The man approaching on the trail
stopped and frantically adjusted his camera. Peering through the viewer, he
commanded, "You guys are too ugly. Get out of the picture. I want that
beautiful llama." The shutter clicked. "Got it. Did you guys start in
the Andes or am I lost?"
"Neither," I answered. "Sunny is the
first pack llama in Sequoia Park."
"Where you guys headed?"
"We're going to climb Mount Whitney
"Can a llama make it up Whitney? It's a rough
trail and awfully high."
"I hope he makes it. That's what we're here to
After a few chuckles and an exchange on trail conditions and the weather, we
bade our good humored fellow backpacker farewell and continued on to Crabtree
Rolland and Bill - two fourth-year veterinarian students, Sunny and I were
on the fourth day of a 100-mile trek which would take us across the Sierras and
back again, while climbing the highest peak in the continental United States,
14,496 feet. To be sure, the undertaking was quite an experiment. I had trained
Sunny, who learned quickly, to take commands and carry a pack. Sunny and I had
jogged three miles every day for two months prior to the trip to ensure top
conditioning for both of us. The Park Service had granted a permit and asked me
to take careful notes on Sunny's habits throughout the trip. I knew that llamas
would have less impact than conventional pack animals. They eat about one
quarter as much as a horse and have padded feet instead of hefty hooves that dig
I believed Sunny would do fine but there were unanswered questions. Llamas in
the United States have been a static gene pool since Federal law prohibited
their importation in the 1930s. Although Sunny's ancestors lived at elevations
of 15,000 feet in Peru and have been used as pack animals for 2,000 years,
several generations had been born in the United States. Would he be able to
handle the altitude? Would he be able to deal with the intense heat of the
southern Sierra? Sunny had packed before, but never more than twenty miles. How
would he perform on a seemingly endless journey over every conceivable kind of
terrain; sharp rocks, snow, swift streams, and loose shale?
The first morning in the Mineral King parking lot was spent dividing up gear
and food. Sunny was assigned sixty pounds and the three of us started with about
thirty pounds. We had provisions to last ten days. We got a late start and
faced a dehydrating seven mile 2,850-foot climb to Farewell Gap in an
exposed sparsely wooded valley.
As we started out, we passed a large pack outfit. A couple of hands sat on
the corral fence in full western garb. I waved and they stared. Park officials
had told us that some packers had objected to our going into the park because
llamas might scare their stock. Sunny and the mules in the stock pen looked each
other over. It occurred to me that llamas and the cowboy mystique might be more
incompatible than llamas and mules. A fully decked-out wrangler just wouldn't
look right leading a llama through the mountains. He probably wouldn't feel
Soon we started climbing through green meadows decorated with red Indian
paint brushes , blue lupins, red granite outcroppings, and a few old fir
trees. The peace and beauty quickly overcame the anxiety I'd felt in the
weeks of planning, talking to park officials, and training Sunny. As we climbed,
the grass gave way to rock. The plentiful marmots added a comical touch.
They popped up and down scurrying this way and that as if our presence were big
news in the marmot community. Suddenly a doe appeared on the scene. She kept her
oversized ears turned attentively to us and kept sniffing the air as she
approached. It seemed the doe was curious enough about Sunny to forget about us.
Eventually she came to her senses and bounded off down the slope.
The heat was intense as we marched on. Llamas sweat through their padded
feet, so it wasn't long until Sunny showed an eagerness to go wading in every
stream we crossed.
Rolland and Bill run in two or three marathons a year. Needless to say, they
hiked at a fast clip. Sunny kept pace. About six miles into the climb, Sunny
surprised me by lying down and refusing to get up. He had never done this
before, so at first I was concerned. We checked him and saw no signs of
overheating or rapid breathing. It appeared he was simply balking, so after some
intensive badgering we forced him up. I decided I'd give him a rest when it
seemed appropriate and that way I'd be in command. If he were allowed to pick
resting spots and the frequency of rests, he'd be training us.
After reaching Farewell Gap, we traversed a snowfield which Sunny enjoyed
most likely because of the cooling effect on his feet. After traveling
about a mile down some switchbacks, we made camp next to a beautiful stream in a
meadow. Sunny was tied to a small log he could drag about as he grazed. We dined
on macaroni while Sunny munched wild onions and alpine grasses.
Bill was impressed with Sunny's intelligence, "Have you noticed Sunny
never gets tangled in his rope? When the rope gets wrapped around his leg he
methodically works it loose. He doesn't panic."
