Mongolomites

Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru, September 1st, 2014

Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Matacancha, Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru,  September 1st, 2014

Breathe deeply and take small steps. That’s the best advice I could give anyone who wants to undertake serious trekking at altitude. But it turns out to work for pretty much any challenge you’re facing. This shot is from the gobsmacking Cordillera Huayhuash

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Sick Light

Sick Light

The Story Behind This Photograph:

Taken at Campamento Elefante, Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru on September 6th, 2014

I didn’t want to take this picture. I really didn’t. I had caught a cold and that, combined with hiking 10 miles a day at 15,000 feet in the Peruvian Andes, was taking its toll on my system. As we rolled into our camp on day 6 of this 10 day trek all I could think about was how much I wanted a piping hot cup of tea and then to curl up and go to sleep. But halfway through the tea I peered out of my tent flap and saw a slit in the clouds letting some sun peek through. SUNUVA!!! Sleep or shoot, sleep or shoot? Thankfully the photographer in me was stronger than the sloth and I wearily managed to plop my camera down by this stream just as a laser of sunlight struck the base of Cuyoc, a 18,000-ft mountain in the Cordillera Huayhuash.

Special note for climbers: you’re looking at about a 3,500 foot face composed almost entirely of columnar basalt.

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The Light and The Land

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Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken at Laguna Carhuacocha in the Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru, on September 3rd, 2014

As far as days go, I’d be hard pressed to remember a finer one than the 3rd day of my 10-day Cordillera Huayhuash circuit. It was a day ripe with juicy scenery, from wide open grassy fields, to high valleys full of horses, to rocky passes devoid of any life except lichens. And of course, mountains. Throughout the 10-mile walk that day the spectacular high peaks of the Huayhuash range dominated the view. In the morning it was Jirishanca that commanded all attention, but as we moved slowly to the south, the other great peaks of the range came into view: Yerupaja, Yerupaja Chico, Siula Grande.

My small group (myself, my friend Brett, and our guide Wilder) ate lunch on a rocky promontory overlooking the icy peaks, as well as lagunas Carhuacocha, Siula, and Quesillacocha. We saw a massive avalanche thunder down the flanks of Siula, and heard the rumble miles away. We punished our legs with a steady ascent to a 4,800 meter pass, and set them quivering with a blistering descent to our camp at 4,000 meters. We pulled the cool, clean, thin mountain air into our lungs and felt our blood pump hard in our veins.

And at the end of it all we came into camp on the shores of Carhuacocha, surely one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. Even though it was almost completely overcast when we arrived in camp, the clouds couldn’t disguise the grandeur of the place, with five massive, glaciated peaks reflecting in the lake’s surface. Despite my tired legs and aching feet I stood on the shore of the lake for hours, drinking in the scenery as if I was a bottomless well.

At sunset the greatest moment of all occurred: for a 30 minute window the clouds parted and let in the end-of-day light. The clouds and moisture in the air caught the light, reflected and refracted it, and transformed it into this amazing display of color and atmosphere. But as quickly as the clouds had broken up they reformed again, and darkness descended, swallowing both the light and the land.

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Andean Skies

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Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken in Quebrada Santa Cruz beneath Taulliraju in the Cordillera Blanca, Peru, on August 24th, 2014

There are two simple rules you need to follow if you want to see legendary night skies: 1) Get away from light. Ditch the cities, the moons, even your flashlight. If you want stars find somewhere dark. And 2) Get up high. The less atmosphere between you and the stars the more luminous brilliance you will see. At approximately 13,000′ elevation and perhaps 20 miles from the nearest tiny village, the Santa Cruz Valley in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru checks both boxes beautifully.

On the crystal clear second night of my four-night Santa Cruz trek I ventured out into the dark to photography the impressive glacier-clad southwest face of Taulliraju. By complete coincidence (though if I were better at marketing I’d say it was due to my precise planning) the Milky Way was rising nearly straight up from the top of Taulliraju, forming a luminous extension of the mountain.

Near my camp was a small creek leading toward the mountain which reflected some of the starlight and formed a perfect lead in for the scene. In order to create this final image I took two exposures, one at f/8, ISO800, 280 seconds, and another one 25 minutes later using the exact same composition but at f/2.8, ISO6400, and 30 seconds. The two photos were then combined in Photoshop to recreate the scene as I experienced it.

