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“Flippers???”

“Oh don’t worry, that’s to do with all the divers we’ve had staying this weekend!”

I was still mildly alarmed as to why so many people would want to plunge themselves into the depths of Wastwater, the deepest lake in England, in chilly December… “Oh that’ll be the gnome garden down on one of the ledges – great fun!”

“What?! Gnome Garden???!” OK so now I felt quite normal and not at all crazy, and especially not at all crazy for choosing to do my UK Summer Mountain Leader (ML) Training Course based at Wastwater YHA in the middle of winter! There were weirder goings-on for sure!

Here, a bit of background… you may recall that the Urban Hamster is on her path to Mountain Marmot-dom. In normal language, she has left the rat-race and is working towards her International Mountain Leader (IML) Award to enable this transformation.

In order to qualify as an IML, you must first hold the UK Summer ML award. The latter (at it’s simplest description) involves building up an experience bank of ‘proper walking’, a compulsory Training Course, building up subsequent ‘proper walking’ experience, attaining a designated First Aid certificate, and then taking (and passing!) the official Assessment.

So here I was, eager to throw myself into the Training Deep-End for 6 days (although certainly not into the lake!): into a world of knots and navigation, camping expeditions, and slightly more precipitous ground than the average bear may expect to come across (should he have got his navigation spot-on as well as having refrained from eating too many fermented blackberries that may otherwise cause him to stumble off his path). Here is how it panned out, from the Hamster’s eye-view.

Day 1 – Break them in gently and see who is the least ham-fisted with a compass, and who knows how to keep count… and then get them to tie each other in knots after dinner

Group introductions complete (yes, here I discover I am definitely the only ‘chick’ on the course, and in fact most of the other trainees have some sort of formal military training and are already pretty adept with ‘knots and nav’ … eek, I thought, as only a True Hamster could. However not to be put off, in many ways it was rather good as there were more people to learn from! Positive Mental Attitude! We covered the basics of how to go in the desired direction, how to keep going in the desired direction, and how to measure distance (this is where the step-counting came in!!!).

The introductory ropework session was held indoors after dinner owing to it being pitch-dark outside, and in fact is highly-recommended as an alternative after-dinner entertainment for anyone stuck for an idea for dinner parties this festive season. So, all good and looking forward to the coming days, although with a bit of intrepidation as big snow storms were forecast!!!

Day 2 – How to avoid becoming the Proverbial Fromage; how to get your partner in a cinch; trot about at night with map, compass and headtorch in a snowstorm!

Today we got the chance to Live the Experience of Ropes. Again this is a Hamster-term and will be etched in the memory forever. ‘Why’ will become very clear. This involved getting into pairs to find potential anchor points and rate them out of ten (great fun, a bit like an outdoors version of Car Cricket / Top Trumps) and my ‘buddy’ and I were thrilled to have found one of the ‘best’ ones!

Then the Cheesy Part – learning to belay on a steep slope. This involves, in layman’s terms, attaching your ‘prey’ to the end of the rope at the foot of the slope; you, ML Extraordinaire, the Grand Fromage, climbing up the ‘steep slope’, attaching the rope to an appropriate anchor point (in our case an 8 out of 10 boulder: most of the cats preferred it) and attaching yourself to the rope, between you and your ‘prey’ for example.

During this, we had to learn what it would feel like if someone slipped and we had to take all their weight… this experience told me everything I needed to know as to why navigation and safety is so important so that ideally you should never actually have to be in this situation. I let out such a yowl that I am still surprised it did not cause a mini rock-slide on Wasdale Screes directly opposite. I can only say that having a rope secured around you at the base of your rib-cage is not to be recommended, with two people heaving on the end of it ‘so you know what it might feel like if someone on the other end has a slip’. It is however necessary training and MLs need to be able to cope with this as part of their ‘emergency skills toolkit’. There are ways to improve comfort as it turns out, which did indeed make for a much Happier Hamster later in the week, although at this stage I really did think that my dream to become a Mountain Marmot would never come true if I couldn’t get over this pain factor! Real Hamster Tears there were, in the hail, in Wasdale.

