2009

Homer's Oddysey
Written by Tracy shortly after the rescue

People have asked me to share the story of my adventure in the mountains involving a little lost llama. When this seemingly small, local event was picked up by the national media, I was quite stunned by the response. I guess people were just hungry for good news.

     In early September 2009, tourists on the cog railway that runs up to the summit of Pikes Peak began to report seeing a small white llama running loose near the tracks. Sometimes he would chase the train for a while, other times he was seen trying to keep up with the native herd of big horn sheep. 

     The forest rangers in the park tried to capture him, even attempting to lasso him! It’s no surprise to llama folk that he evaded the rope toss. Llamas are pretty hard to sneak up on. After a while they did the smart thing and contacted L’lillette Vasquez of Southwest Llama Rescue. L’lillette immediately began to rally the troops. She reached out to llama owners in the area, and they responded by the dozen. She had many generous souls lined up to volunteer to go up the mountain and try to capture the loose llama. 

Unfortunately, right when a rescue party was being organized a big storm hit the region, dumping several feet of snow on Pikes Peak. The cog railway wasn’t running and the road was closed to the summit for several days.

     Among the folks that L’lillette had contacted were Marlise Van Zandt and Michael Shealy. Marlise happens to be friends with Barb Bailey, a Pikes Peak  Ranger, and Spencer Wrenthe, General Manager of the cog railway. Marlise began to communicate regularly with these two in order to find out when it would be clear for a group to get up on the mountain to look for the llama. At this point, L’lillette handed over the rescue operation to Marlise.

     Marlise and Michael were my first friends in the area when I moved to Black Forest  in 2005. They boarded my llamas for me until I could get my fencing and barn ready. Marlise invited me to join the search, and I was happy to help.

     We had seen two pictures of the llama that the rangers had taken near the summit. He looked like a yearling, and he had a barrel cut shear. We were at a loss to explain how he ended up alone on the top of a 14,000 foot mountain! We were concerned about predators and his access to forage and shelter.

       We went up to the peak in Marlise and Michael’s van with their llama, Moon Shadow on Monday, September 28th as soon as the road was cleared of snow. We hiked down a couple of miles to where the lost llama was seen the night before.

     There were hunters up there going after the sheep. The llama had been seen hanging out near the wild sheep, and we immediately saw fresh llama footprints along the train tracks. The sheep are hard to see because they are the same color as the rocks, but Moon Shadow never failed to point them out to us.  We were very encouraged at first, but although we saw the sheep several times, we never spotted our guy. 

     It was a beautiful day, and the snow was rapidly receding up there. There was plenty of fresh water all around, and still an abundance of forage, even up as high as we were. We knew he survived the storm, so we were hopeful that we would eventually find him.  It just wasn’t going to be easy.  Hiking down along the tracks was a breeze. Hiking back up, on the other hand...not so much!!! I hadn't been in the habit of going uphill on a mountain at 14,000 ft without a chairlift!

     On October 2, we went back up to the top of Pikes Peak to continue our search. It was very cold up there that day.  It was extremely windy and the wind chill was -2F degrees. I went with Mike Shealy and Kathy Wallace.  Mike brought his llama Shasta, and I brought my llama Autumn Dancer with me. 

     Scott Rappohold, a Gazette reporter, and Marybeth Brush, a TV news reporter from KKTV channel 11 came along as well. We walked along the cog rail tracks for about a mile, and then Mike and Shasta kept going down the hill while the rest of us turned to go back up to the summit.  

      We had almost given up when I stopped to examine the tundra. I just kept thinking that if I were a llama up there, that’s where I would be hanging out. After a while I noticed a shape that I thought could be a kushed llama. I borrowed the binoculars from Kathy, but I couldn’t hold them still in the wind! I positioned Dancer in front of me and asked him to “stand,” a command that he is familiar with. He stood still and I braced my elbows on his back. I was able to get a good look at the shape I saw, and realized that it was in fact the llama we were looking for. 

     I was immediately overjoyed, and then I took a deep breath and thought, how are we going to get down there? He was about a mile away, and the terrain was very rocky. The hillside was a mix of boulder fields, grassy patches of tundra and deep snow drifts in gullies. 

     I knew that there was no turning back after spotting him, so I coaxed Dancer down off the trail towards the distant white shape. After about 10 minutes, we came to a drop off in the rocks, and had to turn back. The cold and the wind were oppressive. We hiked back uphill along the tracks until I thought I saw an easier path down to the tundra. 

