The summit of Deer Mountain in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado, tops out at 10,013 feet, reached after a moderately challenging hike up a boulder-strewn switchback trail. The vistas are the reward for your efforts, with the view west to the “Diamond” face of Longs Peak and the Mummy Range to the north. I took a well-deserved break here to eat the nuts and fruit I hauled in my pack, watching the midday storm clouds boil over the top of the far peaks and tumble down the valley, a reminder not to linger here for fear of lightning. Before turning to start my descent, I checked both of my wrists. On one, a Suunto Vector, a multifunction “ABC” watch (Altimeter/Barometer/Compass), a venerable companion of mountaineers since the 1990s. On my other wrist was the world’s first self-winding mechanical watch with an altimeter – the replica Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter watches.
Oris includes the Altimeter in its “ProPilot” collection and its aesthetics are pure aviator’s watch, from the tactical fabric strap and radially-knurled bezel to its seatbelt buckle-style folding clasp. But the reality is, if a pilot is relying on the tiny scale on his wristwatch to determine his altitude, he’s likely in a fair bit of trouble. Besides, the altimeter in the watch only goes up to 15,000 feet, whereas most commercial and military jets routinely fly twice that high (and commercial cabins and cockpits are pressurized to about 6,000 feet). So while this may be a pilot’s watch primarily in style only, where it does shine is as a useful and fun tool for hiking in the mountains. I recently took one along to test on a four-day trip to the Rocky Mountains.
The Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter is a big watch – 47 mm across and 17 mm thick – but this is by necessity. Inside the steel case are stacked an automatic movement (the Sellita-based replica Oris watches caliber 733) and a mechanical altimeter module. For the altimeter, Oris turned to Swiss instrumentation company Thommen, which also makes them for aircraft. It is an aneroid capsule altimeter, which consists of a sealed alloy disc that is highly sensitive to changes in air pressure. As the capsule expands or compresses from the minute differences that come with altitude change, it moves a lever that drives a needle on the calibrated scale at the outer edge of the watch dial. Fitting all of this beneath the movement and dial of a wristwatch was a remarkable feat, made possible in part by a very thin altimeter needle made from laminated carbon fiber that swivels in a bowl beneath the suspended watch movement.
As with any altimeter, electronic or mechanical, the Oris needs to be calibrated regularly since air pressure changes with weather as well as altitude, which can produce false readings. To do this, the crown at 4:00 is unscrewed and pulled out and then the altimeter needle set against a known altitude or barometric pressure. In the mountains, I always set it (and the Suunto) at the trailhead of each hike, where elevation was listed on a sign or map. For the altimeter to work, the lower crown must remain unscrewed to allow air to penetrate the watch case. A red band around the stem indicates that it is unscrewed and thus vulnerable to water intrusion. Oris has fitted the lower orifice of the watch with a Gore-Tex type membrane that keeps water vapor and humidity out of the case while the crown is unscrewed. But should a hike involve fording a stream or a steady downpour, it is advised to screw in the crown, which then gives the watch a healthy 100 meters of water resistance.
Despite its heft, this Oris was comfortable on the wrist as long as it’s worn snug enough to keep the top-heavy case from moving around too much. The strap can be adjusted in the clasp to any position easily, even on the go, allowing for quick tweaks as your wrist swells or shrinks, but I did find that the leather lining can get clammy on a hot multi-hour hike. A NATO strap might be a better choice, but I’m not sure it could support the weight of the watch as well.
Aesthetically, this Oris is a looker, and not only because of its massive size. The replica Oris watches aviation-inspired dial, with its white on black markers and hands, is legible at a glance. The altimeter scale lends the sort of masculine geek chic that has made “busy” watches like the Breitling Navitimer so popular all these years. And really, who doesn’t like wearing a watch that has etched in red on one of its crowns, “ALT SET”? This feels less like a mere watch with illusions of fitting under a shirt sleeve, and more like an instrument. It felt right at home on the trail with a Gore-tex jacket and muddy hiking boots.
Over four days of hiking, many miles, and thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss, the Oris was remarkably accurate. I compared it to the Suunto on numerous occasions and against known altitude references such as trail markers or topographical maps. At some locations, it actually proved more accurate than the Suunto, whose altitude would “drift” by up to 40 or 50 feet within the span of one round-trip hike. That said, the Oris was slower to respond to changes in altitude, especially on descents, where elevation is lost more quickly than it is gained on a climb. Also, it is perhaps not a fair comparison to the Suunto, whose sensitivity is in 10 foot increments, whereas the scale on the Oris Altimeter is in 100-foot increments. So at the top of Deer Mountain for example, the yellow needle on the Oris read “10,000” whereas the Suunto said, “10,020.”
Of course, the Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter is not meant to be used as an aviation instrument nor as a precise measurement tool for mapping new mountain ranges. But it is accurate enough to be a useful tool, in combination with a topo map, for hiking in the mountains. With a 15,000-foot limit, the high peaks of the Andes or Himalayas are beyond its reach, but it is perfect for the Rockies or the Alps, unless you plan to tackle Mont Blanc, in which case I suggest the Suunto.
There aren’t a lot of choices in the narrow field of mechanical altimeter watches. A few years ago, Breva released its hand-wound titanium Génie 02 Air, the first altimeter-equipped mechanical watch. But with a limited run of 55 timepieces and a cost of well over $100,000, it is out of reach of most weekend peak-baggers. So the Cheap Fake Oris Big Crown ProPilot Altimeter is an intriguing alternative. The watch is further proof that Oris has, in recent years, found the formula for providing innovative, high quality and, at $3,800, accessible watches that are extremely satisfying to wear. And though there may be cheaper ways to get high in Colorado these days, the Oris is one you can take home with you.