Wear Your Llama (Out?)

Our llama train--four of Buckhorn's finest--cross a terrace in our Cedar Mesa canyon.; Photograph by Matt Hale
Our llama train—four of Buckhorn’s finest—cross a terrace in our Cedar Mesa canyon; Photograph by Matt Hale

It was my eleventh trip over the last 25 years on which I indulged in the luxury of letting llamas carry virtually all my gear. On trips lasting from five to ten days, with those stoic Peruvian camelids packing everything from bottles of wine to folding camp chairs, I’d explored the Wind Rivers in Wyoming and the backcountry of Utah and Arizona. But at the end of last April, as I headed with five companions into a long, sinuous canyon on Cedar Mesa in southeast Utah, it was the first time I’d ever worn a llama.

Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration. Stan Ebel, the founder and owner of Buckhorn Llama Company, an outfit based in the tiny burg of Masonville, Colorado, had launched a spinoff firm called Altiplano, specializing in garments made of llama wool. Ebel convinced me that the stuff might be the snazziest new concept in outdoor fashion.

Llama wool? I knew that alpaca wool, with its cashmere-soft weave, had been transformed into cuddly knick-knacks ranging from pillows to teddy bears. But through selective breeding over the past 6,000 years, alpacas have so diverged from their llama cousins as to become quite different animals. If I’d ever splurged on a pricey alpaca sweater, I might have worn it to an art gallery opening—not around the campfire. Meanwhile, I’d counted on synthetic fleece and fiberfill and down jackets to ward off the wilderness chill.

TK; Photograph by Matt Hale
The imperturbable Bruce and Tres, laden with our gear and food, scramble out of an arroyo on Cedar Mesa; Photograph by Matt Hale

When you sling a saddle atop a llama’s back, just after he’s rolled in the dirt to scratch the unscratchable tickle of having lugged an ungrateful hiker’s 90 pounds of impedimenta another eight miles along the trail, you’re struck by how matted, coarse, and snarly the wool seems. But that’s why it makes for versatile outdoor wear. As scientific research demonstrates, llama wool’s very coarseness and its range of fibers from fine to thick mean that it can be woven into clothing that’s superior to down, fleece, sheep wool, and alpaca wool in criteria ranging from warmth to water resistance to usable life.

I might have guessed as much during my very first llama trip with Jon Krakauer into Stough Creek Basin in the Winds in the early 1990s. One afternoon, we cowered in our tent at timberline as golf-ball hail pummeled our camp. Worried that the deluge had bruised and battered our beasts of burden, I emerged during a lull to check out Cope Red and Hot Shot. I found them munching contentedly on the alpine grass, each wearing a thick coating of congealed hailstones on his back. The wool so insulated their bodies that the hail took hours to melt.

Still, when I received a sleek black Altiplano pullover in the mail, it seemed too nice a sweater to take on a pack trip. I wore it to parties and invited friends to stroke the fibers. But over the phone, Ebel reassured me, “Don’t worry, David, just beat the crap out of it as you would any other kind of jacket. It’ll get dirty, but when you get home, wash it in cold water and lay it out flat to dry. It’ll be as good as new, and it’ll last for years.”

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Training a llama for packing is an esoteric art, and no company does it better than Buckhorn. I first fully appreciated this fact on the one trip among those eleven when I hired a different company. Blue Moon, as ill-trained as a colicky brat, managed during our trip to buck and rear when we tried to saddle him, to balk at stream crossings and narrow canyon passages, and once to spit in the face of my wife, Sharon. (As comely and aloof as llamas appear, their spit is one of the foulest excrescences known to nature.) It took forebearance and infinite patience to get Blue Moon back to the trailhead without killing him.

Last spring, in contrast, our four llamas behaved so impeccably that we wished we could tip them with something more generous than handfuls of their corn-alfalfa feed. Gus, brown all over, was the steam locomotive, plowing ahead on the steepest grades. It was clear that he needed to be in the lead. All-white Dwight was the most easy-going of the llamas, with the laid-back disposition of a Buddhist monk. Three-year-old Tres, with an oddly split ear and mascara-darkened eyes, seemed to prefer third place in line. Bruce, with a black patch on his tail, was our hummer, querulously cross-examining our every decision even as he unfailingly responded to each tug on his lead. At night we staked out the llamas apart, for forage, but so that each could see one of his companions. Even when they got tangled in the shrubbery, all four waited patiently for hours until we could liberate them.

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TK; Photograph by Matt Hale
The beautifully preserved ruins of a 13th-century Ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling; Photograph by Matt Hale

It was something like my 65th trip to Cedar Mesa, which I’ve decided is my favorite place on earth. And yet I saw ruins and rock art—left behind by Ancestral Puebloans more than 700 years ago—that I’d never found before. Early on the first day, we passed a lordly site with the finest negative handprints I’ve ever seen. (The Old Ones masticated a clay called kaolin, held their hands flat against the sandstone wall, then splattered the backs of them with bright white expectorate.) Farther up the canyon, the ruins became wildly defensive. As we now know, in the hard times of the 13th century AD, the Ancestral Puebloans had to hide their corn, beans, and squash in granaries so remote and vertiginous that the bad guys from the next valley over couldn’t raid them.

During our five days, we saw some twenty ruins, visiting only five or six. A few others would have required death-defying climbs to reach. One, a three-story ruin improbably built in an oval alcove sixty feet off the deck, would have taken a devious and dangerous rappel to enter—but ropes are outlawed for reaching ruins on Cedar Mesa. Yet other granaries, on skinny ledges 500 feet up, looked all but impossible to visit. (I doubt that Anglos have ever entered them.)

We found pottery and chert flakes. Charley stumbled across the first arrowhead he’d ever found. Hunt, on his first trip in the canyon country, was stupefied daily. Greg, Matt, and I promised each other further excursions into the wildest crannies we beheld. And Sharon and Karen simply drank in the beauty of the scenery, as the full moon wheeled toward gibbous. After the first two hours on the first day, we ran into no other hikers throughout our sojourn.

And at night, we wore our Altiplano pullovers. Like ropes, campfires are not permitted in the Cedar Mesa canyons, and the temps got down to the low 40s. Still, so warm was my pullover that I never donned the North Face jacket that I habitually wore each evening on my Cedar Mesa jaunts.

Said Karen about the llama fleece, “It’s surprising. It’s warm but not scratchy. And it doesn’t pill or snag.”

I was mortified, however, on the second night when I spilled a drop of Cholula sauce on my pullover. I couldn’t rub it out, and it sat there on my chest, an orange blob accusing me of eating like a slob. But when I got home, I washed it out—along with other stains I’d hardly noticed. The still sleek sweater hangs today in my closet, awaiting my next venture into the paradise of the Southwest.

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Besides pullover sweaters, Altiplano manufactures vests and hooded jackets in a range of sizes for both men and women. For further information or catalogues, contact Altiplano Insulation, Inc., P. O. Box 275, Masonville, CO. Phone: 800-318-9454 or 970-667-7411. Website: http://www.altiplanoinsulation.com/