View of Cordillera Huayhuash from Laguna Carhuacoacha, Peru. © Michael DeYoung

Dawn alpenglow and pink cirrus clouds above the high peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash from Laguna Carhuacoacha. Sunrises and sunsets happen FAST this close to the equator (10 degrees south).

 

If you like world-class big mountain landscapes with beautiful glacier lakes that haven’t been photographed to death, then you will love the off-the-beaten-path Cordillera Huayhuash in north central Peru. Few places offer equal or better dramatic mountain landscapes than the Cordillera Huayhuash. The best landscape images here are not accessible by road so you have to hike and camp to reach these gems and that keeps most photographers from going there. Fortunately, you can hire a guide/outfitter that will carry most of your gear, set up and break down camp, and provide all your meals.

My goal isn’t to “reinvent the wheel” with this blog. My main angle here is showcasing this as a backcountry photo destination for the serious photographer passionate about inspirational landscapes. Cordillera Huayhuash treks are well documented and a simple search will turn up a great deal of blogs and trip reports for trekkers. The area is gaining in popularity amongst adventurers but it is not, as of yet, on the mainstream photo workshop/ tour circuit, like parts of Patagonia are and that makes it appealing to me.

A Backcountry Photo Destination for the Serious Photographer Passionate About Inspirational Landscapes

Big mountain landscapes especially with lakes and reflections are my favorite landscape subject matter. Beautiful remote destinations that require some “sweat equity” to reach under your own power make the experience even better! And the Cordillera Huayhuash certainly fits the bill. As backcountry skiers say, you “earn your turns” here. Our good adventure friend, Wendy, joined Lauri and me on this 18-day adventure in October 2023. We spent 3 days hiking and acclimatizing around Huaraz before setting out on a 10-day, photo driven trek around the Cordillera Huayhuash. We hiked and photographed 20,000+ foot peaks dotted with blue alpine lakes in some of the most beautiful mountain landscapes I’ve ever seen – even rivaling Alaska!

For the reasonably fit photographer who loves adventure this is a bucket list destination. You can backpack it on your own or hire an outfitter and go “glamping” style. With an outfitter, you just carry a day pack with a backcountry camera set up (discussed further below.) The outfitter’s pack animals can carry extra camera gear and a tripod that you use around camps. The two caveats to the Cordillera Huayhuash are altitude and season. Most of the camps are between 13,000 and 14,000 feet, with passes well over 15,000 feet. With proper acclimatization and/or effective prescription drugs, most people do well with short stays at high altitudes. Their best season is June to August, in their winter, and that competes with the best season for most alpine locations in the northern hemisphere.

Cordillera is the Spanish word for mountain range. The Huayhuash is north-south oriented and has some of the highest peaks in the Andes with 6 peaks over 6000 meters (19,685’), including Siula Grande at 6,344 meters (20,814 ft) where the harrowing survival story, Touching the Void, took place in 1985. Around Huaraz, the gateway town at 10,000’, there are beautiful views of the high peaks in Huascaran National Park to the east of town. Unfortunately, during our trip they were all obscured in clouds at sunset every day.

View of Nevada Cuyoc from Trapecio Pass. © Michael DeYoung

Our view from Trapecio Pass, our highest pass with stratus clouds creating visual interest below the 18,543′ Nevada Cuyoc.
Canon R5, RF24-105/f4 at 50mm
ISO 400, 1/320th second at f13

View of Nev. Sarapo from Cutatambo camp. © Michael DeYoung

From camp 7 at Cutatambo on the west side of the high peaks of the Cordillera Huayhuash, I got this sneak preview in the blue hour of Nev. Sarapo (20, 102′). Sunset was a bust and this is the most I saw of this mountain group. The clouds quickly obscured it shortly after this view. It was clear the next morning but the light was wrong to capture this scene. At camp with cloudy conditions I, as I often do, reached for my telephoto lens to shoot tight in attempts to create visual interest.
Canon R5, RF 70-200/f4
ISO 100, 1.5 seconds at f11

