Llama Lessons Learned
We hope you found the saga of Tenoch’s first two trips as a full blown packer entertaining. Reminiscing and telling the stories has become important for us, not only for the “all’s well that ends well tales of the trail” memories, but the important lessons learned. The many years of trouble free packing ( well OK not completely trouble free) with our very experienced llamas left us too complacent to be introducing new guys to the trail without fully realizing that even though they are born to pack they are NOT born knowing HOW to deal with everything on the trail. Many people think that teaching a llama to carry a pack is teaching them to pack. The reality is although it often only takes a few minutes for a llama that had been handled properly to be comfortable carrying a pack; it generally takes a year or two on the trail to become “bullet proof”. In addition to dealing with nasty dogs and surprise wildlife on the trail and in camp at night, there are things like thunder and lightning, deep mud, snow, river crossings, handsy backpackers, wild mules, loose horses hell-bent for the trailhead and meeting strange llamas to name a few. However the biggest and most important and most time consuming lesson is learning to live on a picket and not just in the yard. Of course the human has to do his part in setting up for success, and that was my failing in both Tenoch’s and Chief’s cases.
The human error for Tenoch was twofold: one was not paying attention to the snap on the lead, and the rivet had worn so that the two sides of the snap could separate enough that the ring on the halter could slip through. I would assume he was already loose before the sheep showed up. The second and MAIN mistake was leaving a relatively inexperienced llama in camp without someone keeping an eye on him. His picket experience to date had been in the yard and lunch breaks on day hikes. It was incredibly foolish to think that would be OK.
The big error in Chief’s ordeal was also due to leaving an inexperienced llama tied without direct supervision. This is something that would never happen again. There was also a second important lesson in how to tie a llama. When tying a llama on a long lead so they can graze (we use 12’ trail leads), tie as close to the ground as possible. Chief was tied about 4’ off the ground with his trail lead which made it easy to get the lead tangled high on his leg. A short tie for saddling, loading or to spend the night should be tied at about wither height and just enough lead for the head to reach the ground, but not get a leg through.
A couple of “not completely trouble free” stories are also a result of human error. The common rule of thumb has been “a well conformed and fit llama can go anywhere you can without using your hands”. There has to be some obvious exceptions to this: STEEP SLICK ROCK for the obvious reasons; BOULDER HOPPING, some llamas can get quite good at this, but probably should not be taught and never allowed where a mistake could result in a broken leg; BOGS, consider the size of your footprint and your weight against the size of a llama foot and their loaded weight, they are most likely applying about 6 times the pounds per square inch pressure you are, and where you barely sink they can go up to their belly; DEEP CRUSTED SNOW, same reasoning as bogs. The slick rock, bogs and crusted snow rules became rules after experiencing firsthand the resulting wrecks that were completely avoidable, but by good fortune did not result in serious injury. Not paying attention to the using your hands rule resulted in me playing bowling ball and Jasper and Snowy the pins. It was raining on the steep frozen trail and melting the top ½” of mud, sort of like greasing the skids and in hindsight I realized I was pulling myself up the trail using the brush alongside as hand holds. When I fell I slid under Jasper, knocked him down, and we both slid under Snowy who somehow managed to stay on his feet and stopped us, even with Jasper bumping him around while he trying to get back on his feet. I finally was able to get Snowy’s lead off and we all were back on our feet wondering, OK now what. We were only 100 yards or so from the ridge, or 5 miles from the trailhead, Snowy didn’t head back to the truck so it was worth a try to see if we could pick our way up through the brush to the ridge. We made the ridge with Snowy following along all the way to camp, so he earned the right to travel off lead for a number of years, until some unknown temptation forced the revoking of his privileges, and the adoption of an old Arabic rule “trust in God but tie your camel”.