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|October 18-24, 2007
by Dave Philipps
A little more about our friend, the llama
by Dave Philipps
Two Colorado classics
by James Dziezynski
by Wendy Zang
by Dave Philipps
COLUMBINE PASS, Colo. — 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 no-brainer: 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, moss-covered 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 foo-foo 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.
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A little more about our friend, the llama
by Dave Philipps
LLAMA VS. HORSE
Weight: 280-450 pounds
Foot: Tough, grippy pad and two pointed hooves
Maximum payload: 80 pounds
Native to: South American mountains
Advantages: Sure-footed, calm, easy to handle, inexpensive, no extra feed needed on most trips.
Disadvantages: Can’t carry much
Weight: 850-1,200 pounds
Foot: Single, rounded hoof
Maximum payload: 200 pounds
Native to: Central Asian plains
Advantages: Fast, strong, can carry a lot.
Disadvantages: Less steady on steep, rocky trails, more easily spooked, pricey to replace.
HOW IRRITATED IS YOUR LLAMA?
Llamas spit at other llamas when irritated. Llamas are also ruminants, which means they have three stomachs. Llama breeders say the more irritated a llama is, the farther into each of its stomach compartments it will try to draw materials from for its spit.
Lesson: Do not irritate a llama.
NEED A BEAST OF BURDEN?
Salida — anterollamas.com, 1-719-539-6888
Rates: $49 per llama per day, plus $30 orientation class and 50 cent-per-mile delivery fee.
Buckhorn Llama Co.
Fort Collins, Durango and Bluff, Utah — llamapack.com, 1-970-667-7411, firstname.lastname@example.org
Rates: $55 per llama per day for one, $45 for two or more, plus $100 orientation class and $1.25-per-mile delivery fee.
Wildflower Ridge Llamas
Colorado Springs — wildflowerridgellamas.com, 719-481-9278
Rates: $30 per llama per day, $1-per-mile delivery fee.
Note: Have a pickup truck? Save money. Most llama packers rent “stock racks,” or pens that fit in the backs of trucks, for about $10. This can save big money on delivery costs, which run from 50 cents per mile to $1.25 per mile at the three major Colorado rental companies.
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Two Colorado classics
by James Dziezynski
The twin summits of Peak One and Tenmile Peak cut an impressive profile over the town of Frisco, especially when seen from the end of the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70 westbound. Peak One demarcates the northern boundary of the Tenmile Range, a striking series of mountains that link the Gore and Mosquito Ranges. Peaks 7, 8, 9 and 10 are familiar to winter sports enthusiasts as the terrain of Breckenridge ski resort. Peak One and Tenmile Peak make a great hiking adventure with several different aspects — including a ghost town — to enjoy along the way. The trailhead parking for this hike is one of the easiest to reach in Colorado. Take I-70 westbound to exit 201 in Frisco. Take exit 201, then turn left at the end of the ramp and drive under the highway. Just past the exit ramp for the eastbound Exit 201, take a right into the large parking lot (which is also a popular starting point for the bike path to Vail).
You’ll have a short, five-minute hike south toward town on the bike path to the Mount Royal Trailhead, on your west (right-hand) side.
Once you are on the trail, you begin a modest climb to the ruins of Masontown. Roughly a mile up the trail, you’ll see strewn pieces of metal, brick foundations and other sundry artifacts from the old mining town. The original working mine closed shop after the ore played out and the place was flattened by an avalanche. A second town sprang up in the 1920s that was a hub for moonshine during Prohibition, but this establishment was again crushed by an avalanche in 1926 and abandoned. If you want to poke around the ruins, you can go off trail and explore the assorted footpaths that lead to a few more relics. Just above the town you’ll have a great look at the avalanche scar on the mountainside.
After Masontown, the hike up to Peak One gets very steep, mainly due to the fact that there are very few switchbacks. The path is relatively straightforward, though there is an unmarked fork with two well-traveled trails. The right trail goes to the Mount Royal lookout, and the straight trail continues on to Peak One. Note that from the first lookout point, where you can see I-70 below, a faint trail goes south past a sandy area that shortcuts to an old ruined cabin, saving you a backtrack to the Peak One trail.
From here, the steep hills break tree line and pushes up to the summit. Despite the imposing views as you come through the trees, the hike to the 12,805 ft. top is class two. Peak One is good for dogs, though Tenmile Peak is too technical for pooches. Depart the summit along the scrambly class-three ridge that runs about a mile between Peak One and 12,933 ft. Tenmile Peak (also known as Peak 2). Keep your eyes open for 60,000-year-old seashells in the red dirt, fossils from the days the area was underwater.
If you get both peaks, expect nearly 5,000 feet of elevation gain and 10 miles round trip of hiking. Never mind the fabled 14ers — these peaks are true Colorado classics with sublime views of Lake Dillon and surrounding mountains.
