jahuacocha-cordillera-huayhuash-peru

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Laguna Jahuacocha in the Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru, on September 9th, 2014

It’s hard to imagine a better finale for my final night in the Cordillera Huayhuash than the one that unfolded at Laguna Jahuacocha. All trip my guide had been telling me how beautiful Jahuacocha was, how it was one of his favorite lakes. So I was looking forward to seeing it regardless of the weather conditions. And as it turned out he wasn’t lying: Jahuacocha is a beautiful aquamarine lake that sits just below the glacial-clad western flank of Jirishanca, a 6,100 meter mountain.

My first glimpse of the lake was from a striking overlook some 600 meters above the glacial plain, where the deep blue of sky was reflected in the surface of the laguna. As we descended the thigh-crushing 2,000 feet straight down the side of the hill toward the lake two things happened: clouds began to build and swirl around Jirishanca’s summit, and the sound of rushing water grew louder and louder.

The reason for the latter became clear as we bottomed out on the glacial plain: there was a magnificent hundred-meter waterfall cascading down the rocky hillside to the south. I immediately sensed the potential of this waterfall to add to a great image so as soon as I dropped my pack off in camp I came scrambling back up the hillside (to the grumbling complaints of my legs) to scout out a few compositions. Watching the light play across the landscape as the clouds danced in the sky and the water coursed by at my feet was an experience I’ll treasure. Watch the video below to get a feel for the scene that afternoon.

But it was still a few hours till sunset so I meandered back to camp to have a quick nap. When I woke from that I found the sky to be almost completely overcast, and even worse, the cloud deck itself was below Jirishanca’s peak. I was quite disappointed, thinking that not only would I not be able to see the mountain top itself, but also that the low clouds would blot out the setting sun and instead of taking photos I would spend my last night in Huayhuash cursing the weather. Little did I realize what would unfold just a little while later.

Despite the weather I gathered up my camera gear and made my way back to the waterfall and found the best composition I could, all the while wishing for the clouds to lift just a little bit. What I had failed to internalize during that trip is just how high the mountains in the Cordillera Huayhuash are. Jirishanca is over 20,000 ft in elevation, which means that the clouds obscuring its summit were probably still 19,000 ft above sea level. And 19,000 ft of air gives the sun a lot of room to shine through as it sets.

Which is exactly what happened: as the sun sunk toward the horizon it began shining into the gap between the clouds and the ground, illuminating Jirishanca like a search light. As the evening progressed the sunlight dipped into an amazing red frequency, which brought all four of the classic elements, earth, air, water, and fire, together in one of the most dramatic displays of light and landscape I’ve ever seen.

View more beautiful Peru photos.

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