Day 3 – Graceful rock dancing (OK so I tell myself anything to avoid thinking I will actually be having the cheeseboard experience again)

Today we used our rope skills in earnest, and after learning that you can wear your rucksack to pad your back and stuff a sit-mat down your front, it really did help! A very Happy Hamster engaged in belaying and abseiling on small cliffs of approximately 10m in height today! The thing to point out here is that those amongst the group who participate in rock climbing were having to learn ‘new tricks’ in the sense that, for example, abseiling ML Style involves just you, your rope and your anchor point (thanks to ingenious methods of wrapping the rope around yourself – cat’s cradle this is not, although it does start out looking like a skipping game). For those amongst the group who were used to harnesses and climbing hardware, this was back to basics!!! In fact, probably pre-basics. Main thing with the ML Ropework is remembering which knot to use when and in what order you need to do things, as well as ending up with the knots and people in the right place – more on this later when we come to the Bunny Connection.

Day 4 - How not to become a human kit

Today was meant to be the start of our two-day expedition with an overnight wild-camp at around 600m elevation. Having had a weather lesson in the classroom the day before, including learning how to interpret synoptic charts (the weather maps with all the isobars plotted on them, NOT the ones we see on the BBC with little clouds and cute sunshines stamped on them!), it came as no surprise when we were told that the camping would have to be cancelled due to the force ten winds and snow forecast to come in. It was in fact even too dangerous to camp in the valley… however we did do a great route and expedition planning session (where it materialized that the Urban Hamster had put together possibly the best route of the lot!), before getting out onto a couple of lower peaks (Seatallan and Middle Fell) to practice navigation, so we were able to experience some winter conditions instead!

Although we were told this was far and beyond anything that we would be expected to undertake for UK Summer ML, it was a great experience. We had snow, hail, and aforementioned very strong winds that continued to build to the point where I, by far the lightest member of the group, was designated as ‘officially being needed to be held onto’ for about half an hour as we made our way towards a very steep snowy gully which would subsequently provide us with a sheltered route off the hill. The regular walkers’ path straight down the front of Middle Fell would have been straight into the wind. Afterwards my ‘handler’ described it as ‘like having hold of a kite’ – he could not quite believe just how much lighter people can be picked up by the wind! I am 5’9”, so not small, but am light and it showed!!!

Practical note: on days like this, if you wish to avoid daubing your jacket hood with substances such as Nutella, coleslaw or Branston Pickle (or really don’t mind having to disrobe your entire head in a blizzard to get your lunch into your mouth / would actually quite like an edgy ‘fashion-student’ look applied to your outdoor gear) then I strongly recommend having Food That Fits Through Narrow Gaps in Scarves Etc!!! There are some very funny stories attached to this which will ‘stay on the hill’…

Day 5 – Rivers – how to cross, why to cross, and many reasons why to avoid this in the first place!

Today was even colder than the day before, although less snowy and we could actually see much further than the tips of our whiskers. A great time to get into a freezing cold river!!! At this stage we had all begun talking about how we would go along to the nearest pub that night, so we all had lots of warming thoughts to keep us going.

We also got the chance to practice our Thompson Knots in earnest – this is great fun and involves making bunny ears as part of the makeshift rope ‘harness’ to be worn by your prey so that they can be safely lowered down steep ground. The bunny ears are the piece de resistance, ensuring a good fit. This exercise had the rock-climbers lamenting over the absence of their climbing harnesses once again, as well as over the squealing girl who ‘couldn’t wait to make bunny ears again’! I didn’t quite get my measurements right first time and ended up with some very large ears. Time to redo the knot – might have worked pretty well for someone with four arms though… This was the relatively toasty element of the day, and now protected by the rucksack I was an Eager Hamster who kept ‘wanting to have another go, pleeeeese’!

Now the flipside, temperature-wise… so much precipitation in recent days had caused the rivers to really swell so we were only allowed to proceed halfway across and back again as the flow and depth were too great to be safe beyond this point. Again this was a great illustration of ‘when to not cross a river’, and being in the icy chill (without a nice hot tub / sauna to dive into immediately afterwards, or any birch twigs to hand to beat each other with) this experience will certainly help us to remember all the options that should be investigated before considering an actual river crossing, as well as when a river does become unsafe to cross. I can only say that some of the gentlemen amongst the group did let out a few yowls of their own when the water reached the tideline… bizarrely I was quite a Happy Hamster here and wasn’t in too much of a hurry to get out, which is actually a good thing as we were taught that you need to move slowly, deliberately and precisely on riverbeds… then it was back to the ranch for more classroom learning to warm up before a lovely meal and a few pints out that evening!

