The wind pouring through this 12,600-foot notch on a rocky ridge was so fierce and icy that a climbing party gaining the pass last week stayed only long enough to catch their breaths and take in the view. On one side lay the way they had come: 18 miles of rough trail along the roiling Animas River and up to the crest of the Needle Mountains. On the other side waited the way they were going: a 3,000-foot plunge to a narrow valley, hidden by jagged peaks in the heart of Colorado's largest roadless area.
They had 20 miles to go before the end of the day. They had more than 120 pounds of camping and camera gear. Fortunately, they also had two llamas, Pinochle and Howdy-Doody, to carry the load.
The wind tousled the llamas' hair and whipped the straps on their panniers (saddlebags) as the group headed down the pass.
The path ahead was steep and choked in places with shifting cobbles, but men and animals clambered easily down.
From a distance, we probably looked like a team of veteran packers handling well-trained llamas.
In fact, it was just me, another reporter and a photographer. Two days before, our collective knowledge of llamas was that you could make sweaters from their wool, but if you annoyed them, they'd spit at you.
It turns out, if your other backcountry skills are solid, that's all you have to know about llamas to rent a couple for a mountain trek.
Three outfitters in Colorado, and several more throughout the West, lease the furry Andean SUVs for wilderness backpacking. Hikers simply call to reserve a couple of llamas, go through a brief llama-wrangling orientation, then hit the trail.
For backpackers, it's a nobrainer: Llamas can carry about 80 pounds, and their padded, cloven-hoofed feet can tackle the rockiest paths.
For outfitters, at first it doesn't seem to make sense: Why let people who know nothing about livestock lead your llamas into the middle of nowhere?
But it turns out know-how isn't that necessary. Backpackers may not know much about successful llama packing, but llamas do. The well-trained mountain packers almost never cause trouble.
In a way, it's too bad they're so good. The potential for a llama fiasco was one of the reasons I rented two llamas for our recent 60-mile trek through the Weminuche Wilderness to the most remote point in Colorado. As a veteran news editor once told me, "The best stories are about the dead, the nearly dead, or the better-off dead."
The other reason is I had to do a 60-mile trek through the Weminuche Wilderness, and if I didn't find a sturdy pack animal, I'd become one by default.
I'm disappointed to say how well it all went.
TAKE A LOAD OFF
Photographer Mark Reis and I met Larry Sanford of Buckhorn Llama Co. at his pasture near Durango for mandatory Llama 101.
The first thing he told us: Llamas don't like people.
"They have no response to human affection. Don't listen to what the foo-foo pet llama people say," he said. You can pet them, comb their hair, feed them treats, but in the end, "Your relationship with the llama is based on leaving them alone."
He brought out two tall, lean llamas: Pinochle, a jumpy, troublesome llama that ran away from Sanders last year and lived in the wild for a summer, and Howdy-Doody, a calm 10-year-old with a shaggy coat, who, on seeing us, let out a low, concerned hum that sounded like Marge Simpson.
Sanford went through the basics: how to saddle, how to load panniers, how to tie the llamas to a stake at night, how to shake a sack of "catch corn" to draw the llamas back if they get away. The llamas stood obligingly, though Howdy continued to hum.
"I don't know why he hums," Sanford said. "Maybe he doesn't know the words."
There was only one critical lesson: Never let go of the lead rope.
"You shouldn't have any problems, though," Sanford said above Howdy's increasingly loud hums. "These guys are calm, intelligent animals. They're real easy. Actually, it's amazing how easy they are considering how much work they can do."
You don't have to talk to animal lovers long to hear a similar line; whether it's pit bulls or rats or donkeys, owners always boast about how sensitive and intelligent the animals are. That doesn't mean they're all easy to deal with.
The llamas at least looked manageable, but I wondered what they would do when the boss wasn't around.
We met Sanford the next morning at the Purgatory Creek Trailhead and loaded four panniers weighing about 40 pounds each on the waiting llamas.
Because the llamas were doing the work, the other reporter, Andy Wineke, had brought all kinds of extras: a flat, almost full Pepsi. Six warm beers, a stack of books and magazines, and a folding camp chair.
The llamas took the loads without complaining. When everything was secured, Sanford handed over the lead ropes with a smile and said, "See you in a few days."
The first thing you notice about walking with a llama is you don't really notice you're walking with a llama. Their wide, padded feet don't make the clippity-clop of horse hooves. They don't whinny or click their teeth. They don't crowd you or wander off the trail. They don't startle at noises. As we headed down Purgatory Creek, I realized that walking a 350-pound llama through the woods appeared to be easier than walking my 18-pound Chihuahua/dachshund mix around the block.
And this was no easy trail.
It dropped almost 1,000 feet in a cascade of loose, rocky switchbacks and narrow corridors where the trail hung six stories above a frothing creek. The llamas were right at home. They sauntered down steep, slick stone that might cause a horse to stumble. They bounded up loose, gravely grades. When we came to a spot where an aspen had fallen across the path, making a waist-high fence, the llamas jumped over, panniers and all, without the slightest bit of prodding.
