Updated: Aug 13, 2019
“Namaste Michael, I have been following you and your brand since my childhood days,” Kamal BK wrote via Facebook messenger. “I urge you to bring the fire engines…to complete the fire truck expedition. I feel really bad to hear (bad) things from people…when I hear negative remarks from the locals and officials.” I reminded Kamal that my team and I had been trying for over 4 years to complete the fire truck expedition and that I just published Part One of The Nepal Controversies to explain why we hadn't yet succeeded. “Stop using your heart. Use your brain,” I wrote in response to Kamal’s messages. “Heart is feeling bad. But you’re not using brain. Brain doesn’t feel, brain thinks. I also feel bad. But feeling bad doesn’t change anything.” Kamal’s response surprised me. “Yeah, that’s true…people don’t even try to think here.”
Kamal's unvarnished honesty and self-deprecating assessment of his fellow Nepalese are examples of why millions of visitors have fallen in love with Nepal and its warm-hearted people. In the West, people are taught to be highly analytical and learn to refrain from allowing emotions to cloud their judgement. Nepal, however, is a country where society places a far greater value on emotions, ancient traditions, superstition and mutual respect. As a result, visitors consider the locals the most kind-hearted, gentle people anywhere in the world. Even seasoned travelers make a distinction between other countries famous for its welcoming people - such as Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam - and the "Shangri-La of the Himalayas," Nepal. This, perhaps, explains why visitors from northern European countries, where people are known to be particularly uninhibited by emotions, feel so strongly drawn to Nepal.
The underlying reason for the unique qualities of the Nepalese may be that Nepal is the only country on earth where two major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism, converged over a thousand years ago, and have been practiced peacefully side-by-side ever since. One of the most insightful conversations I had about Nepali culture was with Suresh Vaidya, a highly successful entrepreneur and owner of a vast tea plantation. Suresh summarized the difference between Nepal and other cultures rather succinctly. “In Nepal, we live in the moment. Our religions teach us that the past is the past, nothing else. We are taught not to dwell on the past. The future may never come, so we’re taught ‘don’t worry about the future’. We are taught to only live in the present.”
Another element unique to Nepal is its people's reliance on countless rituals, and the almost daily religious festivals. Most curious, however, is Nepalese society’s strong reliance on religious gurus to identify auspicious dates on the Nepali calendar. The advice of gurus is highly-respected and their wisdom is sought for everything from major life events to observing rituals and scheduling travel dates, wedding ceremonies, the launch date of a Nepali-language film, opening ceremonies of newly-erected corporate headquarters, hotels, airports, banks, government offices and schools.
Outsourcing the scheduling of life’s important events and the finding of solutions for major problems to a guru and thereby placing the decisions in the hands of a higher authority has the benefit that one doesn’t have to think about dates, problems, solutions and their implications. For example, before extensive renovations could be carried out on Kathmandu airport’s single runway, gurus were consulted for an auspicious date and later the same gurus descended on the runway to perform an elaborate puja ceremony. All the while commercial airliners circled around the Kathmandu Valley, waiting for landing clearance. The western mind boggles at the thought of a highly sophisticated, modern Boeing 777 filled with over 300 passengers, having to yield to an ancient puja ceremony held at the end of the country’s only runway long enough to accommodate international airliners.
Sitting on the terrace of the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kathmandu, Captain Levent, the chief pilot of the world’s largest airline, Turkish Airlines, was stunned when he discovered that Nepal Airlines had a special line item in its annual budget for puja ceremonies. The seasoned aviator was equally surprised to discover that Nepal Airlines had called gurus to perform a puja ceremony when one of its two Boeing 757 jets was grounded due to electrical problems. After several attempts by engineers to repair the plane proved unsuccessful, Nepal Airlines' management sought out the help of a higher power. A team of gurus arrived at the airport and performed a puja to appease the sky god, Garuda. After sacrificing a goat next to the front landing gear, the gurus applied the animal’s blood on the plane’s wheels. “So what happened next,” Capt. Levent asked in complete disbelief. “They flew the plane, electrical issues and all,” I responded.
Even foreigners with decades of experience in Nepal find it difficult to reconcile the western belief system with the countless thousand-years-old ways and rituals of Nepal. Russell Brice, the legendary mountaineer and owner of expedition organizer HimEx, has been a regular visitor to Nepal for over 40 years. “If you live only for today, then you have a completely different approach to addressing problems and making plans. If you make a big mistake today, hey, it’s okay because when you wake up tomorrow, guess what? There’s another huge festival. So you can take the day off and celebrate. By the end of the festival, you have forgotten the fact that you made a big mistake yesterday. And if your neighbor screws you over today, then by the end of tomorrow you will have forgotten and forgiven him. That’s how this place works. And that’s why nothing works,” Russ said.
The fact that there is a festival almost every single day means if, hypothetically speaking, all of the festivals were observed, then nothing productive could be accomplished in Nepal. Hence, only the biggest religious festivals are strictly observed on a regular basis, while festivals of lesser importance are observed according to the gurus responsible for consulting the universe, the 33 million gods and the Nepali calendar. This circumstance could dash even the most sporadic and flexible westerner’s plans. One day, Russell, who like me stayed at the Hyatt in Kathmandu, and I each had separate appointments in different ministries. These meetings were only arranged on the previous day. We discussed our respective plans over dinner at the Hyatt's Rox restaurant. Yet when we woke up the following morning, we discovered that a certain festival was being observed and that all government offices were closed. When we later asked various officials why we were given appointments the previous day when there was a festival on the next day, we were each told something along the lines of we only found out this morning that the festival was being observed. This is Nepal!