Day 6 – Cosy Classroom Day

Today was spent cosy in the classroom discussing Access and Conservation and doing individual feedback for next steps ahead of our Assessment...I can't really add much more....

… so what next for Urban Hamster?

Urban Hamster’s plan is to go for the UK ML Assessment in May / early June so that she can get into IML Training and Assessments from the coming summer onwards. In the meantime the next batch of UK Summer experience and the First Aid certificates need to happen! However, given it is currently the depths of winter, a little bit of the Mountain Marmot will be making an appearance… the next great adventures are in fact part of her Winter IML experience! These will include at least two snow-shoeing trips with Lindsay at Tracks and Trails, and hopefully some Nordic Touring later in the season! Next up: Cross Country Ski pre-season training in Wisconsin with family at Christmas… then Pyrenees Snowshoe Scouting Trip with Lindsay in January! Watch this space!!! We should get some great photos from that trip, provided she hasn’t tied up her guide in too many knots!

How a city chick left the rat race to pursue her dream of a life in the hills. We will be following her journey over the coming months.

A ‘feeling’ buzzed through me at the start of this year. “Something hugely exciting is going to happen!”. I had absolutely no idea what this might be however, which made it all the more wonderful…

There was a definite frisson in the air which, happily, was not linked to the rather too-cosy relationship that was developing between me and my laptop. I was a familiar urban hamster, scampering along the tracks of commuting ‘long’… working ‘long’… and so trying to squeeze hobbies into small windows of opportunity like so many of my peers…

This of course made moments of holiday planning all the more fun and important to get ‘right’, and we all know that looking forward to a break is almost as rewarding as the experience itself, don’t we?

So this summer, would it be a few surfing weekends… or should I go on a trekking holiday??? “Isn’t trekking for crazed outdoors people who all dangle from cliffs by one toe-nail for fun though???”. Well, let’s find out, I thought, in what I declared at the time to be an official Moment of Extreme Bravery.

Fast-forward to August… Chamonix Valley… blistering blue skies… the stunning irregularity yet homely familiarity of the massif du Mont Blanc… the start of what was both a fabulous Tour du Mont Blanc and also of a new way to ‘really live’! After careful research, the trip exceeded my expectations in so many ways. Not only this – it was where the hidden gem of discovery was hiding amongst the gentianes!

It went like this: why do I work like a crazed lunatic on something that is not my true passion so that I can spend a couple of weeks in the year enjoying bring part of something brilliant like this??? Why don’t I come and do this for a living??? Yes! Why not??? There may be plenty of ‘why nots’ however the trick was seeing the benefits of the ‘whys’ outweighing all of these and coming up with a watertight plan to make it happen.

It is very easy to follow norms, however being out there totally in nature with a group of like-minded people and someone as inspirational as Lindsay, my guide from Tracks and Trails, provided the catalyst to unlock my calling in life!! And that is exactly it – out there on the trail the ‘feeling’ that touched me earlier in the year suddenly seemed to explode and completely connect everything that matters in the world. And everything does matter – and to realize that is more than can often even be imagined, never mind actually felt!

So as you read this I am now several weeks into having left a sensible desk-job, finding ways to keep the all-important wine fund afloat, and training to become a UK and International Mountain Leader in order to really live and share my passions.

In the coming weeks I will post updates with some candid photos, interesting tips and no doubt some classic out-takes! If anyone has any questions or comments then we would love to hear from you; please just get in touch at Tracks and Trails!

Editors Note:at the time of ‘posting’ the Urban Hamster is battling storm force winds, and a blizzard in the Lake District on her first week of mountain training for the UK Summer Mountain Leader scheme. She has only cried once! This is the first step along the road to becoming qualified as an International Mountain Leader, which allows you to work in the Alps, and much further afield!

Swimming with snowshoes? Traverse of the Chablais, France

“Right!” said Fred. “Six days across the Chablais mountains in winter carrying all our kit and a dip in Lake Geneva at the end?” He’s not one to be overly demanding is Fred, as long as I can come up with a decent snowshoe hike of more than 725 m ascent, and around 10.5 km in length, plus a good hotel at the end of the day with a huge hot-tub with views to the mountains, excellent local food, a masseuse on tap, and a very good red wine then he’s pretty much happy!