It only took a few minutes to forget the potential fiasco of llamas gone wild. After that, the only thing left to do was enjoy the surroundings.
The Weminuche is one of the most beautiful places in the state _ so wet that the valleys hold huge, ancient, mosscovered fir trees, so steep that the creeks are more waterfall than stream. So vast that, even with a llama, it would take a week to cross.
It makes sense that llamas would be so at home in the Rockies. After all, they were domesticated in similar terrain in the Andes about 5,000 years ago, and since then they've been used almost exclusively as pack animals on rough, high, dry trails.
ACE IN THE WOOL
In Colorado, Buckhorn Llama Co. took up the tradition 30 years ago when founders Stan and Dianne Ebel, who were avid backpackers and new parents, bought their first llama in the hopes it would let them continue exploring the wilderness, children in tow. Since then, they have been breeding pack llamas to be big, strong and easy-going _ the ultimate rental llama.
Buckhorn does not advertise.
"Can you imagine some guy from New York City with no backpacking experience coming out and doing this?" Sanford said.
Instead the company relies on word of mouth and hikers who for one reason or another have more than they can carry.
Some are young moms and dads, some are baby boomers with backs that no longer tolerate a big pack. Some, like nature photographer John Fielder, a regular customer, need a hand lugging equipment far beyond where the pavement ends.
Most are return customers.
"And they tend to rent more llamas as time goes on," Sanford said. "You get a couple guys on a trip and it doesn't take them long to realize that next year, for a little more money, they could have a llama just for beer and steaks."
The llamas themselves are the best advertising.
We dropped down to where Purgatory Creek meets the Animas River and followed the river seven miles up a deep, forested valley to a side canyon called Chicago Basin.
There we ran into three backpackers who'd walked the same route with all the weight on their backs. They stopped, a little dumbstruck, when we passed. Here, in front of them, was a pair of odd-looking ungulates with such huge lips, such huge eyes, such long princess eyelashes and such impossibly slender necks that they looked like horses designed by the folks who created Bratz dolls.
But the really dumbfounding part is that these weird, camel-like creatures were carrying all our gear.
"I'm jealous," said a woman with a large, red backpack as she ran her fingers along Pinochle's neck. (He was dutifully ignoring the affection.) She asked questions: What do you have to feed them? What do you do with them at night?
And I realized something: She thought we were real llama people - that we owned these llamas, subscribed to llama magazines, probably had friends who had llamas.
Everyone we passed thought that. They looked at the animals longingly, scratched their necks, but always seemed to act as if acquiring llamas would be as needlessly difficult as learning Chinese to order takeout.
Then I started telling people: These are rentals.
"Two days ago, I knew nothing at all about llamas," I told one couple struggling up Columbine Pass.
"Really?" the husband said, instantly perking up. "How much do they cost?"
About $50 a day.
"How much food do you have to carry for them?"
None, they eat grass and leaves. The world is their Denny's.
"Wow, that is so cool!" he said to his wife as they walked up the trail. "Next summer, if we did that, we could get Mike to come!"
Who knows who Mike is, but it's true: For a modest sum, llamas take much of the unpleasantness out of backpacking, and, in their stoic llama way, also make for good company.
Pinochle trotted with his skinny head always peeking just over the shoulder of whomever was leading him as if to say, "I want to go faster, but if you're not ready, I'm cool with that."
He seemed to love hiking - the more weight you gave him, the better.
Howdy was the opposite. Tired from a previous weeklong trip, he dragged at the back of his lead rope and knelt down to rest at every chance. He wasn't stubborn or rebellious, just worn out. We lightened his load so he could keep up.
At camp, the llamas did their own thing. We let them take a few long guzzles from the stream (llamas need very little water), then picketed them in a meadow where they happily munched grass until the sun went down.
In the middle of the night, I had a dream that Pinochle had escaped. I sat up in the dark and flicked on my headlamp. There were two pairs of llama eyes placidly staring back.
The next morning we took the llamas 22 miles, round-trip, over Columbine Pass and into the next valley. Occasionally Howdy dragged from fatigue, but he was never stubborn or spiteful, even when I tried to explain to him that one person on our trip had packed a ridiculously thick history book called "The Generalship of Alexander the Great" without ever reading a page.
All through the three-day trip, I kept turning to the photographer and saying things such as "Boy, these llamas are great," or "These llamas rock," or "I can't believe how well-behaved these llamas are."
And he would always respond by quoting Sanford's words. "They don't respond to human affection. You're not turning in to one of those foofoo llama people are you?"
But just because they don't respond to affection doesn't mean they don't deserve it. And I don't think anyone could not want to hug one of the furry, long-eared animals that carry so much for so long and demand so little in return.
I don't think I was the only one on our trip who felt that way. On the way out, I noticed the photographer letting the llamas eat choice bits of grass when they should be walking, and scratching their long, curved necks. On the last day, when we finally reached the trailhead, he took out a pouch of the catch corn (we hadn't used any because the llamas never tried to get away). And with something that looked a lot like affection, he went around calling the llamas by name and feeding them this last-resort treat.