What may appear like the complete absence of logic and reason in Nepal is actually what attracted me so much to this country. I soon discovered that there indeed is a form of logic, just that this logic is incompatible with the western logic. "If you limit yourself to trying to achieve only one task a day, then on some days you will succeed," Addison Gillespie, an American with over 50 years' experience in Nepal, told me. "Getting one thing done is a big deal here. But if you aim at getting two things done, you'll have a really hard time." If anything, this discovery would make me fall in love with Nepal even more. Nepal's mysterious ways stood in sharp contrast to my genetic predisposition to efficiency and logic. Yet my inability to rid myself entirely of my Teutonic ways would have far-reaching, negative implications for the fire truck expedition.
Nepal is not the only place where emotions trump logic. In this regard, watch collectors the world over have something in common with the Nepalese. On the surface, collectors of mechanical watches, a tiny sliver of the world’s population and some of its wealthiest citizens, have very little in common with the Nepalese, who hail from one of the poorest countries on earth. A good watch strap costs more than the average monthly salary of someone living in Kathmandu, the city with the highest-paid workers in Nepal. Yet there are a lot of commonalities between watch collectors and the Nepalese in terms of emotions. As a lifelong watch collector, I knew all too well that otherwise level-headed, rational alpha males could become giddy about their watches. Or, as I would discover, irate. Unwittingly, I soon found myself bridging the two diametrically opposed worlds of the Nepalese and Western watch collectors.
On Saturday, 27 January 2018 I woke up at 5:00 A.M. to go for a walk around the Boudhanath stupa. The Hyatt Regency’s close proximity to the stupa, a stunning UNESCO World Heritage Site, made this early morning routine one of the best parts of the day. On Saturdays the other routinely enriching experience was the farmer’s market near the President’s House. After the weekend market, I usually hosted a few dozen friends at the Hyatt for pool-side cook-outs, where I made burgers “Pittsburgh style”. Life in Kathmandu was always filled with entertainment and excitement, but Saturdays were even more special. On this particular Saturday, however, the most entertaining and exciting news came out of America via an obscure watch forum.
The little-known watch forum that almost two decades ago had been a popular online hangout for watch collectors, had seen a steady decline in users and activity over the previous 15 years. As watch collectors departed for more sophisticated online hangouts, such as Hodinkee, this particular forum increasingly became a hub of negativity. The forum’s old guard of habitual users predominantly consists of white men in their 60s who have a very unique, one-sided and myopic understanding of the watch world. Past users of the site have complained of the incessant negative comments about any watches or brands that don’t fall within a small, pre-defined range that meets the approval of the watch forum’s old guard. At one time, this site was owned by Ashford, an online trading company. When it faltered, Ashford put the forum up for sale. I was one of the people to whom this forum was offered, but I was too young and focused on building the Kobold brand to think about owning a declining online meeting point for aging watch collectors.
That Saturday, I woke up to a Whatsapp message from a friend in America. “Mike, check out this nonsense,” this friend wrote. The accompanying link led to a post on the watch forum. Surprised that anyone was still paying attention to the forum, I discovered a post titled “The Truth Behind Michael Kobold and the Kobold Watch Company”. Still in bed, I began reading what turned out to be a lengthy story written by one of the forum's administrators. As no one from the watch forum or any other media organiztion had previously contacted me for an interview, I sensed that this would be a one-sided post and assumed that its tone would be negative. Therefore, the title itself excited me, because by editorializing the post in such a way, any distortions or misrepresentations contained within would automatically call into question the post as a whole.
In the post, the administrator laid out a fantastical story about me and my namesake company. Every claim she made was either completely false or distorted in such a manner that the truth was no longer discernible to the uninformed reader -or anyone else without the requisite knowledge of the underlying facts. After reading the post, I was brimming with excitement. In the shower, I thought about the most salacious allegations the administrator level against me and began to wonder quite how this lady could get so many things so wrong…why wouldn’t she call me before making such a fool out of herself. What the administrator didn’t know was that she had fallen for the lies of a group of former Kobold employees who would either be implicated in major acts of sabotage and theft from the company, or who, at a minimum, had displayed a complete disregard for my instructions. The best part of the watch forum post was that for every allegation, I was in possession of hard evidence that would undermine the post, its author and the forum’s credibility in general. By the time I was circling the stupa 15 minutes later, I had formulated a plan on how to deal with the fallout from the post.
My first action was to place a telephone call to the Gandolfini family in New Jersey. “Time Zone... who or what is this,” Leta Gandolfini asked, astonished at the allegations made in the post. “Can you and the family get behind this and put out a statement that I’m in good standing,” I asked Leta. “Of course, but I don’t think it’s necessary. I mean, who has heard of this site? I feel like they’re in the twilight zone, reading this stuff.” The next few calls I made were to members of the U.S. Navy SEALs, as well as to retired SEALs. “Did you bang this chick,” one former Team Six member joked. He did a quick search and called me back “OK, I’m sorry. You’re not guilty as charged, I looked her up,” he said, before giving an unrepeatable assessment of the woman. “How the hell did you piss this nut job off?” SEALs have a very dark sense of humor, which I’d come to appreciate over time. What surprised me, however was the speed with which my friend was able to research the administrator, about whom very little public information exists.
Uncertain what motivated the administrator to attack me, I told my SEAL friend “I think they’re just running out of users and so they chose me as a target to finally get some attention again.” It didn’t take long to verify that I was correct in my assumption. “They are literally dying,” a prominent female watch critic who writes for the New York Times told me. “Don’t respond, you’ll only draw attention to them, that’s what they want. By the way, your SEAL buddy is right about her, I met her and can’t stand this woman,” the woman said. “I just can’t understand why William, her boss, would allow her to write this,” she said. “These bloggers, they’re such a nightmare. They can get away with just about anything and people will believe them. Real journalism is dying,” my friend said before we rang off. Another dear friend who’s a well-respected journalist, Josh Dean -a former editor of the New York Times Play sports magazine- said “our industry in such upheaval. Nobody reads serious publications anymore. Print is dead and it’s only getting worse. Bloggers have taken over and publishers have no clue how to deal with this change. Nobody pays a descent rate anymore for well-written articles and even books are in decline.”