The next day, chiefly because of an elaborate breakfast ritual my two
companions had developed on previous outings, we broke camp at ten o' clock. It
was already sweltering and the day's journey called for a southern exposure on
sparsely wooded slopes, a drop in elevation, a steep 1,500-foot climb to Coyote
Pass, and a drop of 4,000 feet into the Kern Canyon - all of which would
encompass some sixteen miles. The landscape was desert like; sandy soil with
little ground vegetation and little water. There were some outstanding granite
formations that looked like they belonged in the backdrop of a Hollywood
western. Despite the heat, which bothered all of us, Sunny did well. By evening
we reached the Kern River ranger's cabin. Bruce, the ranger, had just returned
by horseback and gave us a warm welcome. He moved his mules to give Sunny his
best pasture, showed us a beautiful campsite and invited us to his campfire for
a glass of wine after we made camp.
Around the fire Bruce told us there was a serious bear problem in the Kern
River Canyon this year. As much as Bruce hated it, he had to find the bear and
mark it so the animal could either be destroyed or moved, depending on its
The next morning the breakfast ritual put us on the trail at 10:30 with the
temperature near ninety degrees. We came across Bruce's mules and one of them
ran around braying. Apparently, Sunny's unfamiliar form bothered him. Sunny drew
behind me for protection and stared intently at the spectacle.
The heat was stifling, but just seeing the rushing Kern River made it
bearable. There would be little climbing during the twenty miles in the Canyon.
We traveled through shady hot stretches into lush fern areas that were heavily
wooded with cottonwood-fern groves. I was startled by the electrifying buzz of a
rattlesnake coiled about five feet to my right. After the initial heart flutter
I focused on the sinister looking head that was cocked and ready to strike.
Sunny was curious and acted as if he'd like to investigate by sniffing. Llamas have little knowledge of snakes. I carefully led Sunny around our venomous
friend and within ten minutes faced another rattler. This one was intent on
holding his ground. He lay directly on the trail sunning himself and instead of
coiling he merely raised his head and tail and gave the warning to stay clear.
From then on I kept my eyes riveted on the trail ahead. In less than half an
hour another rattler slithered between some rocks and sounded his warning.
Despite the snakes, the day proved enjoyable with the cooling ferns and
cottonwood groves. We encountered deer, a colorfully plumed Western Tanager and
large grouse. We marveled at a freshly cut cottonwood that a beaver felled
across a stream. A logger couldn't have placed it better. We even came across a
couple skinny-dipping in a large pool. By late afternoon we reached Kern Hot
Springs. The soaking pool, big enough for two, was close to the river. After a twenty-minute
soak, a plunge into the icy waters of the Kern came close to being a spiritual
experience. We soaked and plunged while Sunny grazed and rested.
The springs were relaxing but a note of warning attached to a nearby tree
explained what night might bring.
"Backpackers: Hang your food with care. A very smart, very persistent
bear who understands the relationship between anchor ropes and hanging food
stops nightly. Be careful."
The note persuaded us to camp away from the Springs. The mosquitoes were so
annoying that Sunny came close to the fire in his nervous pacing. He sat about
three feet from the flames. The smoke drifted about his head. We moved him but
he went back and sat in the smoke again. He had discovered a good mosquito
We hung our food with care and tied Sunny close to my sleeping bag. In the
morning we found the night's only intruder was a very small mouse who had gnawed
his way through the poncho in my pack.
Because we had grown tired of traveling in the heat of the day, and because I
had grown tired of late starts, we decided to try a new approach. We broke camp
at 5:30 a.m. We planned to hike until noon, take a three-hour siesta in the heat
of the day, and continue when it cooled some. Hiking in the early morning gave us
all a lift. Sunny traveled lightly with his head constantly swiveling like a
sightseer in a foreign land. Sunny's quiet ways often allowed us to see wildlife
before it saw us. By nightfall we covered eighteen miles and found ourselves
2,500 feet above the Kern on the John Muir Trail.
The next day we headed south on the Trail and found out why many backpackers
consider it a highway. We ran into people about every half hour. There was some
good comedy in watching them clamor and fumble for their cameras upon seeing
Sunny. By noon we reached Crabtree Meadow, which was nine miles and more than
4,000 feet below the summit of Mount Whitney. We spent the afternoon playing
hide and seek with some curious marmots. We also found iridescent golden trout
in the pools along Whitney Creek. That night as I lay in my sleeping bag looking
at Mount Whitney I already knew the outcome of tomorrow's climb. Sunny would
make it and unknowingly commit his kind to years of packing in North America.