 

We used an outfitter instead of going self-supported. Lauri and I have done thousands of miles of backpacking on the Continental Divide and Pacific Crest Trails and in Alaska and the Grand Canyon alone. Compared to those experiences where we carried everything including camera gear, an outfitted camping trip where pack animals carry most of your gear and someone else takes care of everything else including meals was pure luxury for us even if it was camping in the cold and/or rain. This gave me more freedom to focus on the landscape and capturing images. All we had to carry were day packs and lightweight camera gear. We’ve done luxury mountain photography and hiking years ago in the Dolomites staying in posh huts every night. That was a lot more expensive! This area, which is privately owned by the surrounding villages, doesn’t have that hut infrastructure yet, and I hope they never do.

Don’t go when we went! For sentimental reasons we went at the beginning of the rainy season – late September into October. We took a big risk but felt the timing was important. Late September is our anniversary and this trip was our 35th celebration in addition to celebrating my 1-year anniversary of aortic valve replacement surgery. The rainy season already hit and most days were wet and my opportunities for good lighting were shunted by persistent cloud cover. On the upside, the trail and camps were much less crowded. The nights were warmer and the landscape was greener due to rain. In the tropics, winter is usually the dry season and the climate in the Cordillera Huayhuash is no exception. The seasons are reversed so our summer is their winter. June-August is the peak trekking season – colder, but drier, sunnier with overall better light and clearer mountain views.

Hikers on a muddy trail on a rainy day. Cordillera de Huayhuash. © Michael DeYoung

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade! Yes, like all other photographers I wanted great light all day long on the Cordillera Huayhuash but that’s not what we got. We were there at the beginning of the rainy season. As a challenge, I photograph the experience and action, good or bad, not just the landscape. Lauri DeYoung and Wendy Sailors on the frequent muddy trail during a rain shower. I keep my camera in the Hyperlite Mountain Gear Camera Pod. It keeps my camera protected from the rain and allows quick access to capture moments like this.
Canon R7, EF 14-35/f4 at 20mm
ISO 400, 1/250th second at f8

Moody landscape as approaching Peru's Laguna Jahuacoacha. © Michael DeYoung

It rained most of the day on our hike to our last camp to Laguna Jahuacoacha which had great sunset potential. Unfortunately sunset was clouded over. A 5-minute break in the clouds near 15,200′ Paso Yaucha revealed an awesome color palate of the Andes that I was able to capture with a little bit of telephoto compression.
Just like Alaska with glaciers, here beautiful earth tones were revealed more with cloudy light.
Canon R7, Canon RF 70-200/f4 at 80mm
ISO 400, 1/200th second at f11

 

THE OUTFITTER EXPERIENCE

We chose a local family (4 siblings own and run the business) and could not have been happier. They all grew up on a farm in the area and know the Cordillera Huayhuash intimately. Their pricing was more reasonable than hiring a U.S. or European based international travel company that charged much more. There are several good, locally owned and based companies to choose from. The outfitter we used was Los Amigos de Huayhuash and the main contact for English speaking clients is Anamin. She was wonderful to work with. For small groups she even runs an Airbnb where they live in Huaraz and where they launch their trips from. We found her place very safe, cozy and comfortable though we had to share bathrooms. A trip here requires a little mental adjustment and letting go of some luxuries most Americans expect at home.

For the three of us, we had a crew of 4 people and 7 animals – our main and hiking guide, Adolfo, a cook and 2 camp hands/animal handlers. Our 4-legged porters were a mix of donkeys, mules and a rescue horse. The horse’s purpose was to assist someone with altitude sickness who is unable to walk and get them down in elevation as quickly as possible. Adolfo, our main English speaking guide, accompanied us every step of the hike and was extremely flexible and accommodating with my photography desires, even arranging an itinerary change after we started so I could have a layover day to photograph one of the most beautiful lakes there.