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Elemental Collision

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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.

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Peruvian Postcard

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Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken from a stream underneath the peaks of Jirishanca and Rondoy in the Cordillera Huayhuash, Andes, Peru on September 3, 2014

Generally speaking I am most attracted to wide landscapes with dramatic light. But on the 3rd morning of a 100-mile trek through the Cordillera Huayhuash in Peru I awoke to find a much simpler scene on display. Despite the cacophonous thunder and hail storm that battered our camp from sunset onward the previous day this morning had dawned clear and cloudless. Which meant the ruby light of sunrise could drench the peaks of Jirishanca and Rondoy in its warm glow.

That bright splash of light created a beautifully simple quality to the landscape that immediately caught my eye. What struck me was the clear graphic contrasts: this wasn’t a photo all about wild and crazy light. No it was about the juxtaposition of colors: reds on whites on blues on browns. It was about the contrasting details: clipped grass giving way to sharp ridges of rock and ice giving way to featureless azure sky. And despite the grandeur of the scenery on display it was about a more intimate view of these two giant Andean mountains.

It was a classic scene from a classic view and I strove to capture it in my own Peruvian postcard.

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Towering Taulliraju

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Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken beneath Taulliraju’s eastern ridge, Cordillera Blanca, Peru, on August 25th, 2014

The most popular trek in the Cordillera Blanca in Peru is the 4-day walk up Quebrada Santa Cruz. During much of the 2nd and 3rd days of the trek the view is dominated by towering bulk of Taulliraju, a 19,100-foot peak. During my first two days on the trail I saw almost nothing but clear skies and I was beginning to worry I might not make any worthwhile images of this beautiful mountain.

Even the 3rd day of the trek started off cloudless. But in the two hours it took me to hike from the previous night’s camp up to Punta Union, the 15,500-foot pass separating Quebrada Santa Cruz from the next valley to the east, moisture began accumulating in the atmosphere and soon there were dramatic clouds swirling around the mountains’s peaks and ridges. From the top of the pass I could see some small pools of water farther to the east, just off the main trail.

Still, it was at least another hour’s walk before I reached the first of them. Scampering off trail through the tussock grass I came around the backside of this small pool where I could see near perfect reflections of Taulliraju and its eastern ridge. Since it was midday there was very little color in the clouds. Even the grass itself was a plain, muted brown. So with the lack of rich color in the scene I captured this image, seeing in my mind’s eye a black and white photo of this beautiful section of the C ordillera Blanca.

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33 Candles

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Behind the scenes of this photo

Taken on September 2nd, 2014 below Laguna Mitucocha and Jirishanca in the Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru

I don’t personally put a lot of effort into celebrating my own birthday. But sometimes when the circumstances are right I’ll do a little something nice for myself. And this year I decided to fly myself to Peru and go for a trek in the Peruvian Andes. Specifically in the Cordillera Huayhuash, one of the most beautiful mountain ranges on the planet.

The timing of the trip was a bit iffy: near the end of the dry season, and because of that I wasn’t sure what kind of weather I’d experience. And like any good landscaper I was afraid of endless days of sunshine. So when I arrived in Huaraz, the trekking capital of Peru, and saw that the forecast consistently called for cloudy days and thunderstorms I did a little happy dance and set out on a 10-day, 100-mile walk through the Cordillera Huayhuash.

On the second day of the trek, my actual birthday, the scenery turned from merely pleasant to jaw-droppingly spectacular. Myself, another bloke from South Africa, Brett, and our guide spent my 33rd wandering around the flanks of this beautiful mountain, Jirishanca, lounging in the sun, and circumnavigating stunning Laguna Mitucocha. Toward sunset we retired to our camp about a mile from the lake and I watched in eager anticipation as dramatic clouds moved in around the mountain’s 20,098 ft high summit.

I went sniffing for compositions along this stream and found this choice spot boasting a beautiful view of the Jirishanca’s glaciers and snow-clad summit. Then as the sun sunk low into the western sky it lit the clouds from behind like nature’s largest candle. Happy birthday to me!

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