By the time I reached the farmer’s market I was on the phone to a close friend who is a chief federal judge. “Mike, I know how well you treated the Sherpas, how highly you spoke of them. You did everything for them. And I know Jim’s mother-in-law, I know how close you are to the Gandolfinis. This post is such nonsense. Clearly there is someone in the Gandolfini orbit who’s jealous of you.” In her post, the administrator quoted someone within the Gandolfini camp. Leta, James Gandolfini’s elder sister, confirmed to me that nobody from the family had been contacted, hence we suspected that a former assistant or someone else unrelated to the family might have been quoted.
Following James Gandofini’s passing, I continued to be close with Jim’s family. For 10 years we had spent almost every Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter holidays and most birthdays together, and the first Thanksgiving without Jim was particularly difficult. I had made it my mission to spend as much time as possible with Jim’s son, Michael, to help guide him through adolescence and be a positive male role model. I knew no one could would ever come close to filling the void Jim’s death left behind, but if I could play a small part in ensuring that Michael was successful in his future, I was happy to do so. Years earlier, I had made a solemn promise to Jim. “If something ever happens to you, I will protect Michael. You have my word.” After Jim’s passing, I flew to Los Angeles to be with Michael every four to five weeks. Even after I moved to Nepal to organize the fire truck expedition, I returned to Los Angeles to celebrate Christmas with Michael, his mother Marcy, and my own family.
A particularly ironic allegation in the post was that I had “jumped in front of the microphones” while handling the fallout of Jim’s death in Rome. Nothing could be further from the truth. A huge number of journalists had descended on the hotel where Jim’s sister, Leta, and Michael were staying. HBO’s PR team in New York City felt it was important to hold a press conference and asked if Leta would be prepared to read a statement. Leta asked me to handle the press conference and all attempts to convince her otherwise failed. I thus reluctantly agreed to be the Gandolfini family’s official spokesperson. I’ve handled media-related work all of my life and at one time was selected to be a host for a Disney television show, an offer I declined. Years later, the producers of The Bachelor inquired if I would like to star in the next season. I declined this offer, too, but thought it ironic that I’d be asked to go on the show, since Jim Gandolfini always teased me for my inherent inability to dance. “It’s genetic, Kobold,” Jim once told me.
“You Germans can do a lot of things, but dancing clearly is not one of them.” It was therefore with a certain degree of pride that I boasted to Jim about The Bachelor offer. Jim responded in typical fashion: “If you do that, I’ll never talk with you again. You’ll look like a complete douche bag.” All of this couldn’t have been further from my mind when a distraught-looking Leta Gandolfini said to me “you have to do it Mike, please. I can’t, I am in no state to speak to anyone, much less the press.” I love Leta, and in unrelated previous experiences, in which Leta had offered me unconditional support, I learned that she was someone I could trust. Therefore, when Leta steadfastly insisted that I act as her family’s spokesperson, I felt obligated to comply with her request despite my serious reservations.
Over the years, I have befriended quite a number of journalists, but two are particularly close friends who know all the skeletons in my closet. While some people have a fear of speaking with members of the media, I always felt at ease, even in situations where I had to field hostile questions. In Rome, I counted on meeting perhaps a half dozen or so journalists and informally explaining the situation to them. Angela Tarantino, HBO’s publicity expert, and her team had sent over a written statement that I was to read to the journalists attending the press conference. “Don’t take any questions, Mike, just read the statement and leave,” Angela instructed me. The Rome hotel’s public relations team, the hotel director and his assistant, as well as three of the hotel’s security officer –clad in sharply-tailored black Italian suits- led me to a conference room downstairs. I felt this level of man-power was overkill for a simple press conference, but when the tall double-doors to the conference room opened, I was instantly overcome by a profound sense of panic.
Instead of a small conference room with a table and some journalists sitting around it, this conference room was enormous in size and featured no table. Instead, dozens of journalists sat on chairs, with a solid wall of cameras mounted on tripods erected behind them, and photographers standing or kneeling on either side of the room. Bright lights were positioned in the direction of a podium, which was cluttered with microphones and small, personal audio recorders. The air conditioning had been turned to such a low temperature that before the double doors opened I noticed how cold it felt, but now I was sweating profusely and began to have clammy hands. The hotel chain’s public relations director read the HBO-drafted statement in Italian, which delayed my own delivery of the statement in English.
What must have been a 90-second statement felt like a small eternity as I sensed my pulse shooting up and my mouth becoming dry. When it was my turn to read the statement, I stammered out the words on the small piece of paper and began to turn around, ready to hastily retreat from the conference room. “Wait,” an English journalist said loudly, “you have to speak into the microphone. Please go to the podium and do it again.” A meter and a half from where I stood was the podium with the cluster of microphones. I nervously looked at the hotel’s PR manager with great trepidation to see if she would allow me to depart anyway, but instead the young woman gave me a stern look and motioned towards the podium. After twice climbing to the summit of Mount Everest, I was familiar with taking difficult steps, but those were the most difficult 90 centimeters of my life.
