ROCKY MOUNTAIN NATIONAL PARK, Colo. - Packing out high-altitude poo isn't really that bad.
"Everyone says, 'What a terrible job you have,"' said Doug Beahm, a Rocky Mountain National Park animal packer. "I walk in God's splendor for (hours). … For 10 or 15 minutes, there's a little discomfort. There's always a downside to a job."
Each week during the summer months, Beahm and a crew of llamas hike to the outhouses at the Longs Peak Boulder Field, Chasm Junction and Chasm Meadow or Gem Lake. There, Beahm shovels out the waste from the privies, dumps it in black trash bags and hoists them into packs draped over the sides of the llamas.
Then he uses bleach and water to clean out the latrines before heading down the mountain to drop off the waste at the park's pump house.
"A lot of people say, 'We thank you for your job. I never expected to see a clean privy when I'm up here,"' Beahm said. "I go, 'Well, I like using them when they're clean, too."'
The park has been using llamas to haul out waste for more than 20 years, said Sue Richert, who held Doug's job for eight years before retiring from the duty in 2003.
Before that, the park tried various techniques to get rid of the high-altitude waste - using a honey bucket suspended from a helicopter (after one spilled, the park decided to try something different) and hauling up propane tanks to burn the waste. But it's probably just as easy to haul out the waste as it is to lug up the propane tanks, Richert said.
At other locations around the park, crews have built composting toilets. But at such high elevations, where rock and freezing weather make it hard to dig a hole, and even harder for the waste to decompose, those toilets don't work well.
But if the thousands of park visitors who trek up to Longs Peak were to pick a spot and squat when nature calls, well, that could get pretty messy.
"Under the Boulder Field is an ice field," said Jim Dougan, a wilderness program specialist at the park. "People do their business, put a rock over it, and all that's going to leach down into that water."
So Beahm treks to each of the outhouse locations once a week to keep those areas clean.
"If you're not the head llama, the view doesn't change," Beahm said, roping the three llamas - Lloyd, Heffer and Borman - in a line and starting up the Longs Peak Trail recently.
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The destination that day was the privies at Chasm Meadow and Chasm Junction, about a 4-mile hike. The outhouses all have a solar dehydrator system that helps to shrink the waste weight through evaporation.
Each llama can carry about 100 pounds, and at the height of the season, Beahm said he loads the llamas to full capacity.
Mules and horses can carry more weight, but their hooves do more damage to the trail than the llamas' feet. Also, llamas need less water and food than horses and leave behind smaller droppings.
Richert, who now works at the Trail Ridge Road Visitor Center but still trains new hires on the waste-hauling job, said the llamas are picky about having the same amount of weight on each side of their pack. The packers must weigh their load - or get used to picking up the bag and estimating the weight within two to three pounds, she said.
"They'll let you know right away if they don't like what you've done," Richert said. "They'll just sit down. That's it. They'll sit until you fix what you've done."
At Chasm Meadow, Beahm shoveled the waste into a triple-lined bucket.
"If it were doggy waste, I'd grab a bag and do it," he said. "But we are nasty animals."
Part of Beahm's job is to raise public awareness - allowing surprised visitors to photograph the animals, answering questions about the park or the trail, and talking to visitors about what the llamas are carrying.
Until Richert decided to attach National Park Service emblems to the llamas' packs, people used to ask if the animals could carry their gear.
"They want to know about the llamas and what's in the bags," she said.
Beahm, a former professional bull rider who grew up raising quarter horses, loves it all - working with the animals, talking to people and, yes, even keeping the outhouses clean.
So don't bother applying for the job.
"You'll have to stand in line," Beahm said with a laugh. "There are so many people who want this job."