The crew set up and took down our tents every day. Since the pack train was faster, they would pass us on the trail and have camp all set up by the time we finished our hike for the day. Meals and snacks were timely and good given the remote locations we were in. We brought our own sleeping bags, pads, pillows, clothes, toiletries and our own toilet paper. They even carried my extra and back-up camera gear. Pure luxury. Since this area is not part of a national park, the mountains are owned by the surrounding communities and they don’t allow at-large camping – even for independent backpackers. Trekkers are required to camp at designated places which were all in grassy meadows with running water and basic stone-housed toilets.

Pack team traversing the trail along the Cordillera Huayhuash trail. © Michael DeYoung

Our 2 animal handlers and camp hands on the trail. None of the animals were ever tethered together like you commonly see with pack trains in the mountains of the Western U.S. Pack animals are commonly used by outfitters and villagers alike. We saw an entire soccer team on horses traveling to another remote village for a match.
Canon R7, Canon RF70-200/f4 at 70mm
ISO 400, 1/400th second at f8

The basic camp set up during our Huayhuash trek. © Michael DeYoung

A sunny morning at Huayhuash Camp. The 2 tents seen are the cook and dining tents with 2 of the pack donkeys in the foreground. Lauri and a stray dog we sort of adopted for the remainder of our trek and named Beethoven, are seen in the background on far right.
Canon R5, RF 24-105/f4 at 30mm
ISO 400, 1/160th second at f9
Breakthrough Photography X4 polarizer

View of a section of the Cordillera Huayhuash from the Janca camp. © Michael DeYoung

Our 4-season roomy tents were set up and taken down for us everyday. This was our view from our second camp at Janca at 13, 900′ with our first really imposing view of the Cordillera Huayhuash.
Canon R7, RF 14-35/f4 at 23mm
ISO 400, 1/640th second at f11

 

THE HIKING EXPERIENCE

We covered about 80 miles in 10-days and one day was a layover day at Laguna Carhuacoacha – one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. On our layover day, we still did a hard charging day hike to a remote lake that is lightly visited. Most days were 6-8 miles but every day involved going over a 15,000 to 16,000 foot pass so the going was slow given the altitude. Our highest point was 16,800’. I suffered a bit at that elevation but the views and calm, sunny weather we had made it all worthwhile. The trail conditions varied and were strewn with rocks and mud, and livestock poop was everywhere. Trails were well defined and some resembled 4×4 backroads more than trails. The steepness and footing were no worse than anything we’ve hiked here in the U.S. including the Rockies, Sierras, Cascades or the Chugach in Alaska. There was no serious or concerning exposure anywhere. Stone walls and corrals along with simple adobe homes were all around and housed ranchers that tended livestock.

In the age of Instagram and TikTok, the area is gaining popularity which is understandable given the stunning and sharp relief of the mountains dotted with beautiful blue glacial lakes. Most trekkers, primarily from the U.S, Australia, Japan, and Europe, use guides and outfitters and I can see how in peak season that all campsites would be crowded. We were lucky and had only 2 out of 9 nights where we experienced the noise of multiple groups. Most of the photography from here comes from younger people (20-40). That is sad to me as I believe nature photographers in their “golden years”, like me, who maintain a reasonable fitness level can do this trek.

Hiker sitting on rock along shore of Laguna Churup. © Michael DeYoung

Wendy at Laguna Churup in Huascaran National Park at 14,000′. The trailhead is a beautiful 20 minute drive from Huaraz. The hike was short and steep and was one of our acclimatization hikes. I can see on a clear afternoon the light would be really nice.
Canon R7, Canon RF24-105/f4 at 24mm
ISO 500, 1/400th second at f9

