Chapters

Llama-Packing The San Juans


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Llama Packing the San Juans

Llama Packing the San Juans

The trip would have felt incomplete to me if we had ridden north and then east along the northern boundary of this jagged landscape of unpolished beauty. We needed to go through its heart and experience the essence of wilderness and—just maybe—a taste of wildness. But what to do with our bikes? We had a couple of options. First, we could leave our bikes and have them shuttled to the beginning of the next bike segment. We’re used to going start-to-finish with our prime mode of transportation, and this option felt too easy and a little like cheating (negating the suffer aspect of our shared adventure values). We could each become a beast of burden and strap them on our backs for a true hike-a-bike across the Weminuche. All three of us have had plenty of experience with lashing bikes to a pack, most recently with last year’s journey across Alaska’s Wrangell-St. Elias range. This choice seemed a little masochistic as it would be at least a three- to four-day hike. 

I am not sure from what nook or cranny the third idea emerged, but when presented to the fellas, it was solidified as our most viable option: to use llamas to carry our carbon two-wheeled steeds. 

Llamas are cool. —Doom, Jon, & BD

We met Bill Redwood, the owner of Redwood Llamas, at 8 AM at his house in Silverton. Tethered to the horse trailer in his driveway were Grant and Vance, our four-legged friends-to-be. For more than thirty years, Bill has been using sure-footed, hard-working llamas to help people experience the Weminuche Wilderness. Llamas originated as pack animals during the Inca Empire of the Peruvian Andes. They are known for their calm and easy-going demeanor, which is probably why neophytes like us were able to lease such animals without a guide joining the team. After my initial call to Bill, I was sold on the idea of using the animals to transport our bikes across the wilderness. Bill was open to the idea, though in his 36 years of working with llamas, he had never once been approached about his pack animals carrying bikes. This was going to be a first for everyone, including Grant and Vance.

 

Since I had made the arrangements to lease the llamas, I earned the title of “llama saddler.” Exhibiting an exorbitant amount of patience with a rookie, Bill helped me get both Grant and Vance saddled. Next, we had to figure out how to secure the bikes to the panniers on the saddle. Grant and Vance patiently stood by as we inadvertently poked and prodded them in order to find a load arrangement that was comfortable for both them and Bill. After an hour of experimentation, we were ready to walk down a gravel side street in Silverton and begin the steep climb out of the valley. Instead of being ridden, our bikes would now get a ride from the llamas for the next four days or so.

As stated, our recent winter was one for the record books in terms of the number of destructive avalanches that the mountains endured. For more than two weeks, the highway between Silverton and Ouray was under 30 feet or more of snow and closed to all traffic. No one really knew what the wreckage would be like in the remote high country until the spring melt occurred. When that time came, backcountry travelers found havoc in the valley floors, with the debris of old growth timber snapped and splintered from the aftermath of historic avalanches. The valley trails were impassable. 

We knew the only way to cross the Weminuche was to get above tree line to avoid the chaos below, which would be impenetrable for our two sure-footed friends. Additionally, from completing our first segment of the journey, we also knew that we were likely to encounter vast remnants of our winter’s deep snowpack. This would pose issues for Grant and Vance as post-holing wasn’t one of their strong suits. As Silverton faded into the valley below us with each step upwards, there was an air of nervousness about our group. How would the llamas react to us and to having an unusual load strapped to their backs? Would there be too much snow remaining in the high country for us make it to our next rendezvous point?

Hey fellas, I think we have an issue here. There is fishing line hanging from Vance’s mouth. —BD 

Looking through the head-high willows, I saw Doom and Vance staring eye to eye in yet another standstill. A one-way discussion was happening between the two as Doom was trying to coax Vance onward and upward. Vance, on the other hand, was not into Doom’s sweet talking, and stood rigidly in place seeking to stretch out his tether to snatch some vegetation to munch on. It was our second day on the trail and we had just finished successfully negotiating an area of steep timber that we had thought could be troublesome with avalanche debris. To our delight, the trail was clear other than a couple of easily passable downed trees. We were now climbing toward our second mountain pass of the day that seldom sees foot traffic. Consequently, the trail was overgrown with vegetation and both Vance and Grant did not seem particularly 

psyched about the bushwhacking. Additionally, we were 12 miles into a planned 18-mile day. 

Our experience thus far with Vance and Grant had been amazing. True to their reputations, we found the llamas to be relaxed hiking companions who easily fell into the rhythm of our adventure. Following Bill’s care recommendations, we stopped every hour to let the boys graze for a few minutes before continuing. Never was there a complaint from our four-legged partners, other than a llama hum between the two when they both spied a coyote on a high ridge above us. We didn’t even witness any spitting tantrums. Our camera shutters never stopped going off, as we wanted to capture every photogenic moment we spent with the creatures.

After about the fifteenth Doom and Vance battle of wills, it started to dawn on us that our usual pace of continual movement for 12 to 16 hours a day was wearing on the llamas. They are up for a day of such output, but not back to back days stacked upon each other. When we finally cajoled them to a suitable camping spot that was not in the middle of a steep hillside, we unsaddled them for the day and got to work figuring out how to shorten our route across the wilderness. It was a bit of a disappointment, but we had limited time to complete this journey.  

Fortunately, we were at the head of a drainage that had a well-trodden trail exiting towards our next resupply. The shortcut would set us up for a relaxed day of hiking downhill (which Vance and Grant would enjoy), as well as allow us to connect with Diana (my gracious wife), in order to hand off the llamas and prepare for the next segment of the ramble. Oh, and about the fishing line quote above: upon finishing our hike with the llamas, I looked up and was alarmed to see fishing line hanging from Vance’s mouth. Both llamas had been lazily grazing near the headwaters of the Rio Grande (our means of covering the next segment of the adventure). Vance chomped away on the lush riverside grass, swallowing several feet of fishing line in the process. Once we had discovered what had happened, Doom began lightly pulling the fishing line from Vance’s gullet, hoping that there was not a lure or other fishing implement attached to the other end. Flashes of me writing a check to Bill for $7,000 (the replacement cost of a llama) went through my mind, along with all kinds of other depressing scenarios as I watched the line come out of Vance’s mouth. I let out a large sigh of relief as the end of the line came smoothly out without a snag. Acting as if nothing was out of the ordinary, Vance looked at all of us strange humans for a brief moment, and then got back to grazing. Whew!