A few days after returning from Rome, Josh Dean, the former New York Times Play magazine editor and I sat over coffee in the drawing room of the Greenwich Hotel in the New York City neighborhood of Tribeca. Josh had come to visit me in the capacity of a longtime personal friend, not as a journalist. Following our return to New York, the news media repeatedly asked for interviews, including many of the primetime shows on the network and cable news channels. I declined all interviews, but I did want to meet up with Josh, who is a close friend and whom trusted not to publish any details of what happened in Rome. Josh informed me that our mutual friend, his editor at Inc. magazine, wanted to do a story, but this offer, too, I declined. Josh had watched the press conference in Rome live on television and expressed surprise at how uncharacteristically nervous I appeared. “I froze,” I said. “My legs felt like they were cast in cement. I couldn’t think clearly and my heart was pounding so hard that I wasn’t able to speak calmly." My previous experiences with the media were unlike anything I lived through in Rome.
Sipping an iced latte at the weekend market in Kathmandu, I was reminded of all of this as I read out loud to a friend the online watch portal’s allegations against me with respect to my actions in Rome. “There is no way I jumped in front of the microphones,” I said. “It was completely the opposite.” My friend googled the press conference and found several pictures that clearly depict me reading the HBO statement while standing at a considerable distance from the podium. “If this lady had done her research, she would have seen this,” I said. Indeed, and unbeknownst to me until we had returned to New York City, an audience of millions of television viewers around the world witnessed the event, too. During the press conference, I assumed the cameras were merely recording. Instead, television trucks parked outside the hotel beamed the signal of the press conference, including my initial lackluster remarks in no-man's land and subsequent repetition at the podium, around the world during live broadcasts.
While the Gandolfini-related allegations were a nuisance, the online watch portal’s administrator leveled two far more serious allegations against me, namely those of embezzling donations made to the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund and not paying two Sherpas for their work over a period of four years. Fortunately, I was in possession of considerable evidence to the contrary. To date, every Navy SEAL I have been honored to consider a friend has continued to associate with me, but the strongest defense came from DJ Haley, one of the founders of the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund and its former treasurer. In her post, the watch portal’s administrator quoted a former executive director of the organization as saying that he had never heard of me. “That guy wasn’t even with us when you climbed Everest,” DJ said. Additionally, while I had never made a financial contribution to the charity, and while I never made any commitments to make financial contributions, the former executive director had apparently asked a former colleague at the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund to search my name in the donor database. “You aren’t in our database because you donated watches and not money,” DJ explained to me.
Perhaps most damning indication of how poorly the administrator did her research, is the fact that she only reached out to the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund’s former executive director, a man with whom the organization has a mutual non-disparagement agreement. “We never received any requests from this lady, she never contacted us,” DJ said. “And if she had contacted us, we would have told her that it is the Fund’s policy never to confirm or deny whether someone is a donor. We take the privacy of our donors extremely serious, I’m sure you can understand why. The Navy SEALs are one of the most secretive military organizations in the world and many of its donors are ex-SEALs who have made fortunes in the private sector but due to the nature of their former work in the military prefer to stay anonymous. “We will furnish you with whatever document you need to address this matter and make it go away, Mike. We value your past involvement and contributions, and we consider you to be in good standing with our organization,” the Fund’s current executive director told me by phone. A few days later she emailed me a letter listing the in-kind contributions my company had made over a span of more than ten years.
What the watch forum’s administrator left out of her extensive post is the fact that I climbed Mount Everest with the goal of raising $250,000 in donations for the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund. I had never committed to donating this amount myself, nor would this be common practice. I learned from years of working with Ranulph Fiennes that the best way to raise money for a given charity is to go on expeditions, tell as many media outlets as possible to inform its readers and viewers that the expedition is being organized to benefit a pre-determined charity, and ask the audience to directly contribute to the charity. With the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund this was a little more complicated because the organization lacked an online donation portal. I knew that this automatically would reduce the number of donations the Fund would receive after audiences learned about the expedition, and I brought this up to the management of the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund. “We are a really small organization and just don’t have the resources at the moment to put such an online donation portal up,” I was told. “We received almost all of our donations from our annual galas, where we auction your watches off.” The second goal of the Everest expeditions was to raise the flag depicting the Navy SEAL trident on the summit of Mount Everest. The third goal was to raise awareness of the obscure Fund’s existence.
In terms of raising donations, the expeditions in 2009 and 2010 were failures. However, I was highly successful in terms of generating publicity for the Fund and I did raise the Navy SEAL trident flag on the summit. My Navy SEAL friends were excited about both achievements and congratulated me. I told each one of them that I was highly embarrassed about the fact that despite the considerable publicity the expedition had generated, only approximately $50,000 had been donated to the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund during the run-up and during the expedition. I also apologized for the fact that nobody at the Fund could determine whether these donations stemmed from my activities on Everest or if simply a few of the Fund’s regular donors had written checks unrelated to the expedition during the timeframe in question. I vowed to return to Mount Everest the following year to do one more expedition, in the hopes of raising more money for the same charity.
My SEAL friends and their families were nevertheless very supportive and grateful for my efforts. Despite the fund-raising failure, I was later invited into the home of one Navy SEAL family and slept on the floor next to the family dog, something I considered quite an honor given the secretive and private nature of the U.S. Navy SEALs. To this day, many of my friends who served their country “in the Teams,” call me “brother,” and so I thought nothing more of the lack of funds raised until the watch blog’s administrator alleged that I had embezzled money from the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund.
Back at the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu, following a thoroughly enjoyable morning at the farmer’s market, I did a search for anything related to the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund, Kobold and the 2009 and 2010 Everest Challenge Expeditions to piece together how the watch blog administrator had gotten the facts wrong. During this search, I stumbled on an old article in Ethos magazine in which the writer wrongly stated that $250,000 had been raised due to the expeditions, instead of making a distinction between the fundraising goal and the actual amount of money raised. I remembered reading the article when the particular issue of Ethos first came out. I also remembered that I was uncomfortable about the editorial comment about the $250,000 figure, but I assumed that since the magazine was only sent to active duty and retired members of the U.S. Navy there was little likelihood that the general public would ever come across the article.