Hiker descending from Santa Rosa Pass. © Michael DeYoung

Lauri at Santa Rosa Pass, our second highest point at 16, 600′ with a 2000′ plunge in 1 mile to the lake seen below but the trail down was fun scree and a blast to descend.
The small lake in the left background was the base camp for Simon Yates and Joe Simpson’s expedition and climb up Siula Grande in the famous survival story, “Touching the Void” which is both a book and documentary movie.
Shooting mid-day with a high and harsh sun angle is always a challenge. Fortunately the cloud cover helped soften the light but it also didn’t allow for the best separation of the high peaks from the clouds. With high sun angle, the best solution is to shoot down as I did here. I was attracted to this rusty and warm colored scree that dominated much of the scene. I carefully composed to make sure Lauri did not merge with the lake below and to create the repeating splashes of aqua and blue in the image.
Canon R7, RF 14-35/f4 at 14mm
ISO 400, 1/1000th second at f7.1

View of Cordillera Huayhuash from Trapecio Punta, Peru. © Michael DeYoung

Lauri and Wendy at Trapecio Punta, our highest point at 16,800. Unfortunately there wasn’t good separation between the high peaks and the cumulus clouds but this was one of the most awesome mountain views I’ve ever seen. On our next trip we will attempt to be here in better light. On this trip the winds were calm, the sun was out and even at this high altitude the temperature was probably in the high 50’s.

 

THE PHOTOGRAPHY EXPERIENCE: HOW TO PHOTOGRAPH THE CORDILLERA HUAYHUASH and MY GEAR

What do you need to create stunning backcountry landscape images without sacrificing quality and without your camera gear being a real physical burden? The key words are: light and mobile. Serious photographers will still use DSLR cameras with interchangeable lenses. The question is, which system? There are many good options to choose from today and it starts with a current model mirrorless camera body, especially cropped sensor bodies. At this writing, Fujifilm and OM-Systems (formerly Olympus) have a greater selection of quality and performance lenses for their cropped sensor bodies than the other leading manufacturers. Canon, while making top notch full frame mirrorless bodies and lenses, is way behind with lens options for their cropped sensor cameras. I love my R5 and wouldn’t dream of going to a bucket list destination like this without it! But it is heavy. I am always looking for lighter options for a backcountry photo rig.

If I were only interested in landscapes, my choice for a backcountry camera would have been a Fujifilm XT-5. But I still like an action-capable camera in addition to landscapes, so I have stuck with mirrorless Canons. The focus performance of the Fujifilm or Sony APS-C bodies just don’t measure up to Canon in my experience. I am seriously considering switching over to OM Systems (OM-5, version II) for a backcountry camera. For all things considered for a light and mobile adventure camera outfit – weight, quality, auto focus performance, weather durability and quality lens selection, OM Systems’ offerings seem to be the best on the market. My only hang-up was the 4/3 sensor but with today’s post processing and interpolation tools available, the smaller sensor is becoming less of an issue for me.

Long story short, there is more than one right answer for a trail/adventure/travel camera outfit that delivers pro results and has a manageable weight. Consider the whole system, not just the body. Almost all cameras from main manufacturers are capable of producing decent landscapes. Auto Focus performance for action work, are still very important to me which means I have been carrying slightly heavier gear to not lose what I really like.

Photographer near first night camp. Photo credit: Lauri DeYoung

Me working a waterfall enroute to our first camp beyond the village of Llamac using my R5, 24-105 and the Benro Tortoise 14C carbon fiber tripod.

Hikers ascending the iconic Siula Punta overlook. Photo credit: Wendy Sailors

Wendy captured Lauri and me ascending the iconic Siula Punta overlook. After a fabulous sunrise the light went south by 10AM. Both Lauri and I are carrying Hyperlite Mountain Gear Elevate 22 packs that only weigh 1.5lbs empty – an ultralight pack for sure! You can see my Hyperlite Mountain Gear Camera Pod chest pack.

 

European trekkers. © Michael DeYoung

Most trekkers are younger than me, like this nice European couple, Corinna and Jan, independently backpacking the Cordillera Huayhuaysh with both using mirrorless Canon cameras and the Peak Design system of attaching the camera to a backpack shoulder strap.
I know these are popular but I’m not a big fan of Peak Design. There is no protection from the elements and weight distribution is uneven. My Hyperlite Mountain Gear Camera Pod chest holster is centered between my shoulder straps and offers excellent weather protection and quick access.

