Clouds and Context

Context – [kon-tekst] – “… the interrelated set of circumstances that surrounds, permeates and gives additional meaning to a particular event or situation…”

clouds that look like a snow field


It was 1:00AM with 70MPH gusts and negative wind chills. A frigid night on the Ingraham Flats north of Cowlitz Glacier and of the other climbers still resting in the John Muir Shelter at 10,188 feet.

Bound and determined to be the first ones up ‘the Mountain’, our small pack of hard charging Rangers checked our equipment and headed out.

About an hour into the trek and as we were busy criss-crossing up the glacier, it happened; each and every one of our headlamps quit working and we were plunged into blackness. We were undeterred and drove on.

As the first climbing party we had noone to follow. We pressed forward doing our best to discern the trail.

Our climb became progressively more technical and challenging with short, but growing, periods of sheer rock climbing. It was our understanding that Mt. Rainier was not a technical climb…

Roped together we looked back and downward in the darkness and were comforted by the white snowfield below that could serve as our retreat from the rocks.

Minutes became hours and the early rays of the sun began to peak over the horizon finally allowing us the light to check our maps and assess our situation. We could see the steady stream of climbers’ lights in the distance as other teams continued up the beaten path, the one we had obviously left…

As we reoriented in the light, we became painfully aware of our ‘context’ and what had appeared in the dark to be a white field of safe retreat became the top of a white cloud; a cloud covering a thousand (or more) foot, sheer drop.

Not only were we hanging onto the side of a rock face, we were also all roped together; one falls, all fall.

Remaining true to the last stanza of the Ranger Creed:

Readily will I display the intestinal fortitude required to fight on to the ranger objective and complete the mission, though I be the lone survivor.

We “Rangered-up”, summited ‘the Mountain’, and returned safely to Fort Lewis.

standing at the summit
me on the ‘real’ summit of Rainier

It’s been years since that fateful morning on Rainier. I’m older, less brash, and less capable of climbing a mountain on a whim but I still reflect on this lesson in context to this day.

It’s a lesson about how much of what we do and say depends not only on our actual context but our awareness, and understanding, of it. The seriousness of our position on the mountain changed significantly with the added awareness by the sun’s rays.

From an evolutionary perspective we are wired for simple choices, jump or don’t jump, fight or flight, run or freeze…

Unfortunately much of our modern existence is ‘contextually dependent’. The same set of observable facts in the moment can be interpreted in very different ways.

What appears to be a safe snow field may actually be a dangerous rock face disguised by a cloud. The event or situation is a function of the circumstances that surround and permeate it. The challenge is the inherent difficulty of being aware of context.

The very act of making decisions and responding in the moment often limits our ability, or capacity, to take a disciplined step back and intentionally focus on our perspective of it and of the narratives we are telling ourselves about it.

In the end much of what we do and experience is dependent on the circumstances that surround and permeate our reality and it is incredibly important to be aware of our context.

Is your context a snow field or cloud?

Next up – “A Tale of Crows” … if context is important, how do our narratives, in conjunction with our context, affect our perspective?


Image credit: Shutterstock/Sapol Chairatkaewcharoen


3 Responses to Clouds and Context

Leave a reply