     When we turned off the trail once again we were in sight of our truck and trailer. Dancer was pretty irritated with me when I turned away from his ride! He started not just humming, but making a deep growling -groaning sound. This was the stupidest hike he had ever been on! It was difficult going for him. There were times when he broke through the crust of snow up to his knees, and other times that I had to convince him to scramble over rocks that scared him. He continued to protest loudly right up until he saw what we were after. 

     While Dancer and I were picking our way down the slope, I kept my eye on the lost llama. He had stood up and was frolicking around happily. He seemed to be chasing something on the ground. Another look through the binoculars confirmed that he was having some fun with the ground squirrels!  This movement caught Dancer’s eye, and he immediately understood what our mission was. He stopped complaining and became focused on the youngster.

     I kept just wishing the little guy would see us, and we wouldn’t have to keep walking downhill towards him. Every step down was a step we had to take uphill on the way back. The wind would be in our faces for the ascent, and that combined with the altitude and pitch of the slope would make for an exhausting climb.

     Being a youngster, the llama was way more involved in his games than scanning the landscape for rescuers. We had come to within about a quarter of a mile of him when he finally saw us. I immediately relaxed and took out my camera.  As we all had imagined he would, he ran straight for us and was very eager to meet the first llama he had seen in weeks.

       As he tucked his head under Dancer’s chin, I threw the lead rope around his neck. He was so small, seemingly much younger than we had thought. The halter I had brought along was just way too big on him, so I had to slip it down around his neck.  He almost immediately tried to nurse, which Dancer (a gelding) wasn't having any part of!

      I tied his lead rope to Dancer’s saddle, and he followed right along.  The only problem was that every time I stopped to catch my breath, he would try to nurse, and Dancer was good and sick of him by the time we reached the truck. It was slow going back up the hillside to the trail. I no longer had the advantage of being able to examine the terrain, because the slope of the hill made it hard to see what was ahead. We made many false starts and had to turn back because of deep snow or impassable boulders. I had the added concern that I didn’t want Dancer to jump, because with the way the youngster was tied to his pack, a jump would jerk hard on the baby’s neck. With Dancer's years of training I was able to tell him "Step" when we were crossing patches of snow that he would naturally want to jump over. He often broke through the snow, but followed my directions. His trust and training were vital all day. 

     We had begun the search at 9:00am, and it was about 3:00pm by the time we reached the truck. Once inside the trailer, Good boy that Dancer is, he let the lonely baby snuggle with him for the long ride down the mountain. At least when you're kushed there is none of that nursing nonsense!

      During the hike I had started calling the little guy “Homer” because I thought if he could talk, he would tell us all about the incredible odyssey he had been on.

      Somewhat ironically, Shasta and Mike ended up needing to be rescued off the mountain that day too! Shasta had decided that he was not going to take another step, and Mike was stuck at about the tree line. Fortunately he was able to call Marlise on the last remaining bit of battery his phone had to tell her his situation. She got in touch with Spencer, manager of the cog railway, and he arranged to send a flat bed work train up to retrieve the pair after the last train had retired for the night.

     When I got Homer home, I took him to my vet, Dr. Kim Gardner-Graff. I was concerned about his ears, as they seemed to me to be quite frost bitten. She assured me that while he would probably slough the skin, his ears would recover. He was thin, but otherwise quite healthy.

     We since learned that Homer lived on a ranch on the South face of Pikes Peak, about 3 miles as the crow flies from the summit.  On August 15th, a mountain lion killed his mother.  The ranch owners, Theresa and Frank Kabot, found the carcass of the mother, and feared the worst for Homer.  They looked for him, or his remains for days with no luck. They never knew about the loose white llama on the mountain until they saw in the news that he had been captured!  I spoke to Theresa a day or two after I brought Homer home, and she was so grateful and amazed that he was alive and well. She said she used to choke up every time she looked at his fleece, thinking that he was dead.

      Theresa asked me to board him for a while until she could decide what to do. That was their second llama lost to lions. She was uneasy about keeping llamas on her place after that. 

       He was just the sweetest little thing! He was plucky and independent. Maybe these personality traits helped him to survive on his own for six weeks. He was not at all intimidated by my llamas that outweigh him by a factor of four! He seemed smart and athletic.  Homer was happy to be home.

      In the Spring of that year, Theresa asked me what my wish was about where Homer would go. By then we were all quite attached to the little guy and I wanted him to stay with us. Theresa was happy with that and transferred ownership to me. I registered him with the name: Pikes Peak's Homer.

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© 2018 by Tracy duCharme