For 30 years, Vicky Foster and her llamas have hauled beer, ramen and medical supplies to the highest aid station of the Leadville 100 ultramarathon. This year marks their final race.
Like many things, it began with a breakup.
In 1986, Vicky Foster was an avid hiker and backpacker when a recent breakup left her seeking solace in the backcountry. Her mother, concerned that she was spending so much time alone in the outdoors, gifted Foster her first llama, Stretch.
"I had Stretch for 27 years,” said Foster. “That's the longest relationship of my life."
Foster and Stretch spent days and nights exploring the trails of Wild Basin near Foster's home in Allenspark, Colorado. Stretch kept Foster company, carried her camping equipment and would warn her of wildlife with her distinctive call, halfway between a yodel and a whinny.
"I hike them, they hike me. We keep each other in shape."
The walls of Foster's home are lined with framed images of her animals: rows and rows of dogs and llamas that have kept her company through the years, organized like a furry family tree. Foster has smiling eyes and shoulder-length white hair tucked behind her ears. Earrings that bear the likeness of a llama and a snow-capped peak engraved in turquoise and pearl dangle above her shoulders. She wears jeans and running shoes, proof of the hike she has planned with some of her llama packing friends in the afternoon.
She tries to hike with her animals as much as possible. "I hike them, they hike me," she said. "We keep each other in shape."
An avid marathoner, Foster would often lace up her running shoes to explore the winding trails near her home alone. Her desire to help others, coupled with her love for running, inspired her to pursue certification as an EMT and a degree in exercise physiology.
Foster has a competitive streak and has tried her hand at llama racing, in which humans race against each other to saddle and harness their pack animals before running two and a half miles alongside their long-necked companions to the finish line. About a decade ago, Foster's llama Corky was the first female to ever compete at the Fairplay Llama Race, breaking a decades-old gender barrier in llama racing's premiere event. "I'm a bit of a feminist," said Foster, stroking Corky's nose. "We both are."
“Everybody said we couldn’t do it, and so we did.”
There's a long-held belief in the llama packing community that you can't race or pack female llamas because, like rabbits, they're always fertile and would distract the males. Foster had to work to convince the race director that she would be able to safely compete without slowing down her male counterparts. "Everybody said we couldn't do it, and so we did," said Foster.
Corky’s success in llama-racing’s Super Bowl has encouraged other racers to compete with female llamas. After smashing through llama-racing’s glass ceiling, females have won the past two consecutive years. Foster, herself, has not raced in many years, though several of her llamas—including one named Talkeetna—have won.
In 1987, Foster heard about a relatively new ultramarathon outside of Leadville that took runners up and over Hope Pass. A fellow llama packer and ultrarunner put out a call to the llama packing community, urging volunteers to help set up a renegade aid station for runners at the top of the pass. As an EMT, runner and llama packer, Foster jumped at the chance to be a part of the quickly growing race. The Hope Pass aid station combined everything that Foster loved: running, helping others and pack animals. So, Foster loaded six of her animals into her 1980s Ford EconoVan and headed into the mountains to support Leadville's Race Across the Sky.
Hope Pass sits just below 13,000 feet in the shadow of Hope Peak. It's a long and fairly technical trek that weaves through dense forest and across a glacial terrain before ascending a steep series of switchbacks to the ridge's saddle. Runners of the Leadville 100 will encounter this pass at mile 45, and then again at mile 55.
The Hope Pass aid station looks less like a snack stop for a race and more like a basecamp for an Andean expedition.
Foster used the steep hike up the pass as a training run, hustling up and down the pass with several llamas in tow. The animals themselves are loaded with packs and panniers containing everything from medical equipment to beer and food. The Hope Pass aid station looks less like a snack stop for a race and more like a basecamp for an Andean expedition: Large tents for medical emergencies, cooking and beer-drinking dot the pass as thirty-something pack animals munch on grass nearby. This year, Foster will take roughly 12 cases of ramen noodles up Hope Pass for runners to munch on while they traverse the difficult section at the race's crux.
"The amount of support that we have up there would surprise people. We have oxygen, IV fluids, ramen, everything," said Foster.
What was once a renegade aid station is now officially supported and sanctioned by the race's organizers and has grown to include up to 36 llamas and 30 people. They call themselves the Hopeless Crew, and they take great pride in hauling hundreds of pounds of equipment up to the race's most difficult section, five miles across several streams and straight uphill from any roads accessible by vehicle.
"It's people from every walk of life. We only see each other once a year, up on Hope Pass," said Foster.
"We've seen snow, hail, sleet, rain, extreme heat and high winds all in the same day."
The Hopeless Crew travels to Twin Lakes, Colorado, to set up basecamp a week before the race. For those new to ultrarunning, the amount of organization and preparation that goes into setting up an aid station—especially one hundreds of feet above treeline—might surprise them.
"We've seen snow, hail, sleet, rain, extreme heat and high winds all in the same day," said Foster. "We've really got to be ready for anything."
The Hopeless Crew has trekked up to Hope Pass to support Leadville 100 participants every year for 30 years, patching up blisters, slinging snacks and helping runners any way they can. This year will be Foster and her llamas’ last year. After three decades, she's retiring.
Foster says it's been a good run up on Hope Pass, and she'll miss her packing friends as well as the colorful runners she encounters each year staggering up and over the pass. "Every year we come together and run an important aid station. We roll up our sleeves to make sure everyone gets up and down safely," said Foster. "But it's time for some new blood."
She hopes a younger generation of llama packers will roll up their sleeves, saddle their llamas and head up to Hope Pass to help ensure the safety of runners in this historic race.
While this will be Foster’s last year up at Hope Pass, she plans to keep packing with Corky and her other llamas as much as possible, keeping each other in shape and in good company.