What I had failed to appreciate at the time, however, was that Ethos’ archives would one day be digitalized and the article made available online. From New York City, DJ Haley, the former treasurer and one of the Fund’s founders explained to me that the Navy SEAL Warrior Fund had meanwhile merged with another organization and was now called Navy SEAL Foundation, an organization that my company had continued to support by donating costly watches that were auctioned off at gala events. I continued to receive invitations to SEAL Foundation events and attended a few of them in Pittsburgh long before the overly ambitious watch blog administrator had made a mess of the details surrounding my dealing with the charity.
In her post, the administrator also quoted Namgel Sherpa, one of two mountain guides who had accompanied my wife and me on Mount Everest, claiming that he and his colleague were not paid for four years’ work. This was a very sensitive matter because the other Sherpa mountain guide, a wonderful chap named Thundu, had recently died during a climb on Mount Ama Dablam in Nepal. Despite having a substantial amount of evidence to prove Namgel Sherpa wrong, I decided not to counter his attack out of respect for Thundu and his family. Subsequently, I met Thundu’s widow, together with Tibetan-origin translator and a Swiss psychologist, to explain to her what Namgel had been quoted as saying. We explained the circumstances to Thundu’s widow, showed her some of the evidence proving that both Sherpas had, indeed, received substantial payments despite never being Kobold employees but equal shareholders in a private company operated by them. I also explained that in this instance I would remain quiet, but that if Namgel spoke out publicly about the matter again I would have no choice but to defend myself by laying all of the evidence out publicly.
The watch forum post contained a number of other fabrications that individually hardly rose to the level of requiring a public response, but that in their totality painted a singularly bad picture of my character. Fortunately, those claims, too, are easily disproven with an abundance of evidence. While it is a fact that I was convicted of “making a false or fictitious statement to a U.S. law enforcement officer” at the age of 24 in 2003, this experience would teach me a lot of lessons about keeping close records of all my activities, both private and professional, so as to be able to demonstrate my innocence should it become necessary at some point in the future. At my farm in Pennsylvania, a massive archive containing millions of records, both physical and electronic, is stored in a small warehouse.
The reason why I have become a compulsive hoarder is that during my 2003 criminal trial in U.S. district court I was found guilty despite telling the truth. Later, a U.S. judge called my conviction “a travesty of justice” and another U.S. judge, in immigration court, ruled that even if I had committed the alleged action (lying to a federal law enforcement officer), this did not rise to the level of being a so-called “crime involving moral turpitude,” an important distinction because crimes involving moral turpitude require the offender to be deported. I was never deported, neither from the United States of America or from any other country, yet this is precisely the allegation made by the watch forum administrator. Instead of being deported, which is a process administered by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol agents, the judge in my immigration trial decreed that I would be permitted to depart the U.S. voluntarily. This voluntary departure is a big difference to the act of being deported, because once deported a person convicted of a crime is not usually granted a visa to re-enter the United States.
In the post, the watch forum lady further alleges that I was barred from re-entering the United States and that my visa was cancelled. This, again, simply wasn’t the case. Following my voluntary departure in 2008, my visa to return to the U.S. as a so-called “non-immigrant” resident was promptly approved by the U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt, Germany. When my passport containing this newly-issued visa was returned to me, I noticed that my old visa had been stamped “Cancelled without Prejudice”. I thought nothing more of the matter and for years flew in and out of the U.S. without any problems. Only after the watch forum lady raised the point of the “cancelled” visa in her post did I begin to wonder what “cancelled without prejudice” means.
A friend of mine in Kathmandu, Lawrence Kent Jones, is the now-retired consular chief at the U.S. Embassy. Over coffee, I asked Lawrence to explain what “cancelled without prejudice means” and if there was difference between this designation and a visa simply being stamped “cancelled”. Lawrence was quick to make the distinction between the two stamps. “If a visa is stamped cancelled without prejudice, it tells the immigration inspector that there is another visa somewhere in that passport or another passport that is now valid and that the old visa was cancelled before it expired. This basically tells the officer to look for the valid visa. But if a visa is stamped cancelled, it means that there is some other reason why the visa was cancelled and this usually has something to do with nefarious activities.” I was glad to learn the difference and sent a picture of my old visa with the cancelled without prejudice stamp to a number of friends who had read the post on the watch forum and expressed concerns.
When I initially read the post, I was amused by the fact that the administrator who wrote all of these inaccuracies apparently never considered the possibility that I might possess evidence to prove her allegations wrong. One of the many false allegations in the post that turned out to be a source of particular levity among a number of officials in Nepal was the watch forum lady’s suggestion that Nepal’s then-prime minister, Baburam Bhattarai, had never made Ranulph Fiennes and me goodwill ambassadors at large for Nepal. There is an important distinction between this high honor and being a goodwill ambassador for tourism, a title bestowed on individuals by the Nepal Tourism Board. When Ambassador Arjun Karki learned that Prime Minister Bhattarai had made Ran and me goodwill ambassadors at large, he said “there are only two or three of you in the United States, it’s a big honor.” When I told the ambassador that the lady from the watch forum didn’t believe me Ambassador Karki displayed his usual pragmatism: “So let’s invite this lady to Nepal and we’ll ask the prime minister to make you goodwill ambassador again in her presence.”
