A job for a llama wrangler

Cameron Wilson follows the pack into the wild Wind River mountains.

We pull in to the parking area at Stough Creek trailhead at eight in the morning and our guides, Dan and Lucy, set to work unloading the gear. Shoshone, bless him, is going to carry my pack for me, high into the back country of the Wind River mountains of north-west Wyoming.

Burdened with a tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear, food and fishing tackle, he'll walk 12 kilometres from the trailhead at 2700 metres to above the treeline into Stough Creek glacier basin. Having the freedom to hike unencumbered while Shoshone carries a 40-kilogram burden gives me a creeping sense of guilt, but I can see in his gentle expression and big brown eyes that he doesn't mind a bit. Shoshone is a llama and this is what llamas do.

When Scott Woodruff began taking llama pack trips into the Wind River mountains 25 years ago, it raised more than eyebrows in the ranching community of Lander. "Horses and cows around here would freak if they saw or even smelt a llama," he says. "I had a job convincing people these were the ideal pack animals for the mountains, better equipped for it than horses and much easier on the environment."

As I lead Shoshone, followed by five other llamas in single file, it's plain to me that Woodruff was right to persevere. The hard, loose rock on the trail would be treacherous for a hoofed animal. Llamas' feet are softer and offer more grip than a horse's hooves - and the creature's natural habitat is the high terrain of the Andes mountains of South America.

The Wind River range would almost certainly be one of Wyoming's most famous Rocky Mountains destinations, were it not for the fact that Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks are just up the road - designating one more park in the same neighbourhood would have seemed like overkill. As a result, the Wind River range attracts a fraction of the hikers drawn to Wyoming. There's a good chance we won't see another party in the next three days.

When we reach the top of the pass on Roaring Fork Mountain, Wind River Peak should be in view but thick clouds obscure it. By the time we arrive at our campsite near one of the basin's lower lakes, drizzle has turned to rain and the temperature is 10 degrees and dropping.

While Dan and Lucy set up a camp kitchen, the two couples from Pennsylvania who complete our party - Rico, Marti, Anne and Sandie - and I shiver under a tarp we've strung up to keep our day packs dry. Within an hour the rain lets up, we're able to pitch our tents and dinner is under way.

Lucy is a sixtysomething mountain woman with the permanent squint of someone who has hiked a lifetime in all weather without a hat. She has climbed peaks from Alaska to Nepal and is almost as comfortable in the mountains as our woolly pack animals. Dan is an irrepressibly boyish 25-year-old from Indiana who has interrupted his transcontinental bicycle adventure to work the season as a llama-wrangler.

While Lucy dishes up chicken enchiladas with black beans and rice, Dan opens bottles of California wines. Now we're warm and dry beside a campfire, spirits have lifted and we stay up to watch a full moon rise over the surrounding peaks.

From the same camp kitchen comes breakfast pancakes with fresh blueberries and maple syrup next morning. We huddle near the fire with steaming mugs of coffee and chat about family and fly-fishing. Rico and Sandie are fly-fishing enthusiasts, and I'm happy to learn from them.

We leave the llamas loosely tethered and hike through sparse stands of white-bark pine towards the glacier basin. When we reach the highest lake, Sandie is first to rig up and begin casting. Lucy ties a fly for me and points out pools where fish might be hiding. On the far side of the lake, Rico is catching fish as fast as he can put them back; I spend an hour whipping my line through the air with no result.

When we break for lunch, Rico takes me aside. "OK, this is the fly I've been fishing with. Just walk around the lake there, you'll see a bunch of trout sitting right at the edge of a drop-off."

The moment I send Rico's fly their way, several fish the size of a hand span come in for a look. Suddenly a bigger fish makes a grab for the fly and my strike is perfectly timed. I pull it in and hold my first brilliantly spotted cutthroat trout in the shallows, then gently release it.

There are more lakes and streams to fish as we make our way down the basin. Most fly-fishing is catch-and-release, but I'm determined that Wind River trout will feature on tonight's menu. We hike with rods shouldered, try a few casts in a promising spot and move on. Rico coaches me on how to land the fly in fast-moving water, and utters the words I've been dying to hear all day: "To catch a trout, you have to think like a trout."

A few minutes from camp, Lucy, Rico and Sandie strike fish at once. "Hey, Cam, how about we keep these for you?" Sandie says. They're technically not my catch, but I've released a few today so there's no shame in accepting them. Fresh-caught trout with a glass of Californian sauvignon blanc is the most satisfying appetiser.

Our last morning dawns grey and chilly, and we pull on wet-weather gear. Soon enough it's raining and tiny balls of ice begin to bounce noisily off my jacket hood. The llamas, tied nose to tail, are unfazed.

From the trailhead, it's an hour's drive back to Lander Llama headquarters, by which time the rain has stopped and we can lay out our gear to dry. Just before Dan leads the llamas out to graze, I give Shoshone's long woolly neck one last rub. For three days he has negotiated icy rivers, glacial boulders and freezing rain, never faltering. When I tell Woodruff his animals performed admirably, he grins. "I've been saying it for years: if you want to go back country in the Winds, you can't do better than to take along a llama."


Getting there

United Airlines has a fare to Jackson Hole from Sydney for about $2190 low-season return including tax. Fly to San Francisco (about 13hr), then to Denver (about 2hr 35 min) and then to Jackson Hole (90 min); see unitedairlines.com. Australians must apply for travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov. Jackson Hole Airport is 185 kilometres from Lander and is best for visiting Wyoming's most famous national parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Rocky Mountains road-trippers might consider flying to Denver or Salt Lake City, hiring a car and driving north to Wyoming.

Trekking there

Lander Llama runs trips from mid-June to mid-September. It costs $US250 ($238) a day for a three-, five- or seven-day trek, which includes return transfers from Lander to the trek start-point, guides, all meals and drinks and all camping gear. See landerllama.com.

Cameron Wilson travelled courtesy of Lander Llama and Wyoming Tourism.