Leading Llamas in the Sierra
OK, back from 22 days with GG’s daughter and llamas Joe, Sarek and Theo on the John Muir Trail. So some thoughts on llama packing, in case anyone cares.
The big pro for llama packing vs horses: you don’t have to hire a wrangler. The biggest negative: you are the wrangler. Frankly whether you ever decide to do this or not depends on how you feel about having animals to care for. If you can’t stand the thought of a 40 pound pack but love llamas and pine for the high country, this is for you. If you can’t tell if your pack weighs 10 or 60 pounds when you bust up Kearsarge Pass and routinely kick stray dogs, probably you don’t want to do this.
A minimal day with rental llamas might start with you getting up, packing your gear, eating your breakfast and then putting your gear into pairs of bags that balance within a pound or so (GG recommends making a list of what is in each bag the first time you get this to work so you can start more quickly each morning). You saddle the llamas and toss on and cinch down the bags, and off you go (after spreading out the llama poop so it degrades faster). On the trail your worries are minimal, though you want to keep an eye out for horse parties or, if outside a national park, groups with dogs (horses and mules will spook at llamas–you get well off the trail; llamas will want to face dogs and so can get in a tangled mess if dogs are too close). You may be posing for photos a big part of the day. As your hiking day wanes, you seek out a site where llamas can graze, which can be mildly tricky. You unload the llamas, remove saddles, put out a picket line and put the llamas on it, get some water for the llamas, do some camp things, and possibly move the llamas around some (depending on the grazing) before bringing them out of the grass for night. Nothing too complex, but you do need to do it.
The single most worrying part is whether or not you will poison the llamas. We were given guidance to only graze the llamas where the plants were nearly all grass and you could see soil between the clumps of grass. Nobody got sick, so that seemed to work. But it can make it hard to know for sure where you will be OK, especially at first as you start to study grassy areas and realize they are all different in ways that may or may not matter. GG suspects that it helps to not leave the llamas for a long time in one place, especially if they are hungry–they might eat their way down to unpleasant stuff. Also, outside the parks you won’t find much info on where there is good grazing–coming to a lake you plan on camping at at 4 in the afternoon only to discover there is nothing is no fun. (FWIW, we managed pretty nearly everywhere we wanted to camp). Inside the parks, there are grazing restrictions and meadow closures to navigate (the toughest on the Muir Trail is the big closures around Rae Lakes).
Realistically, if you put the welfare of the llamas first, you will do OK. The few non-poisoning horror stories we encountered had to do with llamas that were not seasoned for trail work and/or users who were not attuned to working with the animals.
In the Sierra, you are either using your own llamas or renting from Potato Ranch Llama Packers; nobody else seems to rent llamas in the Sierra (different story in the Rockies, where there are several operators). Note that for serious trail use, llamas need to be trained and properly prepared, so your high school friend’s llama might not be a great fit. Generally the llamas really like to be together, so having at least 2 probably makes for happier llamas and easier management for you.
P.S. If you really have the stomach for the blow-by-blow of the whole trip, it is slowly coming online at http://cires1.colorado.edu/people/jones.craig/Llama/index.html.