When I told Prime Minister Bhattarai of the controversy of the goodwill ambassadorship, the retired head of government agreed to speak on camera. “Michael, I am honored to be part of the fire truck expedition, we need fire trucks here in Nepal. And I remember making you my goodwill ambassador. I am very happy that I made you goodwill ambassador.” Rather than do what most officials would do when someone they associate with becomes the subject of controversy, Prime Minister Bhattarai then invited me to join him on his upcoming trip to the United States. “I am sorry, Prime Minister, but I have to first make sure that I can convince the authorities to let my fire trucks into the country.” The retired prime minister looked at me with surprise in his eyes. Clearly it was a big honor to accompany Prime Minister Bhattarai on his trip to America, but I had learned a lesson long ago: every time I left Nepal, all of the hard work and progress made before the trip was erased by the time I returned. I was thus determined to stay as long as I had to in order to bring the fire trucks to Nepal. “Prime Minister, please accept my big apologies. I really want to join you, but I simply can’t. But I will make phone calls and do what I can to set up meetings for you with prominent people.” This placated the ex-prime minister and we subsequently remained in sporadic contact.
Another matter that the supremely myopic watch forum lady mentioned in her post was the fact that the Soarway Foundation, a 501c3 non-profit I founded, had its registered address in a small restaurant and bar on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Soarway Foundation is without doubt one of the greatest successes in a string of successful ventures and projects I started. Based on my general desire to help Nepal on its path of development, I specifically envisioned an organization that supported Nepal’s citizens in their quest to build a stronger, more resilient society that was adequately prepared to deal with effects of natural disasters. Nepal is at the frontlines of feeling the effects of climate changes.
A lot documentation exists that shows that Nepal is already seeing drastic changes to its natural environment, however one photographic project in particular illustrates this fact perfectly. David Breashears, the legendary mountaineer and filmmaker, working together with ICIMOD, the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, masterfully documented the receding glaciers in the Himalayas. “When I take people by helicopter up into the Himalayas and I show them photographs that were taken 100, 80 or even 50 years ago, they are always awed at how fast the glaciers have been disappearing in our lifetime. It’s a dramatic change to how things used to be up there,” David told me.
With the onset climate change, Nepal is also experiencing unusual weather patterns and natural disasters. In 2019, the country experienced its first documented tornadoes, which killed 28 people and injured hundreds more. Farmers across the country have been reporting reduced harvests due to changing water levels. Yet of all the natural disasters Nepal is prone to experiencing, none loom as large as earthquakes. Nepal is located in one of the most seismically active regions on the planet. Over the course of its history, the country has been hit by a major earthquake every 80-100 years. In 2010, when I first learned about this fact, scientists predicted that another major earthquake would hit Nepal in the very near future. The gentleman from whom I first learned about all this was, at the time, the U.S. Ambassador to Nepal, Scott H. DeLisi.
“It could hit tomorrow or in 10 years, the scientists aren’t certain about that, it’s impossible to predict exactly when the earthquake will happen,” Ambassador DeLisi said, “but what we do know is that the earthquake will be very devastating. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Kathmandu Valley alone are expected to die from the initial shock. With hospitals expected to be destroyed and a large number of medical professionals not surviving the initial shock, predictions call for hundreds of thousands more to die within a month."
"Three months after the earthquake, hundreds of thousands more are predicted to perish due to the food supply collapsing,” Scott DeLisi continued. This was certainly not a happy outlook on what the future held for Nepal, a country I already had deeply fallen in love with over the previous two years. Ambassador DeLisi made it his mission to shore up the country’s earthquake preparedness, a fact that was later driven home by Colonel Anup Thapa of the Nepalese Army. Colonel Thapa told me that Ambassador DeLisi played a huge role in ensuring that Nepal’s emergency services had trained for several worst-case scenarios and that he had supported a massive overhaul of the emergency services’ communications infrastructure.
Ambassador DeLisi’s wife, Leija, and I had become fast friends and we remained in touch after the two Minnesotans were transferred to Kampala, where Scott headed the U.S. Embassy. When By chance, a mutual friend introduced me to the former director of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, Greg Cummings, who also lived in Kampala. Before long, a plan was made for Leija and Scott to take a private tour led by Greg to see mountain gorillas in their natural habitat. I was allowed to tag along and so I flew to Kampala to visit my old friends from Kathmandu times. Staying at Scott and Leija’s home, the official residence of the U.S. ambassador, was both an honor and a source of some concern. Before my trip, a couple of Navy SEAL friends told me that they were familiar with Scott’s name because of their fight against terrorism in Somalia. I put two and two together and thought that, apparently, there was a base somewhere in Uganda from where the SEALs planned their operations. “We have been on higher alert at times because of the strikes in Somalia,” Scott told me. Great, I thought, and we’re all sitting here together in this huge house on top of a big hill with the only American flag for miles.
As it turned out, the mountain gorillas of Uganda posed a more serious threat to our existence than some Somalia-based terrorists. Much to the consternation of his two guards, armed with AK-47s, one of the gorilla males unexpectedly grabbed Scott’s ankle and refused to let go. “He’s holding onto me pretty tightly,” Scott said in a tone that betrayed some degree of concern. The gorilla, evidently oblivious to the fact that this human with whom he had made a connection, enjoyed the protection of the government of Uganda, continued to hold onto Scott’s ankle for what seemed like an eternity. None of the other gorillas touched Leija, Greg or me, and I was quite certain that had the touchy-feely gorilla chosen to attach himself to any one of us instead of Scott, the armed guards would have been much more at ease. Here was their charge, quite literally in touch with nature, in what was a clear violation of protocol. Please don’t shoot the gorilla, guys! I thought to myself when I saw the horrified looks on the faces of the two military guards. Fortunately, the gorilla’s attention was distracted by one of the gregarious baby gorillas and Scott gingerly retreated backwards. The Nepalese love Scott, the Ugandans love Scott, even the gorilla love this guy, I thought, relieved that Uganda’s interior ministry had dispatched what I assumed was its most cool-headed protection squad to trail our ambassadorial group.
