Tag Archives: altitude symptoms

From Temper to Trees – Nepal – Chapter 16

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Gorak Shep (5160m) – Kala Pattar (5550m) – Lobuche (4910m) – Pangboche (3980m)

 Date = 30-31 March

 L&D get out of bed reluctantly.  It’s minus 5°C indoors and snowing outside.  Angtu has booked breakfast for 6.30am.  They’ve got a 400 metre climb to the top of Kala Pattar.

They inspect the sky, which does not look promising.

D:  I really want to climb the mountain.

L:  I don’t seem to mind if we do or not.

D:  I want to see if it clears at all.  If it does I’m going up.

L:  OK, if it does, I’ll come too.

There is a French boy at the next table.  Despite the fact that it’s still only 7am, he says he’s already been to the top and back this morning.

D:  How was it?

Boy:  It was super-cold and not worth it as there was nothing to see.

D:  I think it’s clearing.  The sky’s lightening.  It’s stopped snowing.

Boy:  That’s so not fair!

L:  (joking)  You’ll have to do it again!

P1030397 (2)They leave him to his breakfast and set off.  There’s a thin crust of snow, a bitter wind and a leaden grey sky which is slowly shifting and cracking.  Without the sun the landscape is monochrome and harsh.  There is rock and snow.  Black and white.  Cold and colder.

A helicopter thuds up the valley.  It lands in a snowfield below them.  Three tourists get out, take photos of Mount Everest, get back in, and fly away.

The path up Kala Pattar is clear and unchallenging but steep, until the last 50m of bare rock.  It seems that at 5,500 metres L has reached her temper threshold.  D&L stand just below the summit and bicker.  Angtu looks uncomfortable and pretends he can’t hear.

L:  You go. I don’t even care about getting to the top.

D:  But I want you to be with me.

L:  I can’t breathe.  I’m too cold.

D:  Come with me.

L:  I don’t want to.

D goes ahead on his own and reaches the summit.   L comes slower.  D is delighted.  L couldn’t care less, although through her sulk she recognises that on a clear day the views would be unequalled.  Just behind them, looking close enough to touch, towers the peak of Pumori.  Below them lies Everest Base Camp, and the Khumbu Icefall, and beyond the glacier soars Everest – today glimpsed only fleetingly through the shifting cloud.

P1030423 (2)D:  It’s amazing!  Take photos of everything!

L:  I can’t.  My hands are numb.

She hands the camera to Angtu.

D:  Here – have a celebratory Snickers!  We’re at 5550m!  The highest we’ve ever been!

L:  It’s too cold.  Let’s just go.  Let’s celebrate later – somewhere warm.

D:  Oh.  OK.

L:  Have I ruined it?

D:  A little bit.

L:  It’s just so cold.  And grey.  And cold.

They start down.  L’s mood and fingers thaw a fraction.

L:  Sorry.  I think it’s the altitude.  Now we’re a bit lower, I’m less horrible already.

But she continues to feel negative all the way down.  Bad vibes are streaming out of her.  She’s worried the mountain will feel her antipathy and be offended and cause her to strain a knee or an ankle or fall.  For an hour she mutters “thank you Kala Pattar, thank you Kala Pattar” over and over under her breath, a mantra of gratitude to drown out the rest.

On the descent they are overtaken by a youth, skipping down the mountain.  It’s the French boy, who has summitted a second time that morning, and this time been rewarded with views.  L is pleased for him, and continues her muttering.  “Thank you Kala Pattar, thank you Kala Pattar”.

They arrive back at the warmth of the lodge in Gorak Shep and drink hot chocolate and eat pancakes.  It’s taken nearly 2 hours up, and just over 1 hour down.  D is glowing with a sense of achievement.  L feels nothing – she’s just been for a brutally cold walk and come back again.

P1030431 (2)They set off back to Lobuche.  Without the sun to melt the dusting of snow, the landscape stays monochrome and the windchill is biting.  Once again they across the chaotic maze of glacial moraine.

L:  What’s the most overpriced thing you’ve come across up here?  Bearing in mind that everything’s justified somewhere this remote.

D:  It could be the 4 dollar Kit Kat?

L:  Yes.

D:  Or the 400 dollar horse – for a day’s hire?

L:  Also yes.  One could surely buy a horse for less than that.

They join the wide, dusty, well-trodden corridor of the main trail and stride onwards and downwards.

L:  I think being at altitude might be good practice for extreme old age.  I imagine it’s just the same.

D:  In what way?

L:  Walking everywhere really slowly, with sticks.

D:  OK.

L:  And being always out of breath.

D:  I suppose.

L:  And needing to pee all the time.