But before we head off across the Chablais a bit of beta on Fred and snowshoes in general. Fred and I have, over recent years, spent many a day snowshoeing our way around the French, Swiss and Italian Alps. He’s one of a growing band of mountain folk taking up this ancient winter activity. I would describe Fred as an enthusiastic hill walker who has embraced his snowshoes as his new best friends. They are, by the way, a very fetching pale blue in colour. I digress. Fred is a keen mountaineer andhas discovered that strapping on a pair of snowshoes means he has easier access to a winter wonderland. No more plodding through thigh-deep snow, but skipping instead through powder with all the grace and elegance of a chamois. OK, perhaps at six foot plus and being a strapping chap the analogy to a chamois isn’t quite accurate, but I am sure you get the general idea – it’s much easier with snowshoes than without!

I know you are probably scoffing, because the ‘unenlightened’ always do when I mention snowshoes. Yes, there was a time when snowshoes did indeed resemble ‘tennis racquets’ but no more, today they are made of hi-tech materials and come in many shapes, sizes, and colours. If you are terribly mountain fashion conscious then you can buy them in a suitable colour to match your winter wardrobe. This is a far cry from the original snowshoes, which were made of wood and leather and did indeed look like something, which come in handy for a game at Wimbledon. Their use can be traced back to Central Asia and today some 6,000 years later they continue to prove very effective for travel in a winter landscape. Indeed, recent sales of snowshoes in the French Alps show an increase of around 40 per cent year on year so there is no doubting their growth in popularity. The idea is simple really, the greater the surface area you have attached to your walking boots, the less chance you have of sinking into deep snow. Some say watching hares travelling across the snow pack inspired early humans to copy them in so far as they provided an understanding that large hairy hind feet stopped them sinking, Ok, no hairs on snowshoes, but it does make sense. Instead, the typical modern snowshoe comes with six studs on the bottom, and a front claw for gripping on steeper uphill sections and having pushed my fair share of snowshoes to the limit I can vouch for their effectiveness.

So to the Chablais, an area of France renowned for its marvellous snowshoeing country, a winter playground of high alpine pastures, forests, jagged ridges and peaks. Geographically speaking it is the first chain in the Pre-Alps Mountains between Lake Geneva and the Mont Blanc range and more often than not people normally whiz past it en route to Chamonix. Next time I strongly suggest you think about turning left half way along the autoroute and exploring the hidden valleys of what is without doubt a cracking setting for a winter journey.

I guess our six-day winter traverse really came about because I am essentially pretty nosy – always wanting to check out what’s over the next Col, or round the next ridge. Though a kinder description might be to just say that, like most of us who love the mountains, I have a strong sense of adventure and a continual desire to explore a new area. Working as an International Mountain Leader there is also the added push from folk like Fred. “So what’s on the cards next year then?” being his usual query before the current trip has even ended. Part of me dreads the question because I am wondering how on earth I can top the days we have just experienced, but a far greater part of me can’t wait to have an excuse to buy new maps and guide books and dwell on snowy vistas in a still to be visited area.

So after a summer of pouring over maps of the Chablais and attempting to ‘join the dots’ or more accurately the villages and valleys between St Jeoire and Lake Geneva we gathered at our departure point at Megevette. It’s a bit of a one-horse village – and as is often the case with trips on less frequented routes, there is one hotel, and that is your lot as they say! But given that most are family run, and they are keen to encourage trade you are usually guaranteed a warm welcome, even if the owners are a bit bemused by the concept of walking across the Chablais to Lake Geneva in winter. Actually, to be fair the reaction to our endeavour was more often than not one of respect rather than amusement!

Several beers later and our pre-trip briefing is going swimmingly. Fred has coerced his good lady Alison, and his friend Jo (that’s Joanne) to provide some company on the trip so we are three women and one soon to be long suffering male. There is much discussion (you have all been there) of how many fleeces, thermals, socks, knickers etc we will need for a week, or more accurately how little we can get away with and still be sensibly equipped for a long journey in potentially bad weather. Then there is the faff over the kit – who’s taking the group shelter, who’s carrying the spare compass, who’s got the spare maps, and does Fred really need a hip flask? The joys of trying to re-stuff the group shelter into its pack in the hotel bar after yet another beer, just because someone wanted to check out whether all four of us could indeed crawl inside – much to the bemusement of the locals who by now have been propping up the bar for around 3 hrs having decided my team are providing the best entertainment in Megevette for some time. It gets even better when the avalanche transceivers get fired up and our newcomer to ‘trannies’ Alison decides a wee practice is in order. At which point ‘diner’ was announced and she beeped her way to the table without incident while muttering that a St Bernard was surely a more traditional accessory.

