what most other people pay thousands for the privilege, it indicates that that individual is not only the very best in his or her field, it also means that the person in question carries him- or herself with grace, elegance, and intelligence.
When you meet Fiennes in person, you realize that he perfectly embodies all that Rolex loves about its ambassadors and then some. Which brings us back to the original question: why did Fiennes willingly give up this coveted sponsorship?
Once you’ve stepped foot in Michael Kobold’s universe, the answer becomes strikingly clear: gratitude and loyalty. (And a pinch of a weird kind of I-have-no-idea-what’s-going-to-happen-today spontaneity, I might add.)
Kobold had spent a lot of time and energy invaluably assisting Fiennes on a previous adventure that resulted in the book The Secret Hunters. Because of this, when the time came, Fiennes – more an unofficial family member to Kobold than anything else – took the decision to aid Kobold in any way he could. Ambassadorship for a fledgling brand (as of 1998) is, of course, an excellent way.
Kobold, following in Fiennes’ grateful footsteps, opened a subsidiary of Kobold Watch in Kathmandu in 2012 for many of the same reasons.
Conquering Mt. Everest
Fiennes and Kobold first went to Kathmandu together in 2008, the latter having spontaneously decided to accompany his ambassador on an Everest summit bid. Kobold was unprepared to climb and he had not even reckoned with reaching what’s known as base camp – the last acclimation settlement before serious climbers head up the 8,848-meter peak of Earth’s highest mountain. He made it up much higher before both he and Fiennes had to turn back due to injuries.
Returning in 2009, the duo made it to the summit. Kobold repeated the feat again in 2010 together with his wife Anita Ugyan, who climbed without oxygen.
During the three adventurous climbs, the lives of Kobold and other members of his crew – including his wife – were seriously endangered. Only by the grace of their Sherpas did many members of Kobold’s various climbing parties survive.
Taking concrete action resulting from his feelings of gratitude, Kobold decided to make a 2008 suggestion voiced by Fiennes a reality: he brought Namgel and Thundu Sherpa to his Pittsburgh workshop to train them as watchmakers. The ultimate goal in this was to have them run a new subsidiary in Kathmandu called Kobold Watch Company Nepal (Pvt.) Ltd as co-owners.
In this way, the two Sherpas would be able to escape their dangerous jobs and provide for their families.
Made in Nepal
As of March 26, 2012 there is a standard Kobold watch model bearing the predicate “made in Nepal.” Up until April 25, 2015, it was assembled in the Sherpas’ new workshop, which was located in an attractive square in busy Kathmandu called Baber Mahal Revisited. Housed in old Rana palace outbuildings from 1919, it was one of several picturesque shops touting local wares, including Nepal’s first watch company. Until the earthquake struck, that is.
The quaint workshop was equipped with solid, custom-made benches crafted from local wood. The Sherpas needed these to assemble and service an automatic model called the Himalaya, which is housed in a 44 mm stainless steel case made in the U.S.A. The three-handed dial comes in brown or black and exudes the legibility that is the signature element of Kobold.
To celebrate the opening of the shop, the two Sherpas’ bright futures, and the feelings of gratitude that are in continuous flowing motion to and from Kobold, a limited edition of 25 watches was created for the most adventurous visitors to Nepal. Already sold out before the evening of the opening had even come to a conclusion, the Himalaya Everest Edition featured a very special dial crafted from a Mt. Everest limestone that Kobold plucked from the summit and brought back down the mountain in 2009.
A German specialist company located in Idar-Oberstein spent two years ensuring the structural integrity of the beautiful dials crafted from this rock that forms the mysterious 5 mm-thick dial of the Himalaya Everest Edition.
The Himalaya Everest Edition retailed for $16,500, while the regular Himalaya sells for $3,500. At a local price of more than 310,000 rupees (roughly equal to about three years’ worth of average salary in Kathmandu), the latter was obviously primarily aimed at Everest tourists. “But what a great souvenir for someone who has just completed a successful climb of Mt. Everest,” Kobold exclaimed at the time in his typically upbeat way.
In the adventurous world of Kobold, the human factor counts as much as the mechanical or business factor.
During the Kathmandu opening, Fiennes explained to me that Rolex never made bespoke elements for his exploratory needs. “Mike [Kobold] listens to me in terms of watch designs and functions. Rolex would never have done that,” he said.
Perhaps it is Fiennes’ contributions to the elements making up a Kobold watch that make them so popular with explorers and adventurers. Indeed, the fact that do not they require electricity but do have luminous hands and dial elements already makes them perfect for use in Nepal, which is a place where power goes out at will and time seems to be of little concern. Either way, Fiennes is certain of one thing: “I’m very happy with my Kobold.”
If you would like to help the people of Nepal in some way, please visit www.soarway-foundation.org.
And please see Michael Kobold Helps Devastated Kathmandu With Fire Truck Expedition. You Can Help Too for more concrete information on Kobold and Fiennes’ latest, greatest expedition. And one that is more timely than ever.