Since we were on the west side of Whitney we could hike in the shade for a
great deal of the time the next day, which would be a great advantage
considering there wasn't much water above 12,000 feet. By 6 a.m. Sunny was
loaded with about fifty pounds and we were off. The tops of Mount Whitney and
Mount Russell to the north were pink from the early morning light. Sunny and I
had worked our way past a dark blue lake and were crossing a great granite filled
bowl when I saw two men approaching, seemingly out of nowhere, from the
direction of Mount Russell. They were waving. I sensed it wasn't the llama mania
we'd been encountering . When they got closer I could see they were having a bad
time. They were wearing shorts and light shirts and had no packs. They looked
very cold. One had discolored lips. The taller of the two spoke with a heavy
German accent. "We are lost. Der way to Lone Pine, please." I tried to
explain they had to climb to Trail Crest (13,400 feet) and down the other side
to get to Lone Pine and their car. I knew I hadn't made myself clear when the
man went on. "We climbed Mount Muir (pointing to Mount Russell) and can't
find the way; 'twas cold in the night, no!"
I'd seen frozen water on the trail that morning and could imagine how
miserable their night had been. I gave them honey and motioned them to follow.
We came upon some backpackers who made hot chocolate and offered to escort the
unfortunate Germans over Trail Crest later in the day.
Sunny and I pushed on and came to a series of steep switchbacks that wove
through granite rubble and around great boulders. We came to a place where the
trail was erased by a slide. We had to pick our way through rough loose rock.
Here, probably more than anywhere else, Sunny showed the unique qualities of a
llama. If a rock was unsteady he withdrew his foot and groped until he found
stable footing. We reached Trail Crest without a stop and the sun was still low
in the sky. We pushed on towards the summit of Whitney. The ridge from Trail
Crest to the summit is spectacular. To the west is the entire southern Sierra
and beyond, and to the east is Death Valley and the Great American Desert. The
trail puts you directly on top of a sheer precipice that make you recoil for fear
of falling. You can see a lake 2,500 feet below off the east side that
appears to be directly beneath you.
Near the summit the trail disappeared into a snowfield. I let Sunny stand in
the snow for a few minutes then we headed for the top. I signed my faithful
companion into the book on the summit - "Name: Sunny Llama, Age: 3,
Address: Bonny Doon, California, Comments: Highest llama in North America - made
it no sweat."
I had been on top of Whitney before, but never was the view so clear. There
was no haze. When I went to memorialize the event I found my light meter wasn't
working. Dan Comelli, a total stranger, gave me readings from his meter which
resulted in some fine photographs. Whenever I maneuvered Sunny close to vertical
drop-offs, he'd back off the side and back at me with an expression that seemed
to say, "Why have you brought me here? There's no way down!"
The descent back to Crabtree Meadow was hot and slow. I let Sunny take his
time for fear he would catch a foot in the endless cracks between rocks.
By the next evening we had backtracked over twenty miles, grabbed a few
minutes in the Hot Springs, and bedded down for a solid night's sleep.
Before sunrise I was up and in a couple hours we had climbed 2,500 feet out
of the Kern River Canyon and visited beautiful Sky Parlor Meadow. We saw about
twenty deer. We headed for Moraine Lake under ominous clouds that soon let loose
drenching rain. Draped in ponchos, we spent the afternoon sitting under a large Lodge
Pole Pine, watching lightning smash into nearby peaks. We set up camp
during a lull in the storm and spent the night in intermittent showers. By the
next morning the sky was gray in all directions. The storm appeared to be good
for two or three days. We were too low on food to sit it out so we decided to go
the last twenty-six miles, which included two climbs of 2,500 feet, all in one
day. We made Little Five Lakes averaging over two miles an hour. In drizzle and
with worsening skies we closed in on Black Rock Pass (11,200 feet). We raced
against the storm, hoping to get over the exposed summit before lightning
struck. Sunny followed closely, seeming to realize the urgency. We reached the summit
amid hail, slush, and thunder and started down the other side through a cloud.
Sunny looked half his normal size with his wet hair plastered to his wiry
body. The trail consisted of loose sharp rock. I was amazed Sunny's feet didn't
get cut or sore. After we'd descended to 6,800 feet we stopped, ate what we had
left, and started our last climb to Timber Gap. Sunny showed no signs of tiring.
He hadn't balked since the second day and seemed stronger than when we'd begun.
We traveled through some beautiful soaked forests and meadows and reached Timber
Gap at dusk. We continued in the dark and the rain. When car lights shown in the
valley far below, Sunny hummed anxiously. He knew the ordeal was ending. When we
finally reached the truck I gave Sunny a large flake of alfalfa, which he
gratefully attacked. I climbed into the truck cab and was quickly asleep. I
awoke twice during the night because of the pounding rain and peered out the
window at Sunny, who sat stoically behind the truck with the quiet resolve that
is purely llama.