Being kitted out correctly is of course an essential part of a safe and successful trip such as our six-day traverse of the Chablais. I always carry, and expect my team members, to also carry avalanche transceiver, shovel and probe and to know how to use them. Ok, at the start of day one they often don’t, but by mid-morning I like to have found time to instil the basics, and then throughout the following days we take time to practice. I often draw the analogy of opting for a car with an airbag fitted rather than one without, i.e. I am not planning to have a car crash but the technology is there so - hey, let’s have it thank you very much!

So it’s the morning of day one, and we wave goodbye to our luggage, which we will meet up with in six days time at Evian on Lake Geneva. There is a wonderful sense of self-sufficiency to setting off in winter with just a rucksack filled with the essentials to survive. As per normal at the start of a big journey there is a hot and bothersome first hour while the team work out their layering systems and remove and replace various undergarments, and jackets and squabble about why it takes so long for team member A, B or C to readjust everything.

A few hours later and we are into our stride and en route to our first summit the Pointe des Jottid at 1548m. A quick stop for views across the Chablais to the impressive limestone walls and jagged peaks, which in the days ahead we discover, are a daily feature of this beautiful landscape and then its onwards to our first destination. I have to say its not that easy to find your way through the forests through which you descend each day, with a maze of barely seen paths and tracks, especially as we were more often than not were breaking trail on virgin snow. But, hey ho, what a sense of adventure. By the time we reached Bellevaux at the end of our first day we were ready for a beer and fired up with enthusiasm for the days ahead.

Next morning, as with every morning, it was a steady climb through alpine summer pastures, often passing ancient chalets and farms on our way, before reaching our high point of the day, in this case Tre la Saix at 1486m. A blue sky and a stunning plateau awaited us and as per normal not a single person in sight. Where was everyone else on those perfect alpine days? Three Cols later and we are dropping down into yet another gem of a hidden valley heading for Biot.

There are so many truly lovely little villages in the deep-sided valleys of the Chablais just waiting to be discovered. Most with beautiful squares with impressive stonework and the inevitable elegant chapel with the sunlight glinting off the jewel colours of the stained glass. Although our days snowshoeing on the mountain were the reason we were making our journey, it has to be said that all of us eagerly anticipated arriving at our hotel each evening, not just for the hot shower and the beer, but also for the chance to check out another rural village where the cheese makers were happy to chat and sell us some fare for lunch the next day. At one farm at Biot we spent so much time ‘tasting’ that we really didn’t need to buy any for lunch – we had eaten enough to keep us going all day !

One of the great things of course about a multi-day journey is it provides such a wonderful opportunity to forget about the stresses and strains of everyday life. You get up in the morning, consume several mugs of coffee and several hot croissants with generous dollops of jam, pick up your rucksack and start walking, until eventually you arrive at another hostelry and another opportunity for eating and drinking. Oh, such a simple life if only we could just keep walking forever. Of course on a crossing of the Chablais that’s not possible, because eventually you would need to start swimming! As we headed up Mont Benand at 1284m on our final day I think all of us had a ‘little moment’ when we quietly reflected that our journey was almost over. But a baguette and a lump of Abondance cheese later, we were fired up for the last stretch and after another few hours we catch the first glimpse of the Lake through the trees. What a wonderful sight – a snowy horizon with this massive expanse of water beyond and the knowledge it was all downhill from then on. Well, Fred got his wish to get to Lake Geneva, but I don’t seem to remember him taking a dip! Funny that, maybe something to do with it being February? A short taxi ride and we were ensconced in our hotel in Evian, famed of course for its mineral water and its spas. It always feels strange to descend out of the hills into civilisation again, and this trip was no different. A few strange looks were cast in our direction as we stomped along the waterfront with our snowshoes on our packs looking like the weather beaten team we were but oh boy did we feel chuffed. Next morning we had the perfect ending to our trip. We all caught the early ferry from Evian in France across the Lake to Lausanne in Switzerland and so on to the train to the airport. “Right”, said Fred “What’s on the cards for next year then?” and so back to the drawing board. Actually, I already know…but I’m not telling, just yet.