D:  I think that’s pregnant people, not old ones.

L:  And not enough personal hygiene.

D:  That’s not old people or pregnant ones.  That’s just us.  I’m not sure this analogy is working.

L:  Oh.  You could be right.

D:  How long ago did we shower?

L:  Does a bucket of warm water attached to a hose count?

D:  Yes.

L:  10 days.

D:  And wash our hair?

L:  Two weeks.

D:  Nice.

L:  Quite.

***

It’s minus 4°C in their bedroom this morning, but outside the sky is clear.

P1030438 (2)A team of yaks, heavily laden with equipment for Everest Base Camp, drink from Lobuche’s stream.  A helicopter lands outside the lodge, throwing up a mini blizzard of fine snow which sparkles in the bright sun.

L is cheerful at the prospect that later today she will have a hot shower.  They have splashed out a shamefully enormous sum for a night of luxury tonight and she’s looking forward to washing two weeks of dirt from her hair.

The blue sky above adds welcome colour to the rock and snow of their surroundings.  As the valley widens, the horizon opens to display a succession of jagged distant peaks, and closer to, in the foreground is a similar series of turrets and pyramids, standing a couple of metres high.  They are spread out across the snow-encrusted plateau, with prayer-flags flying from one to another.  It’s a memorial field to climbers lost on Everest and elsewhere.  Many names are Sherpa, others are from all over the world, and they include some of the biggest and most respected names in mountaineering.

P1030449 (2)Among them is Scott Fischer, the American mountaineer and guide known for ascending the world’s highest peaks without extra oxygen.  In May 1996 he led a group of clients up Everest, assisted by two other guides.  After helping others, he summitted Everest late in the day and during his descent was caught in a violent blizzard that took the lives of 8 people, including Fischer.   In this spot there is also a memorial to Anatoli Boukreev, a respected Russian Kazakhstani climber and one of Fischer’s fellow guides on that day.  After rescuing others, Boukreev did manage to reach Fischer, but he was already dead.  Boukreev survived, but was killed in an avalanche while climbing Annapurna 18 months later.    One of the largest memorials is to Babu Chiri Sherpa, who climbed Everest 10 times, holding the record for the fastest ascent (under 17 hours), and for the most time on the summit without auxiliary oxygen (21 hours), as well as summitting twice in two weeks.  He died on his 11th summit bid of Everest, falling into a deep crevasse in April 2001.

P1030459 (4)From the memorial field, the trail descends through rock-strewn mayhem to the valley floor.  The clouds build, settling on the peaks and draping everything in grey.  The temperature drops.  Porters toil their way up through the boulders under enormous weights bound for Base Camp.  Angtu leads L carefully across an ice-bridge spanning the river, the pair of them slipping and dancing in unison, holding opposite ends of a walking pole.

The broad flat valley floor stretches on forever.  They glimpse the tin roofs of Pheriche at the far end of the plain, but the village remains resolutely distant.   They are now at around 4,300 metres.

L:  Look – juniper!  Actual alive growing things!

They realise that it’s been 10 days or more since they’ve seen a plant higher than a centimetre.

L:  And people living their lives!  Not just looking after trekkers.

They are passing tiny stone cottages, used only seasonally and empty this early in the year, and a patchwork of stone-walled yak paddocks.  A stream runs through the valley and the peak of Ama Dablam soars overhead.  In the sunshine it would be stunning.

In Pheriche they pause in a large lodge to rest and get warm whilst Angtu books rooms for a future group.  On their way out of the village, they spot their kit bag sitting on a wall, and from the interior of a dark tin hut comes a peal of laughter and a quack-quack-quack.  Phurba has found some friends.

P1030470 (2)Over a rise they look down into the next valley, a steep-sided groove cut by a fast-flowing river.  As they drop lower, the vegetation gets taller.

L:  No way!  Real trees!

She points.  On the opposite side of the valley, the hillside is cloaked in woodland.

D:  Oh – how we’ve missed them!

L:  Look how lovely they are.  Even though they’re not in leaf.

The tiny village of Shomare is a cluster of proper homes.  There are hens and little veg plots.  They stop for lunch in one of the only lodges.  The dining room is beautifully draped in wall hangings and the floor is spotlessly swept.  Outside the window a tiny girl toddler stands on a narrow ledge.  She puts her head through the open window and roars like a lion.  Then laughs.  She tries to climb in through the window, gives up and disappears.  P1030476 (2)She potters through the door curtain and climbs up onto the bench next to L.  They stare at each other for a bit.  She puts her face right up to L’s, and laughs.  She pokes L.  L smiles and pokes her gently back.  She giggles and pokes.  And giggles and pokes.  And giggles.  The soup arrives.  Her mother shoos her off the bench.  The little girl tries to climb out of the window, gives up and disappears back through the curtain.  She makes herself busy in the yard throwing cups of water at hens.

