“A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of coloured ribbon.”
– Napoleon Bonaparte
I gazed wearily up the snow covered slope, my eyes searching for the point at which the steep incline levelled off abruptly, forming a narrow plateau before the terrain quickly gained elevation once again. I could just make out the ledge in question, though the prevailing weather conditions made it hard to be sure. Not far from where I stood, the visibility dropped away as both ground and sky merged seamlessly in a thick, white soup. A relentless fusillade of ice and snow continued to cut across the side of my face, having long since saturated my Gore-Tex layers (“Guaranteed to keep you dry!”) and soaking me to the bone.
I hung my head in grim resignation and continued the slow, upward plod. I didn’t really need my eyes to tell me where the top of the slope was. My intuitive knowledge of our progress up the hill was fairly accurate, based as it was on previous ascents of the obstacle. And besides, I figured I’d know for sure where the hilltop was when I was standing on it. Until then, there was nothing I could do but embrace the misery. Such is life, as Ned Kelly famously said, although the fact that this was his last utterance before his hanging and that I was in this situation entirely of my own volition gives his use of the phrase a lot more credence.
Our mission was simple. Three members of our eight man group had volunteered to schlep the greater portion of the expedition supplies from the bottom of the Soler Valley to the entrance of the Ice Cap, a location known as the Keyhole. With many of the group laid low by injury and illness, it fell to the able-bodied among us to make this vital logistical undertaking a reality. This involved several laps up the steep snow ramp carrying prodigious loads containing all sorts of equipment; food, fuel, ice axes, snow pickets, harness, carabiners, kitchen sinks, pterodactyls… you name it, we carried it. It was tiring work made infinitely harder by the volatile weather and our motivation dropped exponentially as time wore on. Guided by the beams of our headlamps, we arrived back at camp after a 13 hour epic, utterly drenched and exhausted but elated with our contribution to the overall success of the expedition.
For this valiant effort, the participants were each awarded a Banana Sticker.
What is a Banana Sticker? I’m glad you asked. A Banana Sticker is an international award for excellence, a token of merit in the same vein as the Victoria Cross or Medal of Honor. I plagiarised the idea from an episode of Metalocalypse in which the members of Dethklok, a fictitious metal band who happen to be the 6th largest world economy, are given Banana Stickers for cooperation with their therapist. Amused as I was with the idea, I decided to install the tongue-in-cheek award for noteworthy performances during my expeditions. A quick browse through the Mountain Training School photos and various visual propaganda may reveal sneaky appearances by the Banana Sticker, often occupying prime real estate on a recipient’s helmet.
There haven’t been many Banana Stickers awarded. I’ve endeavoured to keep the standard of achievement required to earn a Banana Sticker high in order to prevent it from becoming akin to a participation ribbon for a school athletics carnival. Its rarity gives it value. Since its inception in 2013, the Banana Sticker has been variously awarded for some strenuous and lengthy traverses, crevasse rescues, in an instance where cool heads prevailed during a sketchy river crossing and for a particularly elaborate and successful April Fool’s Day prank. Students have gone to great lengths to be granted the fabled sticker. But why?
Banana Stickers, much like medals and ribbons, are intrinsically worthless. In reality, they are coloured pieces of accoutrement with no particular value, but the sum is greater than the parts. It isn’t the item that holds value, rather the significance that we attach to these items. They are a visual representation of an ideal. The cynics among us might say that these awards serve as tools of the ego, flashy showpieces that boast of one’s greatness, but I tend to disagree. I think the value is more internal than external.
Those of the outdoor ilk relish a challenge. They enjoy pitting themselves against the elements, voluntarily placing themselves in settings and situations of adversity and struggle. To many, this aspect of life in the wilderness is a huge drawcard. Opportunities abound to overcome these difficulties with physical stamina, mental fortitude and good old fashioned grit and gumption. The mountains are an amazing backdrop within which the willing can test themselves and learn about their true inner qualities. The feedback given by the mountains on our abilities can sometimes be brutal, but is always honest and objective.
Sure, a few of the reasons for which Banana Stickers were awarded may have been flippant, but for the most part they are a tangible representation of a time when a significant challenge was bested. They remind us of things we’ve learned, either about ourselves, others or our craft. They are proof that somewhere inside us all are hidden reservoirs of energy that we didn’t know we had. We know that in a given situation, we were able to tap into that energy and could do so once again. They remind us of a time when we were part of something that was larger than ourselves, an important piece of the beautiful machinery that is an expedition. And that, after all, is what life in the hills is all about.