''Let a llama lighten your load!'' That's the arresting headline in the latest catalog of Early Winters, a Seattle-based mail-order house that specializes in outdoor equipment.
Added this winter to their normal, inanimate line of recreational chic - Gore-Tex parkas and tents, Danish fishermen sweaters, socks that are guaranteed for life, and 10-year flashlights - are honest-to-goodness live llamas.
For only $1,200 to $2,000 you can order your own South American beast of burden. ''What would I do with one?'' you may ask. Why, load it up with tent, sleeping bag, freeze-dried food, cooking gear (they will carry up to 100 pounds) and head into the mountains. And when you're not hiking (you can't really call it backpacking with a llama doing the lugging), you can shear them for their valuable wool.
Besides, ''owners have fallen in love with these gentle animals and their patient, hard-working temperament,'' the ad copy tells you.
''It's a promotional gimmick for us,'' candidly admits Early Winters spokesman Bill Burden. ''We pride ourselves on the uniqueness of the items we carry.''
So far they have not been overwhelmed with llama orders, he admits. But they are ''screening'' several would-be buyers to make sure before the sale that the owners-to-be can provide a proper home for their llamas.
cl11 Actually, llama-packing into the woods is not as strange as it may seem. Early Winters got involved with these sheep-like creatures after using llama-power on some wilderness filming trips. There are outfitters who have run llama trips for a number of years in Washington, Oregon, California, Montana, and Colorado. Also, Western sheepherders have experimented with using llamas as guard animals to protect their herds from coyotes. There is a small but passionate network of llama lovers and owners throughout much of the West that appears to have grown substantially in the last few years.
The llama's association with humans goes back at least 6,000 years, by some estimates. Its admirers praise its docility and intelligence. For the environmentally concerned, llamas do less damage to the environment than traditional pack animals because they have padded feet and don't tear up meadows when they graze. Also, they are said to respond extremely well to people and to be very easy to train.
For those who are fascinated by the idea, but not ready for llama ownership, Early Winters also carries a book on the care, feeding, packing, and behavior of the llama.
For those who really want to make their llamas feel at home, Early Winters also stocks appropriate accessories: Peruvian hats and reed pipes.