Yak Packing

by Alexa Metrick, Editor


If a llama’s personality can be likened to that of a cat, yaks are more dog-like in temperament. Tame yaks can be friendly and affectionate; as Shannon Holder, of Butte Pasture Yak Ranch in Crested Butte, Colorado, says, “they’re like over-sized Golden Retrievers that you can ride.” And despite their close kinship with cattle, Michael Swartz, of Turkey Hill Yaks in Cody, Wyoming, says “they’re much more intelligent than cows ever thought to be.” Eaton Nisson, of Rocky Mountain Yak & Pack in Oak Creek, Colorado, says that “they’re as friendly as can be” but admits that although they are fairly trainable, they do have a slow process time (like a cow). Gordon Janow, Director of Programs at Alpine Ascents International, isn’t in full agreement with that description, however: While they are fascinating creatures, he says, it’s perhaps going a bit far to describe them as affectionate and dog-like. As with any animal, upbringing and training can affect personality and temperament.


Domesticated on the Tibetan Plateau around 4,500 years ago, yaks are at home in high altitudes, cold weather and dry climates—which may be why, here in the United States, their numbers are concentrated in the Rockies. Yaks are athletic herd animals and are happiest, both in the pasture and on the trail, with at least one other yak. They have a great sense of smell and a fear of dogs and will attack unknown dogs and coyotes who invade their space. Yaks have humped shoulders (like buffalo), long coats and long horse-like tails, and both the males and females have horns. According to the International Yak Association, “cows average about 600-800 pounds and around 4.5 feet at the hump. Bulls average 1200-1,500 pounds but can reach over 1,600 pounds.”


For the most part, raising yaks in the United States is still a cottage industry: according to Swartz, most owners have only five to seven yaks. The International Yak Association and its Registry launched in 1992 (seven years after the International Llama Registry was established) and, by their count, there are more than 1,700 registered yaks in the North American Yak Registry herdbook (compared with ILR’s total of 163,386 llamas registered in the United States). The country’s handful of big meat producers rarely register their animals, however, so the population count is actually quite a bit higher than 1,700.


The yak is truly a multi-use animal. Their down-type fiber (there are three type of fiber on a yak: down, mid and coarse) has been compared to cashmere and their leather is strong and durable. Producers are currently unable to keep up with the demand for yak meat, milk and cheese, and, despite their rarity, yaks have had a consistent presence at the National Western Stock Show for many years.


The yak packing industry in the States, however, is still in its infancy. Turkey Hill’s Swartz planned to offer trained pack yaks to outfitters from his original ranch in Nebraska, but in eight years he never had any inquiries. Outside of Tibet, commercial yak packers are hard to find and recreational packers are few and far between. The small herd in Talkeetna, Alaska, owned and operated by Alpine Ascents International, is one of the few outfits in North America offering regular yak tours, which they have been doing for the last ten years.


Yaks are bovines, but weigh less than most breeds of cattle and consume far less resources (one cow eats as much as three yaks will). They have a hard, cloven split hoof and are very sure-footed in mountainous terrain. Their short height makes for easy loading and they can carry a significant amount of weight (like llamas, the rule of thumb is 20% of body-weight). Cut steers, the most common choice for pack animals, weigh around 700 to 900 pounds, (double that of an average llama), which means they can carry 140 to 180 pounds. Janow, of Alpine Ascents International, says their yaks carry an average load of 150 pounds, and Robert Stuplich, of Colorado Tibetan Pack Yaks, says the same. Nisson, of Rocky Mountain Yak & Pack, sticks with the 20% of bodyweight rule, as well.


Misdirected territorial aggression and Aberrant Behavior Syndrome are apparently not issues with yaks, as it is recommended that training an animal for packing begin with bottle-fed calves as early as possible. Nisson waits until the calves are four weeks old before he begins to bottle-feed them. He says that if a yak is not trained by the age of fourteen or fifteen months, it will be wild forever. Swartz thinks bottle feeding and training should begin even earlier, as soon as the calf has received its mother’s colostrum. Holder typically weans calves at three days (after colostrum) and begins desensitization training at that point, with halter training commencing at four to six months.


Regardless of when it begins, the training progression is similar to that of llamas and begins with desensitization, progresses to haltering and leading, and utilizes dog packs for early pack training. Modified horse packs are most commonly used as tack, although some people use traditional Tibetan yak saddles.


Todd Burleson, President of Alpine Ascents International, tells the story of training his yaks this way: “Funny thing. When [I] started working with the yaks to teach them to carry it was very difficult. It really wasn’t working. My Sherpa friends came over and worked with them. The next day they came to me and said were ready for a trip. In disbelief I went down to the barn; all [the] yaks were in saddles and loaded with a 100 pounds each. We did a test run for an hour and from then on headed out for seven-day tours in the Alaska mountains. These guys are true Yak whisperers.”


Yaks on the trail are usually halter-led (at least here in the States—in Tibet, the group of yaks lead the people on the trail and halters and leads are not typically used). However, the Alpine Ascents animals stick with tradition: they are herded (sometimes even by visiting Sherpas), not led, and the hikers follow behind.


The yaks’ common response to something unusual or unpleasant on the trail is to lock down rather than bolt—Holder was riding one of her yaks on a trail near Schofield when a bull elk broke through the trees and started walking toward them. She jumped off (yaks are short enough to allow for an easy and safe dismount) and her yak locked down and refused to move. Nisson explains that when a yak locks down, you have to wait it out, since they do not respond at all to any kind of hard pressure. Swartz did have a yak who caught the scent of moose while out on the trail and bolted 150 yards before the moose was even spotted, however. But because of their size, Janow says, “the yaks are pretty confident animals and don’t pay much mind to anything” they encounter on the trail, so interactions such as these are pretty rare, even in the Alaskan wilderness.


The yaks’ work ethic on the trail isn’t flawless, however. Timmy Meagher, a hunting and fishing guide and the owner of Northern Colorado Outfitters, gave yaks a try one season. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much luck with them. “They did not work well in the wilderness,” he said. “They were good around their home base area, but did not like the wilderness.” Like llamas, yaks need to be conditioned to the work that will be asked of them, which is why Stuplich, of Colorado Tibetan Pack Yaks, trains his yaks to pack above treeline in the Elk Mountains of the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness between Aspen and Crested Butte. He says they love the wilderness.


Because of the exceptionally small number of yaks getting out in the backcountry today, trail access doesn’t seem to be an issue. For more information about these fascinating creatures, visit the website of the International Yak Association at www.iyak.org.