Watchmaker Michael Kobold creates Expedition Nepal to help support a country in need.
By Adam Craniotes
With a flair for marketing and an irrepressible charm that wins over fans and critics alike, Michael Kobold is a colorful figure in the watch industry, to say the least. But after the tragic earthquake that rocked Kathmandu, Nepal, in 2015, a new side of Mr. Kobold has emerged—that of the philanthropist crusader.
Kobold’s love affair with Nepal began in 2008, when he first visited the country with a longtime Kobold ambassador, the legendary explorer Ranulph Fiennes. He would subsequently return in 2009 as part of a charity drive for Navy SEALs, and it was on this expedition that he would meet his future wife, Anita. Just as important, it was then that he became intimately acquainted with the lives of the sherpas—the legendary native mountaineers—and the dangers inherent in their profession. After subsequent trips to the region, Kobold resolved to open an atelier in Nepal with the express mission of training sherpas in watchmaking. The vocation provides a career alternative to playing nanny to novice climbers, as well as a retirement plan of sorts for those whose summiting days had passed.
Kobold Watch Company Nepal Pvt. Ltd. opened its doors in 2012 with Sherpas Namgyal and Thundu at the helm.* These two accompanied Kobold and his wife on a successful summit attempt in 2010 when disaster struck: Kobold’s oxygen supply failed, and Anita nearly succumbed to acute altitude sickness. Together, Namgyal and Thundu saved their lives, and in return, Kobold created a new life for them. Indeed, at the ripe old age of 27 Namgyal was already a veteran of numerous climbs—his near-death experience with Mr. Kobold wasn’t his first—yet, here he was after a rigorous training regimen in Pittsburgh at Kobold’s HQ, working as a watchmaker in the city center of Kathmandu.
Running parallel to the founding of the Kathmandu atelier was another initiative, one meant to benefit all of Kathmandu Valley. Kobold, along with Fiennes, took note of Kathmandu’s aging emergency services and its very real vulnerability to earthquakes, and together decided to do something about the dangerous combination. Thus, the Fire Truck Expedition was born. Originally set to start delivering donated fire trucks to Kathmandu in 2015, a long-anticipated disaster delayed the trip by two years. On April 25, the first of two earthquakes struck, leveling the city and surrounding countryside and resulting in the loss of more than 10,000 lives.
Due to the earthquakes, Kobold’s carefully laid plans for bringing over the additional fire trucks were put on indefinite hold as his newly founded Soarway Foundation focused its efforts on the immediate needs of the devastated country. Even so, his Kobold’s commitment to making good on his original promise never wavered, and a new timetable was settled upon.
Fast-forward to 2017 and the Fire Truck Expedition is all set to launch in November with a who’s who of stars behind the wheel. In addition to Fiennes and Kobold, English actor Malcolm McDowell; acclaimed guitarist Nuno Bettencourt (from heavy metal band Lamb of God); American actors Michael Imperioli, Johnny Depp, and Scott Glenn; and a host of other luminaries will be lending their support in various capacities. The fire trucks will be delivered to Calcutta via container ship and then be driven across the India-Nepal border to Kathmandu. Some of the world’s most dangerous roads will be part of the route, earning the expedition the unofficial title of the most extreme road trip on earth.
The delivery of 10 firetrucks won’t solve all of Kathmandu’s problems, but it’s a start. Kobold hopes that the expedition and the publicity that it garners will put the spotlight back on this historic city and needs of its people as they continue to rebuild. The Soarway Foundation is also sponsoring numerous other initiatives, such as the funding of a new, earthquake-resistant fire station and the delivery of modern ambulances, but for now, the Fire Truck Expedition will be its most ambitious project, and, perhaps, the most personal to Kobold.
The Fire Truck Expedition begins on Nov. 6 and concludes six days later, on Nov. 12. For more information and ways to get involved, please visit expedition.koboldwatch.com or soarway.org.
After the destruction of the Kathmandu atelier, Sherpa Thundu returned to mountaineering as a means of supporting his family. Tragically, he was killed in a landslide triggered by the second Nepal earthquake of 2015.