 

On this trek, I carried my trail camera – a Canon R7 with a RF14-35mm/F4 lens and a RF 70-200mm/F4 along with 1 extra battery and a Breakthrough Photography X4 77mm polarizer in my daypack. I’m a real stickler for lens quality and I generally stick with L-series lenses. The R7 is a cropped sensor (1.6 factor) but lighter than the R5. The rest of my gear which was carried by the pack animals included: Canon R5 body, RF 24-105mm/F4 lens, a Benro Tortoise 14C columnless carbon fiber tripod with a Really Right Stuff BH-25 ballhead (only 2.6 lbs.) along with a Nitecore 20,000 mAh battery bank along with a few extra batteries. I could have carried my entire outfit in my day pack but that would have been 12 pounds without any other gear. Fortunately, I didn’t have to.

On hard core adventures where you carry everything on your back, I am limited to 1 camera body and you hope it doesn’t malfunction or worse yet, break. On this trip I had the luxury of bringing back up gear. It’s hard to imagine going on any adventure without 2 camera bodies. This is where I think the APS-C bodies really shine. As far as lenses go, I used all three mentioned above. There were times where 14mm on full frame barely seemed enough and times when I wanted a little more reach than 200mm. That’s when putting the 70-200/f4 on the R7 came in handy.

For serious hikes like this trek, I use a Hyperlite Mountain Gear Elevate 22 pack. Although the pack animals carried my tripod, the Elevate 22 can easily carry this compact tripod in either side pocket. Padded photo backpacks are great for the airport but have no place on an extended day trek. They are just simply too heavy. The Elevate 22 weighs 18 oz. By comparison, F-Stop’s Guru25, their smallest ultra-light pack of similar size to the Elevate 22, weighs 2.6 pounds empty. While hiking, I carry a body with lens attached in the Hyperlite Mountain Gear large camera pod. This is the lightest and best chest holster on the market. It offers great weather protection and keeps my camera at the ready for a quick photo op.

Tropical light can be challenging. When most people think of the tropics, they think of rain forest, palm trees, or beaches and not high, alpine mountains with glaciers. Regardless of topography or fauna, the sun angle is still the same at any given latitude. Fortunately, being out in the open alpine yielded better light than what one might find in rainforest.

In the tropics, sunrises and sunsets happen much faster than they do in more polar latitudes like Alaska. The days are nearly equal – 12 hours year round. Like most places, if you sleep in, you miss the best light of the day. Fortunately, most camps had million dollar views right from camp or only a few minutes’ walk away. I was up in the dark every morning but our last (it was raining) ready for what gifts the morning would bring. I was easily able to shoot sunrise shots right from camp with the larger R5 on a tripod before having to pack them for the animals to carry for the day. We always arrived at camp well before sunset, when, in theory, I would have access to my larger R5 and tripod. All but 1 sunset was cloudy. I made 2 attempts to do night shots but it was overcast and I was exhausted so I didn’t stay up long hours attempting night shots waiting for clear skies.

At low latitudes the sun reaches very high into the sky and daytime lighting was really harsh. At this close to the equator, the seasonal difference in daylight between the shortest and longest days of the year is about an hour. So, it is basically 12 hours of night and day. Sunrise and sunset happen really fast as opposed to Alaska where good sunrises and sunsets can last an hour. Knowing this, on the 2 clear mornings I had, I shot like a madman at dawn and sunrise knowing that glowing clouds and alpenglow would only last a few minutes.

Cloud cover softened the mid-day light and with very high sun angles, I saved most of my mid-day shots when I could shoot down from a pass. I found I needed all the wide angle I had to capture the prominence of these peaks when we were close in, or I needed to really pull in something great that was in the distance. I used my 70-200 as much as I used my wide angle.

One of the things that took some getting used to was the sun traveling in the opposite direction in the southern hemisphere. Here in the US, when you are facing the sun, it always moves to the right. It is opposite south of the equator and that threw me for a loop at times, trying to figure out when the sun would emerge from a cloud or when it rise or sink behind a ridge. After a few days, I had it figured out. The night skies are completely different in the southern hemisphere.

