3 men and their llamas in the Rocky Mountains
October 9, 2017
SUMMIT COUNTY — Cosmo, Uncle Leo and Newman are the newest additions to my older brother Toby Stensland’s family in Lakewood, and for a couple days, these three llamas were my hiking companions.
Before taking the llamas by myself, Toby, who has plans to put the animals to work during hunting season, knew I needed some training. So I met him and the llamas at Hope Pass at tree line for the Leadville Trail 100 endurance running race in August.
Toby had connected with the volunteers, who every year, use llamas to haul thousands of pounds of gear up the pass, including timing equipment and 500 gallons of filtered water up from the creek.
It was there that I learned how to saddle the llamas, care for them and I got a taste of their personalities.
Uncle Leo is the athlete. He and Toby won the 5-kilometer llama running race this summer in Fairplay.
Newman is kind of boring and just does what the other llamas do.
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Cosmo is the pretty boy of the bunch, with his giraffe-like spots on his white coat. He is also kind of a bucker, who threw his saddle as I was loading him with jugs of water.
A couple weeks after my llama training was completed, I met up with my brother after he came out of the woods from a hunting trip near Vail.
The llamas and Toby's sweet Toyota Tundra were now mine for a few days, and me and the llamas met up with my human backpacking companions.
Marty Gilligan used to live in Steamboat and is somewhat unemployed by choice and a licensed pest controller from Minnesota, who had been traveling around working at music festivals.
He describes himself as "poetically random," having hitchhiked 550 miles, working the Oregon Eclipse music festival with 70,000 people and then later looking into a job as a mortgage banker.
His cohort, a guy from North Carolina who I had never met, was Jason Emory, who I learned was a talented artist with a good eye for photography.
You could tell Jason was craving to move to the Rocky Mountains.
Taking the llamas without my brother for the first time was a little stressful, and at the last minute, I sort of planned out a trip that was fairly short and mellow.
We drove up Red Sandstone Road, which is Vail's version of Buffalo Pass Road near Steamboat Springs, with free roadside camping throughout.
For the first night, we parked at a site right by the Piney River Ranch next to Piney Lake. Public parking is available at the ranch, which has a restaurant, cabins, boat and horse rentals during the summer. There was also plenty of llama parking with nice grass for the guys to graze on.
We set out with our llamas packed with an exorbitant amount of supplies for a one-night backpacking trip into the Gore Range.
Between the three of us, we had 150 pounds of stuff.
That included a three-person, Big Agnes Mountain Glow tent with thick sleeping pads and large pillows, onesies, a small library of five books and two coolers loaded with ice to cool the appetizers, cheeses, chicken, vegetables, 18 beers and whiskey.
After several sketchy water crossings and a lot of stops for llama photos with llama-loving hikers, we reached our destination three miles up the Upper Piney trail at the waterfalls.
It was not the best area for llama grazing so we continued up the trail until Newman got stung by a bee, and the other llamas started to get uncooperative as if they were absolutely done with the day's hike.
The llamas made the decision that we were camping at the falls, and we tied them up to trees while searching for an appropriate spot.
After establishing camp, I retrieved the llamas one at a time.
Uncle Leo was the last one I got, and I found him with his lead wrapped around the tree several times with his face rubbing against the bark.
I had almost suffocated my brother's most-prized llama that had gained him fame after winning the race in Fairplay.
After unhooking his lead, Uncle Leo jumped and ran full-speed into the woods. I thought I was going to spend the rest of the night shouting "Uncle Leo!" in the Eagles Nest Wilderness.
Fortunately, llamas just want to be around other llamas and apparently they freak out when they get separated.
Jason caught up with Uncle Leo and was able to reunite him with his llama buddies.
It was then time to chill out.
Marty is an excellent cook, and we enjoyed stir fry during sunset overlooking the waterfall.
After waking up relieved that the llamas made it through the night, we packed up and began hiking out.
The llamas had mowed down all the grass around them and also apparently had full bladders. They have very small urethras, I learned, during my llama training, which means their bathroom breaks can take awhile.
At the last creek crossing, Cosmo lived up to his reputation of being a "butt.”
Uncle Leo and Jason had just navigated the obstacle in the most logical and easiest way like how any human would cross.
My llama, Cosmo, decided to take a detour, jump over two logs and fly over the water.
With a llama face flying at me, I was able to jump out of the way. Death by llama trampling would be kind of cool, I guess, but I wasn't ready to go.
Jason caught the moment on video, and he asked if I was OK.
"Oh, my heart is pounding," I said.
With the llamas alive and no human casualties, the backpacking trip was deemed a total success, or so I thought.
Now, I just had to navigate Interstate 70 back to the Lakewood and then explain to my brother about the bent trailer hitch I had just discovered before leaving the mountains.
"What happened to the trailer?" he asked immediately when I arrived at his house — not even saying “hello” or “hey.”
After explaining my ignorance about how the damage had occurred, he bought me dinner.
I think he decided the damage maybe wasn't my fault, and he liked hearing about our adventure.
Thanks for a memorable experience, bro. Sorry about the trailer.