The onward path is narrow, high above the river.  They’ve not got far to go, and so amble leisurely behind a train of yaks.  A man scrambles up the bank from the river, hauling a sack of hay.

Man to Angtu:  It’s my mule.  He fell.

They peer over the edge.  On a faint trail 15 metres below them stands a brown mule.  He seems miraculously unharmed by his fall.   Two boys try unsuccessfully to pull and push the animal back up to the trail.  But the mule has had quite enough excitement for one day.  He’s going nowhere.

Pangboche is big and spread out.  There’s the first bit they come to, the bit round the corner, and the bit up the hill.  Their luxury lodge is in the first of these.  The extortionate price buys them a warm welcome with a hot towel, a cup of tea and a large slice of chocolate cake.  After the last fortnight, it’s paid for itself right there.  The room is surprisingly cold, despite the fact that they’ve dipped down to just below 4,000m, and the quality is of European 2-star level.  But it’s easy to forget that this village is still a week’s walk from the nearest drivable track.  It has comfortable beds and proper bedclothes.

P1030501 (2)Lodge:  The hot water bottles are free.  Would you like some?

L:  Fantastic – yes please.

Lodge:  Great.  How many?

L:  Oh – umm….

Lodge:  As many as you like.

L:  I think three.

Their en-suite bathroom has hot running water.  They launder some essentials and then lower the tone by hanging them up to dry in the corridor window.   The loo is all their own.  The gas powered shower is weak and fills the room with noxious fumes but the water is scaldingly hot and doesn’t run out and they both wash from top to toe, thoroughly.

L:  It’s so wonderful to be clean.

D:  Though our clothes still smell.

L:  Who cares?

Angtu urges them not to waste yet more money on forty dollar meals in the hotel so they follow him to the lodge opposite.  D is feeling queasy from the gas fumes.  L orders a cheese & tomato pizza.  Angtu returns from the kitchen.

Angtu:  They have no tomato.  You could have just cheese.

L:  A cheese pizza would be great, thank you.

The pizza arrives.  The kitchen have decided that just cheese won’t do.  They have compensated for the lack of tomato, with alternatives.

D:  What’s on your pizza?  That’s not just cheese.

L:  No.  There’s cheese…and carrot…and cabbage.

D:  Good luck with that!

He smirks and tucks into his dal bhat, though the gas has dulled his appetite.  L is hungry and starts on her pizza.

D:  How are you doing?

L:  It’s OK.  But it’s not right.  It’s great to eat cabbage and carrots, and it’s great to eat pizza, but combining the two should be illegal.

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Summits, Symptoms & Glaciers – Nepal – Chapter 11

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Gokyo (4790m) – Gokyo Ri (5360m) – Sacred Lakes (4990m) – Gokyo (4790m) – Tagnag (4700m)

Date = 23-25 March

 L&D are contemplating getting out of bed.  The inside of their bedroom window is thickly crusted with ice.

L:  So?

D:  Minus 1°C.

L:  We’re beginning to smell.   If only it were 20 degrees warmer, I might wash.

D:  What’s your problem?  We’ve got hot water on tap!

L:  (face lighting up)  Really?

D:  Almost.  We can share a pint of not-quite-cold water from your last-night’s-hot-water-bottle.

L:  (face falling)  Oh.  Ingenious.  Great.

In the lodge kitchen, their breath forms great billowing clouds.  It’s a race to eat their porridge before it gets cold.  Outside the open door a gaggle of fat stripy-bellied snowcocks peck at a handful of scraps.

The path from Gokyo up Gokyo Ri’s open south-east slope is entirely in the sun.  There’s no wind and not a cloud to be seen.  The trail zigs steeply, left and right, up and up.  The higher they get, the deeper blue the sky becomes and the more phenomenal the views.   The surface of the lake is a dazzling carpet of purest white, encircled by dark rocky crags.  The village cowers coldly in the shadow of the glacier wall.  As they climb, the terrain morphs to rock and loose stone underfoot.  Above 5000m almost no plant life can grow.  They pause and turn again, and the view has changed, become more three-dimensional.  Behind the mountains there are mountains, and behind the glacier wall is the great Ngozumba Glacier, pushing its way down from the flanks of Cho Oyu.

P1020883 (2)L:  (squeaking with excitement and breathlessness) Look at that – it’s enormous!

D: It’s supposed to be the longest glacier in the Himalayas.

L:  How long?