Hiker along shore of Laguna Carhuacocha. © Michael DeYoung

Lauri at Laguna Carhuacocha, our third and fourth camps at sunset. The next morning ended up being one of the best sunrise views I’ve seen. The lake at 13, 600′ is 0.6 miles long and the peak on center left, is Nev. Yerupaja at 21,709′ is the second highest peak in Peru. These mountains have 7-8 thousand feet of prominence and were just a delight to photograph. Not knowing at the time if the following morning would be clear, I shot near sunset for “insurance.”
Selective masking tools in Lightroom allowed me to pull out a lot more detail and color than I thought I could.
Canon R5, RF 14-35/f4 at 24mm
ISO 200, 1/15th second at f11

 

Tranquil view of Laguna Carhuacocha at sunrise. © Michael DeYoung

Laguna Carhuacocha at sunrise, our third and fourth camps at dawn with cirrus clouds. This morning ended up being the best sunrise photo op of the trip and I’m so fortunate we made a spur of the moment decision 2 days earlier when we first arrived to stay another day so I had a chance at a decent sunrise. It was a great decision. We had to leave this morning but not before I had a chance to capture this and improve upon the “insurance” shots from sunset. I bolted out of bed at 5:45 AM and was dressed and down at the lake at 6AM. Sunrise happens fast at low latitudes. I shot like a madman for 15 minutes. In that time, the scene went from this to sun illuminating the lake and the light was already harsh. I was there and ready for the best light.
The lake at 13, 600′ is 0.6 miles long. These mountains have 7-8 thousand feet of prominence and were just a delight to photograph. These peaks, some of the highest in Peru and the Andes, from left to right include: Siula Grande (20, 814′), Nev. Yerupaja (21,709′) the second highest peak in Peru, Nev. Yerupaja Chico (19,977′) and Nev. Jirishanca (19,993′)
Canon R5, RF 16-35/f4 at 17mm,
ISO 200, 1.7 seconds at f11,
Breakthrough Photography X4 polarizer

 

The first of 3 lakes along Siula Punta - Laguna Gangrajanca. © Michael DeYoung

This is the first of three glacial lakes, Laguna Gangrajanca, on the trail to Siula Punta that has a sweeping view of 3 lakes below the towering peaks. This was one of the most photogenic trails I’ve ever hiked and a “must do” upon our return. The color on these lakes is real but it seems “unreal.” Unfortunately, the weather went south quickly so I didn’t get the iconic Cordillera Huayhuash photo from the overlook, but the sunrise image (previous image) I got that morning was worth the whole trip.
Canon R5, RF 14-35mm/f4 at 18mm,
ISO 400, 1/320th second at f10
Breakthrough Photography X4 polarizer

 

Favorite locations: Being in the tropics, even in the dry season, the main cloud type in the Cordillera Huayhuash is cumulus build up with an afternoon and early evening maximum. I found sunrises to be more productive than sunsets and really favored the east side of the range. The first 2 camps were my favorite at Janca and at Laguna Carhuacoacha. I want to go back and re-shoot in the morning from Siula Punta, which gives you the iconic Cordillera Huayhuash shot you’ll see on many of the outfitters’ and bloggers’ websites and the view from our highest point, Punta Trapecio, at 16,800’. The views were out of this world, and I would love to re-shoot that with more blue skies.

Night skies from camp along the Huayhuash trail. © Michael DeYoung

Clearing skies and a visible piece of the Milky Way from another 14,000′ camp on day 6. Due to cloud cover, I didn’t do as much camp and night sky shooting as I had hoped to do. This is looking down valley toward lower peaks and not at the big peaks of Cordillera Huayhuash. After a long day on the trail and reaching our highest point at 16, 800′ I lasted maybe an hour waiting for the sky to clear before just being too tired to wait.
Canon R5, RF 14-35/f4 at 14mm
ISO 3200, 30 seconds at f4

 

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