Since when has carrying up to 80 pounds of gear through the wilderness been as easy as holding a loose coil of rope? For thousands of years, apparently.
Local outfitter Stuart Wilde, with Wild Earth Llama Adventures, discovered the benefits of traveling with llamas more than two decades ago, and he has been sharing the experience with his clients on day hikes and multi-day treks almost as long.
During a trip into the Valle Vidal, Sept. 14-16, Wilde also introduced a group to that spectacular piece of Northern New Mexico, camping with llamas, concepts in forestry and leave-no-trace travel in the backcountry.
The Valle Vidal, or “Valley of Life,” is home to the state’s largest elk herd and potentially the largest stand of bristlecone pine trees in the country.
The 100,000-acre unit of the Carson National Forest was protected from mineral development by federal legislation about six years ago. It ranges in elevation from lower than 8,000 feet to higher than 12,000.
According to information from the Forest Service, the Valle Vidal composed the western section of a land grant made to Carlos Beaubien and Guadalupe Miranda in 1941, eventually coming to be owned by the Pennzoil Company, which donated the property to the government in 1982.
A local campaign to preserve the area sprung out of proposed coalbed methane development on about 40,000 acres in the eastern portion of the area. The effort culminated in the Dec. 2006 signing of the Valle Vidal Protection Act.
The Valle Vidal, according to information from the Forest Service, contains 60 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 33 species of reptiles and amphibians and 15 species of fish, including the Río Grande cutthroat trout. Fish in the area are protected by special regulations: In the streams of the Valle Vidal, bait fishing is not allowed, all fishing is catch-and-release only.
Seasonal closures are meant to protect wildlife, including calving elk, and state Department of Game and Fish spokesman Dan Williams said it is the only place in the state with a once-in-a-lifetime elk hunt, though such hunts exist elsewhere for oryx and ibex.
A 90-minute drive from Taos took Wilde’s group into the heart of the Valle Vidal, where the hikers packed up their llamas and started on their way on the brisk, windy morning of Sept. 14. They headed through bristle cone pine forest and into the verdant meadows that are a hallmark of the Valle Vidal. Explaining the history of the area to his clients, Wilde said the Valle Vidal is referred to as the "Yellowstone of New Mexico," particularly because of its abundant wildlife.
He gave his group a brief primer of llama history, care and handling.
"They are one of the oldest domesticated animals on the planet," he said, describing llamas as "high-mountain camels." Wilde said they are good on rough, rocky terrain and low impact on wilderness trails.
They get most of their water from foraging for branches, needles, bark and twigs, as well as grass, helping to make them an ideal "leave-no-trace pack animal."
"It's a strolling, all-you-can-eat salad bar," he said of the trail.
The llamas were pretty easy to handle, even for Wilde's inexperienced clients, and quiet except for occasional hums and grunts. When tied to trees in a ring around camp, the llamas' prey instincts kicked in: If they saw or heard anything outside the perimeter of the campsite, they would raise the alarm — a completely different noise from the humming on the trail, it could be compared to the sped-up protesting of a burro.
A jarring and unmistakable noise, the "llama alarm" would easily wake a sleeping camper. Wilde said the llamas don't sleep at night, either, so little goes unnoticed by the herd.
Wilde, a methodical and conscientious guide, has his llama-packing technique down to the letter.
He is highly trained in wilderness medicine and spent a fair amount of time explaining hiking and camping at high altitude to his clients from Chicago, which sits near sea level. He explained the importance of layers and staying dry, saying it is easier to stay warm than to get warm.
He encouraged everyone to drink plenty of water and not to over-exert themselves, in order to avoid altitude sickness. Wilde cooked gourmet meals on the trail, including breakfast burritos, pancakes, chicken masala with sautéed zucchini and sake-poached salmon with coconut rice and asparagus spears.
Hot, quality meals and coffee for breakfast helped keep morale up among his less-experienced clients. Aware of how unseasoned some members of his group were in the backcountry and in the true spirit of "Eco- Tourism," Wilde was careful to practice and explain the "leave-no-trace" ethic, from scattering llama droppings to collecting litter left by earlier hikers and disassembling the fire ring at the campsite before hiking out Sept. 16.
It was clear his lessons left an impression on members of his group, making it more likely they would adopt similar procedures on future trips. The hikers also bonded with the llamas, which became a real novelty and source of amusement as the trip progressed. They also helped the group travel farther and faster than it would have had the hikers been carrying their own gear on their backs.
The llamas were an unobtrusive presence, and the little bit of work they took to brush and pack was well worth it for the hundreds of pounds they must have been carrying. Wilde's clients left Sept. 16 with smiles on their faces and promising to encourage their friends to experience llama trekking in Taos. For more information about Wild Earth Llama Adventures, visit www.llamaadventures.com.