Back in Kampala, Scott told me that he planned to retire in case he wasn’t given another ambassadorship –his fourth- following his and Leija’s time in Uganda. “I’ll probably end up being the head of a university,” Scott said. This is when the idea of the Soarway Foundation first entered my mind. “There’s no way you belong in a university,” I told Scott. “You guys love Nepal and the people of Nepal love you. Why wouldn’t you do something with Nepal?” With Scott’s long and distinguished career at the State Department and his huge popularity with the people of Nepal, as well as with his colleagues in the embassy, it was a natural fit for Scott and Leija to continue to be engaged in work in Nepal. Back in the U.S. I made a few phone calls to some friends. Would they, in turn, lobby top State officials to give Scott a fourth ambassadorship? Nothing came of it and so I went on to formulate a Plan B.
One of my personal friends is the son of one of America’s most prominent families and a billionaire in his own right. Once someone has amassed a personal fortune of $100 million, that person’s circumstances and the entailing decision-making processes are profoundly different than for ordinary multi-millionaires. At this level, it’s virtually impossible for a prudent person to lose a substantial portion of wealth. Similarly, once the billion-dollar mark is past, as was in the case with my friend, circumstances change again. Over breakfast, Adam Dell, the brother of computer tycoon Michael Dell, once told me “I just gave away $50 million to a charity I love.” Hence, when I decided to start a charitable organization that would serve as Scott DeLisi’s platform for his charitable activities in Nepal, I sought out the support of the aforementioned family friend, who agreed to fund Soarway under the condition that he would remain anonymous. Unlike other scions of politically or economically prominent families, this gentleman and his family live a humble and secluded life without the usual trappings of wealth. When I made plans for my friend to visit Nepal incognito, he insisted that he and his family would travel in economy class.
With my friend’s assurance to generously back the Soarway Foundation, I telephone my friend Philip Elias, the Pittsburgh-based media tycoon, and our mutual friend John Gaughan, an attorney at law, and asked their advice on how best to incorporate a charitable organization. “We have to cross our t’s and dot our i’s,” I said. “If I’m going to ask the former U.S. ambassador to three countries to run this organization, we have to make sure that the organization is set up professionally.” Philip thus convened a meeting in Pittsburgh’s prestigious Duquesne Club, where the three of us were advised by two other attorneys on the modalities of incorporating a corporation that would then apply to the Internal Revenue Service for non-profit status. To obtain from the IRS the prestigious 501c3 designation, which would deem any donations made to this organization tax-deductible for its donors, would require an especially rigorous examination after the corporate structure had been established. Subsequent to the Duquesne Club meeting, the two outside attorneys registered the Soarway Foundation and I assembled a board of directors and an interim executive director as placeholder until Scott had retired from the State Department and was able to take over the reigns of the organization.
It’s important at this juncture to explain that all of this happened within a very short timeframe. The Soarway Foundation was founded on April 1st, 2015. Three weeks later, on April 25th, the first major earthquake struck Nepal. A few weeks later, a huge aftershock, which some say was a major earthquake in its own right, struck. My first idea was to buy several hundred tents and ship them to Nepal. “Prithivi, I will buy two extra-large tents for you and your family,” I told my dear personal friend Prithivi Pande. Ferrino, the Italian tent manufacturer, offered an incredible discount on all the tents in their inventory and I asked the board of directors of the Soarway Foundation to approve the purchase. “You are only allowed to be Soarway’s biggest cheerleader, but you cannot have any advantage whatsoever, even friends of yours cannot benefit from the organization” one of the two attorneys sternly counseled me on the evening of April 25th. I found this rather frustrating, given that my friends were victims of the earthquake and because the other tents would benefit countless other people, but I heeded the attorney’s advice and cancelled the Ferrino order. Later, as a result of this legal advice, I strictly paid for all travel expenses related to my activities to promote Soarway, including a trip to Hong Kong, where I gave a lecture at the prestigious Yacht Club, in exchange for a relatively modest $5,000 donation to Soarway Foundation from the local Rotary Club.
“We really needs tents more than anything, Mike,” Prithivi told me from Kathmandu. “There are aftershocks all of the time, we can’t go into our homes, it’s not safe. Please arrange some tents to be sent.” I hence placed a telephone call to a high-ranking officer at U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, Florida. Tom Chaby, the former U.S. Navy SEAL Team 5 commanding officer, was more helpful than the Soarway Foundation’s two attorneys in accommodating my request for tents. “We already sent a plane full of tents earlier today,” Tom said. “Do you think it’ll be necessary to send more tents,” Tom asked. I relayed to Tom some additional information Prithivi had given me, which came from his brother, Nepalese Army general Pawan Pande. “These guys really needs tens and tarps as quickly as possible, Tom. Please send anything you can.” Tom, who had met Prithivi at the opening ceremony of Kobold USA's new headquarters, was extremely helpful. “We’ll get on it, Mike. I can requisition another shipment.”
President Bill Clinton also came to Nepal’s help in the earthquake’s immediate aftermath, making available his various high-level contacts in corporate America to the Soarway Foundation’s mission to help contain human suffering on the ground in Nepal. As the owner of a luxury watch brand, I’ve enjoyed access to an unusual number of individuals at the top of the corporate, entertainment and political ladders. However, an introduction by a former U.S. president, via his chief of staff, is much more significant. Likewise, the authority and credibility of a former three-time U.S. ambassador make it much easier to open doors and help make Nepal a better place. Scott could have chosen any number of other paths in his retirement, yet at my urging, he agreed to run the Soarway Foundation. “Scott chose Soarway, not the other way around,” I told Prithivi Pande.
