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Know the West

Why Juan Valdez doesn't haul coffee beans on a llama


Recently I read a story in an outdoor-sports magazine about how "superior" llamas are to horses, burros and mules for backcountry packing. It caused me to spit green grass juice. Over the last decade, I have trained, cared for and packed with burros, horses and llamas. I've even gone so far as to enter a pack-llama race, which I won, in 1990. So don't take me wrong: I think better of most llamas than I do of most people. And I know the novelty of packing with a llama has served to introduce many people to the wonders of the high country.

However, llamas aren't as environmentally correct as some say they are, and to promote them as serious packstock is like pushing a Pomeranian in favor of a Rottweiler as a guard dog.

Llama promoters say their animals are tidy, tending to defecate in the same place. And in this respect they're right - in streams. Quite often when a llama crosses a creek it will squat and take a load off its mind. Or it will pee. Or it will do both. The intestinal visitor giardia never had it so good before the advent of llamas in the North American wilderness. Also, I've noticed that llama pellets take exactly the same amount of time to decompose as loose-packed road apples. Here's the poop on the poop: If you can step in it, it ain't gone, and despite arguments to the contrary, I'd bet llamas pass weed seeds, too, but I'm not interested in doing the research.

Then there is the fallacy that llamas cause less trail impact than equines because of their cloven hooves. In Peru, where llamas are quite common, some trails are several feet deep. Damage to trails occurs mostly in places that are damp or boggy. Llamas may not sink as far as a burro, but that's because they probably aren't carrying much of a load. In fact, an outfitter would probably have to take four times as many animals to carry the same load on llamas rather than horses or mules. Which is tougher on a muddy trail, six horses or 24 llamas? Twenty-four shod feet or 96 cloven hooves?

I've trekked with my burro 11 miles over a 12,000-foot pass, back down to 10,000 feet and then back up to a high lake near 12,000 feet. He carried more than 100 pounds of food and gear, weighed before leaving. I have never seen a llama perform well with more than 40 pounds on its back.

The truth is, I have never seen a llama perform well in the backcountry at all. I've watched them stop to eat along the trail while their humans sweet-talked them to get back to their jobs. I once saw a llama turn full circle on a narrow switchback, nearly knocking his owner off the mountainside before heading down the trail with two of his buddies in tow. Another time I enlisted my fully loaded burro to pull a string of these lightly packed recalcitrant camels back down a trail after they refused to head home.

Want concrete numbers?

At one year's Burro Days in Fairplay, Colo., where there is both a pack-llama and a pack-burro race, it took the winner of the three-mile, 0-vertical-foot llama race 25 minutes and 28 seconds to reach the finish line. The next day the winner of the 30-mile burro race, which included more than 3,000 vertical-feet of ascent and descent, two stream crossings, a spongy mile-long tundra grind followed by a climb up a boulder field and rock glacier, four hours and 10 minutes to finish. The winning per-mile pace of the 10-times-longer and 10-times-harder burro race was still nearly 10 seconds faster than that of the winner of the llama contest.

The following year two llamaroos accepted a challenge to run the burro course. One didn't finish; the other llama was still on the course long after most of the burro racers had showered.

The llama's basic problem is biomechanical - it doesn't seem to have a fast walk or trot as do equines. Llamas progress from a slow walk directly to a lope, which brings into play large shoulder and rump muscles and causes these animals to go anaerobic faster than you can say "patagoatia" three times.

Neither llamas nor equines are native to this continent. But consider this: King George of Spain gave donkeys as a noble gift to President George Washington. The llamas in North America came from South American peasants, sly mountain folk who upgraded to mules and horses by selling their animals to American yuppies for top dollar. In South America, only the poorest of peasants now owns a llama. Juan Valdez hauls his coffee beans on a mule.

It's a true dichotomy. In the United States, low-end llamas start at $1,000. A "good" one can be easily twice that. Many American llamas are inbred or crossbred. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management sells wild horses and burros - animals specifically adapted to life in the American wilderness through natural selection - for $125 and $75 respectively. You can get a trained packhorse at a sale barn for under $1,000.

Despite what llama promoters tell you, llamas are not on a "Diet for a Small Planet" and can eat in comparable proportions to a like-size equine. And they go to the vet just as often, too - sometimes to be treated for abscesses they develop in their mouths from eating expensive alfalfa hay, which is not a part of their evolutionary diet.

In all my studies of the mountains and pack animals, I did learn one way in which llamas may outperform equines. When I was studying mountain geography at the University of Colorado, my professor used to tell stories of how the llamaroos in the Andes packed food deep into the mountains on these critters.

When that food was gone, they barbecued the llamas.

He said they tasted pretty good.

Hal Walter and his wife, Mary, raise and train burros for backcountry packing and racing on their ranch near Westcliffe, Colorado. He is currently working on a book of essays about outdoor sports.