I could see my breath as I began the descent. Hand, hand, foot, foot, I cautiously lowered myself down, seeking out holds as if my life depended on it. This was the Pass of Death after all.

About forty minutes prior, a fellow Fellow and I had ran into a group of Quito (the capital of Ecuador) locals while hiking up Mt. Pinchincha. After struggling through a few painful minutes of small talk in broken spanglish, they invited us to join them for the rest of the climb up an “alternate route” to the summit. Rather than skirting around the base of the peak and approaching it from the side we would be climbing the ridge, directly to the top. It was a no brainer. With our new friends along side, we began the ascent.

As we put on altitude and the air began to thin out it became clear that we were approaching the climax of our climb. “La Pasa de Muerte,” one of our friends said, pointing ahead. A sharp drop led to the path below. Peering over the edge I saw a tiny strip of a path flanked on both sides by precipitous drops to the jagged volcanic rock below. This was the real deal.

Strangely enough, as I wormed my way down and across this razor thin route, I found myself thinking not of the rocks awaiting me below, but rather of the circumstances that had brought me there. It would have been easy to have given up on communicating with our QuiteƱo friends and abandoned them to rejoin our gringo compatriots, but by making the effort to reach out, our experience was profoundly changed. By engaging the local community and embracing the challenge of a different approach we were so lucky as to experience a raw, powerful, beautiful part of Ecuador we would have never otherwise seen.