The autumn months are when we explore new areas. So I have just returned from a fabulous 8 week trip to the Americas. First off was a 'rock & road' trip to the US where we drove through the mountains of Colorado and the deserts of Utah & Nevada. We rock climbed on what seemed like every sort of rock type, mountain biked amazing single-track trails in Moab & trekked famous 14,000ft peaks.

Next stop was South America; Peru & Bolivia to be precise and the highlight of my trip the Ausangate Range. Flying into Cusco, Peru is a shock to most peoples systems. Sitting at 3399m above sea level means theirs every excuse to take it easy for a few days acclimatising and enjoy one of the world's most up and coming tourist destinations. There's no wonder why either. Cusco has something for everyone plus makes the perfect base for mountain adventures. Many friends said that you'll always want to return to Cusco and now I understand why. You can stroll at leisure whilst absorbing a unique blend of history, art (both Spanish and Inca), first class dining from across the world, mixed with great weather, fine architecture and a warm welcome - all in a mountain setting!

I was travelling with my Mum, Susie (known as My Mum to all we meet!), and as we didn't have any fixed itinerary it's very easy to loose track of time in Cusco. We wanted to have some mountain adventures but also time to stop and enjoy where we were. In Cusco we made plans. We spent time in the Sacred Valley and walked Inca trails around Machu Picchu, mountain biked superb single track to Inca ruins and rode Peruvian horses through Andean villages.

Our next adventures took us on an early morning local bus (complete with baby alpacas on board) 3 hours south east of Cusco to the village of Tinqui where we prepared for our trek around the Cordillera Vilcanota's highest peak, Ausangate 6384m, a holy mountain. Most people when they think of trekking in Peru think of the Inca Trail and rightly so. However, Peru has a lot more to offer trekkers and the Ausangate Circuit in my mind would rate as one of the finest treks in the world. This true 'off the beaten track' hike is perfect for seasoned trekkers wanting an adventure.

Depending on how acclimatised you are the Circuit can be completed in 5-7 days, normally between April and October. The route is remote taking a high trail crossing several passes up to 5200m. You walk through Andean villages untouched by tourism and only accessible on foot, where traditional methods of life are still used. You pass herds of grazing alpacas and shy vicuñas, see birds of prey and find viscachas (a small rodent that has the ears of a hare and tail of a squirrel!) Over every pass there's a new peak and more glaciers to draw your attention. Our evenings were spent camping by turquoise lagoons and under huge tongues of ice. Our final days trekking took us to natural hot springs. The best way to end a superb journey.

On a clear day the white peaks of Ausangate can be seen from Cusco. The newly paved road between Cusco and Tinqui has made this region more accessible. The residents of the area still maintain their Quechua and colonial heritage and customs. From here we had a contact for a local horseman, Florencio, and unless you are fluent in Quechua Spanish is your best bet as it's unlikely to find anyone in these villages who speak English. With Florencio we shopped locally for food and bought gas and rented his stove and pans. As you trek high and camp most nights at 4600m or higher it can be cold so you need to be prepared for all weathers (we had several inches of snow two nights!) with down jackets and 3/4 season sleeping bags. Finding good maps 'off the beaten track' is not always easy or possible so that coupled with the high altitudes make hiring a horse to carry camp gear and a local to aid finding the way much easier and the journey more enjoyable.

On our return to Tinqui we were given a warm welcome by Florencio's family. The scene of his mother, in traditional Quechua dress, talking to my Mum (in Quechua!) whilst guinea pigs scuttled around the kitchen are memories that stay with you. I felt that this relatively short trek had given us everything and more out of a trek in Peru. We met just one other group on the trails and they were on horseback. The fact that no permits or prior booking is necessary makes this region even more accessible to visitors.

The Ausangate Trek now sits in my top ten treks in the world.

If you would like to no more about this trek our how to join an organised group then feel free to get in touch with me. I have also posted some more pictures on our Facebook pages.

Happy travels, Julia

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