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by Wendy Zang
Adventure Blog (www.adventureblog.org) offers a terrific roundup of news and notes from the outdoor adventure world. In its own words, the site is designed, “To bring out the Adventurer in you! To satisfy the wild need for thrill and danger. From extreme sports to rollicking trips. From extreme science to scary destinations.”
Tags range from bungee jumping to rapid rafting and space travel to travel news. And recent posts have included the world water-skiing record, crocodile cage diving, ballooning in Cappadocia and adventure racing in Tahoe. Most posts are sourced and accompanied by terrific photos.
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Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard about the die-off of coral reefs due to global warming. I’ve also read that coral reefs themselves store carbon dioxide (CO2), one of the main global warming gases. So if coral reefs are dying out, isn’t that a double whammy that increases the CO2 in the atmosphere?
— Tom Ozzello, Maplewood, Minn.
According to marine scientists, the world’s coral reefs — those underwater repositories for biodiversity that play host to some 25 percent of all marine life — are in big trouble as a result of global warming. Data collected by the international environmental group WWF (formerly World Wildlife Fund) show that 20 percent of the world’s coral reefs have been effectively destroyed and show no immediate sign of recovery, while about 50 percent of remaining reefs are under imminent or long-term threat of collapse.
Most scientists now agree that global warming is not a natural phenomenon but a direct result of the continual release of excessive amounts of CO2 and other “greenhouse” gases into the atmosphere by human industrial and transportation activity. And the small but prolonged rises in ocean temperature that result cause coral colonies to expel the symbiotic food-producing algae that sustain them. This process is called “bleaching,” because it turns the reefs white as they die.
But researchers working with the Coral Reef Alliance have found that while coral reefs do store CO2 as part of photosynthesis, they tend to release most of it back into the ocean (so they are not what are known as “carbon sinks”). As such, the release of CO2 from dying coral reefs is not a major concern.
Of course, the ocean itself is a large carbon sink, storing about a quarter of what would otherwise end up in the atmosphere.
Landmasses (and their plants) soak up another quarter of all the CO2 emanating from the Earth’s surface, while the rest rises up into the atmosphere where it can wreak havoc with our climate.
Recent findings indicate that the Antarctic Ocean is getting less efficient at storing CO2, and this raises serious questions about the ability of our oceans to handle everything we throw at them. The study’s authors fear that “such weakening of one of the Earth’s major carbon dioxide sinks will lead to higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide in the long-term.”
Not everyone is forecasting gloom and doom. Some Australian researchers believe that coral reefs around the world could expand in size by up to a third due to increased ocean warming. “Our finding stands in stark contrast to previous predictions that coral reef growth will suffer large, potentially catastrophic, decreases in the future,” says University of New South Wales oceanographer Ben McNeil, who led the controversial 2004 study that was published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Geophysical Research Letters. “Our analysis suggests that ocean warming will foster considerably faster future rates of coral reef growth that will eventually exceed pre-industrial rates by as much as 35 per cent by 2100,” he adds.
In spite of such theories, the majority of marine scientists remain pessimistic about the future of coral reefs in a warmer world. One can only hope that the optimists are right.
GOT AN ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTION? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/thisweek/, or e-mail: email@example.com. Read past columns at: www.emagazine.com/earthtalk/archives.php.
WWF, www.panda.org; Coral Reef Alliance, www.coralreefalliance.org; “Coral reefs may grow with global warming,” New Scientist, www.newscientist.com/article/dn6763.html.
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Thursday, Oct. 18
Tales of the West. Chautauqua Ranger Cottage, 900 Baseline Rd., Boulder, 303-441-3440.
Friday, Oct. 19
Gentle Yoga, Gentle Hike. Chautauqua Ranger Cottage, 900 Baseline Rd., Boulder, 303-441-3440.
Saturday, Oct. 20
Plant and Animal Survival Adaptation Hike. Chautauqua Ranger Cottage, 900 Baseline Rd., Boulder, 303-441-3440.
Restore Native Plants. Mud Lake, location available upon registration, Boulder, 303-678-6216.
Where are the Bears? Chautauqua Ranger Cottage, 900 Baseline Rd., Boulder, 303-441-3440.
Sunday, Oct. 21
Hiking for Non-hikers. Chautauqua Ranger Cottage, 900 Baseline Rd., Boulder, 303-441-3440.
Meet the Neighbors. Chautauqua Ranger Cottage, 900 Baseline Rd., Boulder, 303-441-3440.
Tuesday, Oct. 23
Exotic Brazil. Changes in Latitude, 2525 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, 303-786-8406.
To list your event, send information to: firstname.lastname@example.org; attn: “Elevation.”
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