Blind Grandmother goes backpacking with llamas in the Colorado Rockies

by Judy Presley

Upon hearing of Trek for Light, a week-long hike for the blind in Colorado’s Rawah Wilderness, I imagined it to be the ultimate adventure and challenge. Each blind hiker would be paired with a volunteer, who would serve as a sighted guide, and a pack llama. Because I love the feeling of empowerment I gain from such an adventure and challenge, I applied right away.

After being accepted into the program, I immediately enlisted the services of a personal trainer, Mark Wilkes of Clarkesville, Ga. I followed his instructions to the painful letter. I realized that my enjoyment of the trip depended on my level of fitness.

On Aug. 7 I met my sighted guide, Kathleen Bennett, and the other 15 participants at the Quality Inn in Fort Collins, Colo. The next morning we were off to the llama ranch to meet and train with our llamas. At the ranch, we learned the proper care of a llama as well as the proper way to fasten the saddle to distribute the weight of the saddlebags equally. We then drove to a campground to learn how to set up a tent and other camping skills. The next morning we took a four-hour hike up a mountain trail to determine if all hikers were physically fit for the trek. After many treks, the organizers have perfected a technique of guiding with a short dowel rod and hiking sticks and having the llama rope draped over the hiker's opposite shoulder.

The next morning we were driven 90 miles to the Rawah Wilderness trailhead. The first day proved to be the most difficult of the trek. It was an uphill climb all the way. We got a late start and did not arrive at our designated campsite until seven in the evening. We were cold and hungry but we first had to haul water from the stream and purify it before cooking dinner. We did not have dinner until nine o’clock that night. The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast of blueberry pancakes. My sighted guide and I went to the meadow to check on our llama, whose name was Little Brown Jug or LBJ. We found LBJ happily munching on the lush grass along with the other llamas. That day we took a day hike up to beautiful Crater Lake.

The next morning we started our ascent to Grassy Pass at 11,300 feet. At the beginning of the trek, we were divided up into two groups of eight people. The plan was for groups one and two to meet up at Grassy Pass on Wednesday afternoon and have lunch together at the pass. Group two did not arrive. After a leisurely lunch in the lovely mountain sunshine, we proceeded down the other side of the mountain. We camped twice more before heading for the trailhead. Later we were told that someone in group two had gotten altitude sickness and they made the decision to do only day hikes at a lower altitude before heading back to the trailhead.

After leaving the trailhead, we drove back to the Quality Inn for a hot shower. That night we had a celebratory supper together. The next morning we departed to our different states with a feeling of exhilaration from a unique experience.

I will never forget the calm serenity of that wilderness. The only sounds were the wind, the babble of mountain streams and the roar of waterfalls. I also enjoyed the lovely fragrance of juniper and lodgepole pines and