The non-profit world, just like the foreign aid world, is often misused to provide cushy jobs to an elitist group of expats who very much enjoy the social prestige and the trappings of power that their well-paid jobs afford them abroad. So much money earmarked to reach the poorest people on earth is wasted on lavish trappings and creature comforts. When posted abroad, ordinary civil servants suddenly enjoy drivers, household staff, gardeners and security guards, all while living in homes that are far nicer than their own homes back in their native countries. In Nepal, the many shiny, new off-roaders used by the foreign aid and NGO crowd stand in sharp contrast to the countless motorbikes and tiny cars used by civilians, and are therefore the butts of jokes by the locals, many of whom live on only a few dollars a day. Large, elaborate local offices of NGOs are typically located in the best neighborhoods of Kathmandu, where the land prices exceed those of European capitals. “They spend over $20,000 on my apartment alone,” a low-ranking UK AID worker told me, confidentially, “then I have $7,000 annual flight allowance, $3,000 living allowance and $5,000 hardship allowance. That’s in addition to my regular salary. Other organizations, like the UN, pay much more hardship allowance.”
Scott Delisi determined early on that the Soarway Foundation doesn’t need an expensive office. The prestige and authority conveyed by his title of retired U.S. ambassador, plus his continued popularity in Nepal would suffice to open any doors, both in the U.S. and at the highest levels of Nepal’s government. The savings accrued from not having an office, would mean that even more of the money raised would directly go to Nepal, where it would reach the programs on the ground and have the most impact for the people of Nepal.
The lady who wrote the post on the watch blog clearly had no understanding of the foreign aid world, not the inner dealings and efficiency of the Soarway Foundation, because she took exception to the organization’s listed address being the bar and restaurant of Scott DeLisi’s part-time assistant, the person entrusted with dealing with the paperwork and records-keeping. “I wonder if this lady ever met an ambassador before, or if she’s even left the State of California, much less the United States,” I told Scott by phone after I sent him a link to the post on the watch forum. Fortunately, the Soarway Foundation’s reclusive billionaire backer saw through her motivations and continued to support Scott’s mission in Nepal -up until the present day. Other people who read the post were not so open-minded.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” one reader wrote to me. “You will be a pariah,” another reader wrote. “You’re going to hell for stealing from Navy SEALs,” a third reader commented. A fourth message contained an interesting question: “How do you live with yourself after not paying the Sherpas who saved your life? You scumbag!” Rather well, actually, I defiantly thought, reminding myself that I would not publicly comment on the Sherpa-related matter unless Namgel Sherpa repeated the false allegations in another media outlet. After explaining to Thundu Sherpa’s widow that I would defend myself in that circumstance, and that I had plenty of evidence proving Namgel wrong, I mistakenly assumed Namgel would tread more carefully in the future. Yet rather than just being a case of Namgel showing raw emotions shortly after Thundu’s deadly accident on Mount Ama Dablam, his intent was much more malicious, and he proved this when he repeated the same false statement in an interview with the Kathmandu Post. What Namgel evidently forgot is that he had repeatedly threatened me, including in writing and before witnesses, with destroying my name.
“Everest Rock Mafia” titled a Nepali-language newspaper a May 2012 story about the Kobold Himalaya Everest Edition. The wristwatch featured a dial made from a piece of rock I collected from the summit of Mount Everest. Beneath the headline, the newspaper featured pictures of Ranulph Fiennes and of me. Surprised to have been raised to the level of Everest Mafia don, I congratulated Ran on this questionable honor. Following this first news story, Nepali journalists descended on Kobold Nepal’s offices in Baber Mahal Revisited to request interviews. “Hey guys,” I said excitedly to Namgel and Thundu Sherpa, the two mountain guides who guided us on the slopes of Mount Everest, “you’ve only been in business for a week and you’re already making national headlines!”
A few months earlier, Namgel and Thundu Sherpa completed a ten-month training course at Kobold USA, where they learned to assemble and repair watches. The two young men showed a remarkable natural aptitude for watchmaking. I resolved to spend the next six months teaching them about running a business and how to sell watches. After a highly successful launch party at which Ranulph Fiennes gave the keynote address, the small business was well on its way to becoming another Kobold success story. The international news media, including the BBC, Forbes, United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and American Express’ Departures magazine all covered the story of two Sherpa mountain guides hanging up their crampons to pursue a new life as watchmakers.
The two Sherpas had far more going for them from Day One than Kobold USA. In business for 14 years at the time, Kobold USA still had never printed a catalog. Yet Kobold Nepal not only had its own catalog and line of Made in Nepalwatches, it also had a flagship store which continued to attract attention long after the hubbub of the company’s launch subsided. The Sherpas made it onto television programs around the world and the New York Times wrote that they had traded“the hazards of Mount Everest to open an airy atelier in a peaceful courtyard, where they made and sold beautiful watches.” Quite how such a highly regarded, successful business could fail is a unique Nepali tale of greed, jealousy and short-sightedness.
It began with the negative local news coverage following the successful launch of Kobold Nepal. “Some is jealous of those boys,” G2 Rana, the landlord of Kobold Nepal told me. “This is how the media in Nepal does it,” Prithivi Pande, the chairman of Nepal Investment Bank, said. “They find their mark and then they keep attacking until you pay them off to stop. It’s not a big deal, this happens all the time. You don’t have to worry.” I was more amused than worried, find it ironic that someone could get so upset about the removal of some rocks from the summit of the world’s highest mountain, where thousands of rocks lay on top of a sheet of snow, with millions more beneath the white expanse. “You took something from a UNESCO World Heritage site,” a journalist for Outside magazine told me. “Well, in Germany we have the Wattenmeer, the seabed that gets exposed for miles when the tide goes out. People take stuff from there all the time without it causing a stir,” I said. A few weeks later, Outside magazine published a story about the Kobold Himalaya with the Everest summit rock dial.