GATLINBURG — It was 6:30 a.m. and still dark when Alan Householder
pulled into the parking lot at the base of Mount LeConte.
were eight llamas in the livestock trailer, and in less than two
hours Householder had them packed and ready to go.
Each animal would be hauling about 70 pounds of perishable foods,
clean linen and mail up the mountain. Standing in the parking lot
with their eyes half closed, the llamas began emitting a soft,
low-frequency sound that seemed to come from the back of their
throats. Householder called this their "anticipatory hum."
As the llama team started up the Trillium Gap Trail, it was
immediately apparent that Householder was limping. LeConte Lodge was
6½ miles up the mountain. The return trip in the afternoon would
make for a 13-mile day, and despite the custom knee brace and hiking
pole, Householder appeared to be hurting with each step.
"I'm a bird with a broken wing," he said. "Walking to me is a
spiritual exercise, like meditation. I was hoping to do this another
eight or 10 years."
Last winter while hiking across New Zealand's North Island,
Householder tore the meniscus in his right knee. Despite
arthroscopic surgery, this will be his last season leading the
llamas up Mount LeConte.
A meniscus tear is one of the most common knee injuries, but
Householder, who is 55 and from Maryville, is no ordinary hiker.
Three days a week — Monday, Wednesday, and Friday — he leads the
llama team to LeConte Lodge atop Mount LeConte, the third highest
peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After delivering
clean linens and fresh food, he repacks the panniers with dirty
laundry and garbage and returns to the parking lot.
Householder and the llamas hike 40 miles a week while the lodge
is open from late March to late November. In 10 years as the llama
packer, he has made more than 900 trips to LeConte Lodge, and logged
at least 11,700 miles on the Trillium Gap Trail.
Householder believes his knee injury is the result of his
offseason backpacking rather than the llama packing. He has
completed the entire Appalachian Trail, as well as the entire
Pacific Crest Trail. In 1997 he and guidebook author Allen DeHart
became the first to complete the Mountains To Sea Trail from
Clingmans Dome in the Smokies to the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
In the winter of 2005-2006 he spent his three-month vacation
backpacking in Australia, where he became the first American to
complete the Australian Alps Walking Trail, a 435-mile footpath
between Melbourne and Sydney.
Householder injured his knee last winter while hiking 900 miles
across New Zealand's North Island on the first leg of the 1,800-mile
Te Araroa foot trail. In addition to hiking, the route includes
water crossings. Householder had arranged for a kayak, and was
running down a steep hill with a heavy backpack to make his
connection when he felt a jab of pain. Two days later his knee was
swollen, but still he managed to hobble another 700 miles to finish
the North Island segment of the trail.
"I was descending steeply down a cow pasture and moving way too
fast," Householder recalled. "I was trying to act like I was 20
LeConte Lodge closes for the 2011 season Nov. 22. This winter,
instead of returning to New Zealand's South Island to complete the
Te Araroa foot trail, Householder plans to rest his knee.
Next year he'll continue to work for LeConte Lodge but instead of
llama packing, he'll be a crew member at the lodge. LeConte Lodge is
training Householder's replacement for next season that runs March
Householder knew nothing about llamas when he took the job 10
year ago. Today, his rapport with the animals is one of his strong
suits — that, plus his willingness to patiently answer the same
llama questions over and over.
"Alan has the right temperament to deal with the llamas as well
as the people he passes on the trail," said Tim Line, manager of
LeConte Lodge. "We hate that he won't be doing the job he loves, but
we're glad to keep him."
Llamas do the pack work for LeConte Lodge because they're more
sure footed and leave less of a footprint than horses or mules do.
Householder's scariest moment on the job happened in the summer of
summer 2010 when, two miles below the lodge, the second llama in the
line stepped off the trail, pulling the lead llama with him.
"It was a domino effect," Householder said. "The whole team went
tumbling 40 feet down the mountain. They were tangled in ropes,
upside down and on top of each other. It was a train wreck."
No llama was seriously injured. The accident occurred on an
especially steep slope where the trail forms switchbacks. This
turned out to be a good thing because Householder was able to drag
each llama downhill to the lower switchback.
Householder works two teams of llamas, eight in each team. Last
Wednesday the pack line included two veterans — 18-year-old George,
the llama with the perpetual smile, and Basso, who is 16 years old.
Householder said that unlike himself, when llamas are ready to
retire, they simply sit down at the start of the trail and refuse to
"I've had an incredible walking life," Householder said. "It's
been a great run. I just want it to go on and on."