It’s never a good idea to dawdle in a thick Himalayan forest, especially when there are black bears around and the only other person on the mountain is striding along far ahead of you. But dawdling was the exact thing that I was doing. This wasn’t because of tiredness, or altitude, or the steep trail. I was busy taking photos of my watch in the wilderness. Yes, you read that right. I was trying out the compositional possibilities of my Seiko SPB155, the Alpinist, with a #flatlay (it’s a thing on watch Instagram okay?) on a granite boulder. The all-steel bracelet and case seemed to disappear against the white-gray boulder, while its green dial popped. Ok, enough, I told myself, it’s time to move on up the mountain.
Now, before you think of me as a strange, vain person, I should tell you that my decision to take the Alpinist to the Himalaya didn’t really have much to do with photo-shoots. I just wanted to try out a watch, purpose-built to be a timekeeping device in tough conditions, in its natural habitat. Nor was I taking any chances. My backup was the legendary G-Shock DW5600, a watch so rugged that there’s a sub-genre of YouTube videos that go to extreme lengths to stress-test them.
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Seiko’s many iterations of the Alpinist have had a long and distinguished horological history. First released in 1959 under the watchmaker’s Laurel line, these were watches that were meant for Japanese mountaineers, or Yamaotoko, as they were called. These were Seiko’s first tool watches, although they were mostly dress watches with more lume on large indices for better legibility in darkness. With merely 30m of water resistance, these certainly couldn’t compete, specs-wise, with the contemporaneous Rolex Explorer, for example, which boasted 100m of water resistance. But the ’59 Alpinist was something to build on, resulting in the 1961 Champion Alpinist and also the 50m water resistant Silverwave line. When the All Japan Mountaineering Federation requested Seiko for a purpose-built mountaineering watch for the 1964 Gyachung Kang expedition in the Nepal Himalaya, and the company duly obliged with a special Silverwave, which was then sported by every expedition member. The point is, Seiko has been making professional watches for mountain use for a while.
My watch is a pared down version of the modern Alpinists: the beloved SARB series that was launched in 2006. Those were rugged tool watches with a sapphire crystal, 200m of water resistance and a rotating inner compass bezel. Discontinued in 2018, the Alpinist was re-launched in 2019 as a part of Seiko’s Prospex line of professional tool watches. In 2020 came the pared down no-compass Alpinists (some call them the Baby Alpinists), with a compact 38mm case and gorgeous textured dials. I was drawn to the green dial SPB155, with its golden cathedral handset and printed faux-vintage hour indices. I was tickled by the idea of a watch meant for mountaineering, but didn’t need the fussy compass bezel. After all, as long as the sun is shining in the sky, one can use any watch with an hour and minute hand to tell the cardinal directions.
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So how did the Alpinist perform? I went trekking in the Dhauladhar range in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, and had the watch on my wrist pretty much the entire time. Now, whenever I’m hiking, I like to maintain a daily journal. It’s nothing detailed, more like an aid to memory, where I note down the time when I begin a day’s walk, when I end one, and time of the day when I encounter any specific memorable thing that I’d like to remember. Now, as luck would have it, I’d forgotten to bring a notepad with me, something I discovered only when I was already on the hike. So I used the Alpinist as a guide. I’d take a quick snap of the watch at different times of the day, against a specific landmark, which served the same function as a hastily scribbled note in a journal would. When I returned from the trek, I’d tally these snaps to write out more detailed journal entries.
And yes, I did on occasion use the watch to tell the direction. It’s quite easy actually (see image below). Point your watch’s hour hand towards the sun. If you’re in the northern hemisphere, then the half-way point between your hour hand and the 12’o’clock index is South. You can then use this to plot the direction in which you’re headed. The Alpinist, with its well-defined dial markers and rail-road outer seconds track, was very useful in even giving me the sub-cardinal directions. The blue lume on the hour and minute hands and the lume plots on the hour indices were equally useful at night. The 200m of water resistance meant that I could walk through torrential downpour and didn’t have to worry.
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But this doesn’t mean that I didn’t use the G-Shock DW5600 at all. One particular day, I decided to go scrambling up a steep cliff near my campsite. Now scrambling isn’t exactly rock climbing, but depending on the gradient of certain sections, you certainly have to do a bit of the latter. For this, I opted for the G-Shock. This was for a couple of reasons. First, a watch with a metal bracelet isn’t probably a good idea when your hands are scraping up against rock faces. The DW5600’s resin strap would be, and was, a much more durable option. Second, I wanted to time my climb, for which the G-Shock’s stopwatch function was particularly useful.
The Alpinist’s case is elegant and finely-made, with its polished bezel and sides and the brushed lugs. As a result, even with the advanced shock-resistant movement, the screw-down crown supporting the 200m water resistance and the tough sapphire crystal enclosing the dial, many might hesitate to take it into the wilds, for fear of scratching up the case. This is the reason why you’ll hardly find a Rolex Explorer owner actually, well, ‘exploring’ with the watch on their wrist. But both the Explorer and the Alpinist are field watches, they provide excellent legibility in all conditions, as well as exact time-keeping (the Alpinist was only off by about 4-5 seconds everyday of the trek). It would be a shame, then, to deny yourself the pleasure of actually using them for their stated purpose. My Alpinist is back home, on my wrist as I type, its gleaming sides sporting a few scratches from the trip. Its re-sale value has probably diminished a bit as a result, but the memories are priceless.
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Handwound is a fortnightly column on watches and watchmaking.