D:  Over 30 kilometres, and a kilometre wide.

L:  Why’s it made of rocks?  I thought glaciers were ice.

D:  The ice is just underneath the surface.  Because it’s moving it churns up the stony surface as it goes – especially at the edges – that’s why you’ve got that big ridge between the glacier and the village.

L:  And we’ve got to cross it?

D:  Not today.

They eye up the glacier’s choppy surface – a rough river of rocky peaks and troughs and pools of ice.

L: Is it safe?  Will we fall in a crevasse?

D:  No idea.  We’ll follow Angtu.

Angu’s reassurances are somewhat ambiguous.

Angtu:  We will see.  The path changes every time.  Not so easy.  But not so hard.

On they go.  Up and up.  Phurba and Angtu laugh and chat in Nepali, Angtu’s conversation punctuated with noisy groans, Phurba’s with duck-quacks.

It takes two hours to reach the top, and for a time they have the place to themselves.  The summit ridge of Gokyo Ri is draped with swathes of prayer flags, looped from rock to rock.  The 360° views are breath-taking.  Behind the glacier, beyond a series of peaks, is the black pyramid of Everest rising clear above the rest.

Angtu:  From here you can see 4 of the world’s 10 highest mountains

L:  Really?  So – Everest.  What else?

Angtu: Look to the right a bit.  That’s Lhotse – 4th highest.  Right a bit more – that’s Makalu, number 5.  And then Cho Oyu at the head of the glacier – number 6.

P1020892 (2)D&L scramble and explore and take photos.  They ceremoniously secure their tiny string of prayer-flags and imagine the prayers taking flight, like leaves, spinning and drifting across the magnificent scenery, spreading peace and wisdom, compassion and strength onto the world below.  Then they just sit.  And look.  And take it all in.

Angtu and Phurba do the same.

They share biscuits, in companionable silence, sprinkling crumbs for a troupe of canny little high-altitude sparrows who have sussed this inhospitable spot as a daily source of biscuit-eaters.

They notice they haven’t noticed the altitude.  They’re at 5360 metres and they feel fantastic.  The recent series of short days and height gains have paid off.

The descent takes an hour and a half.  Back in their lodge, in a bucket of hot water, they wash their hair, then their bodies and then their clothes. It’s still only lunchtime.

L:  We’ve got too much time.

D:  For what?

L:  We could be doing longer days.  Walking further.

D:  Who are you?  Where’s my proper wife?

L:  OK – we’ve got a lovely leisurely itinerary, plenty of time before our flight back to Kathmandu.  But we don’t need to be walking short days any more.  We’re acclimatised.  We’re fit.   It’s way too cold to sit around indoors reading or outdoors having picnics and looking at stuff.  The only warm place is in bed.  And we don’t need the rest.

D:  I agree.  What shall we do?

L:  More walking.

D:  Good.  I’m going up to the glacier.  Are you coming?

L:  No way.  I’m going to bed.

***

L:  I’ve got a headache.  I’ve had it all night.  Am I going to die?

D:  Are you dizzy?

L:  No.

D:  Sick?

L:  No.

D:  Confused and irrational?

L:  No more than usual.

D:  Grumpy?

L:  Not sure.  Am I?

D:  No more than usual.

L:  Thanks.

D:  Hungry?

L:  Yes.

D:  You’re not going to die.  You’re probably dehydrated.  Have a drink.

The dining room is sub-zero.  Muffled in thick down jackets and hats they warm their fingers on rapidly cooling mugs of tea.

L:  What’s that noise?

D:  The rumbling?  An aircraft?  An avalanche?

L: And booming.

D: Must be building work.

They pack peanut-butter chapati sandwiches for lunch and set off along the flat valley floor on a wide sandy path.

L:  Fabulous easy walking Angtu!

Angtu says nothing.

P1020946 (2)The terrain becomes more and more uneven, littered with stone, rocks, boulders.  They pass the fourth sacred lake, a blank ice sheet against a barren brown hillside and cloudless cobalt sky.

D:  This one’s the deepest.  62 metres.

Angtu:  When the ice melts, these lakes are very clean.  The water’s very clear – good to drink.  No algae grows – it’s too cold.

D:  It would be – I think they’re the highest chain of lakes on the planet.

Angtu leads them upwards, and they work their way along the top of the glacier wall, the ground now paved entirely with boulders.  They rock-hop from one to the next, carefully.  It’s high-concentration, energy-draining stuff.  It’s L’s least favourite thing.  Angtu moves easily, further ahead, oblivious.

L:  I’m going to break all my legs.

D:  Slow down then.

L:  But we’ll get left behind.  Lost in the wilderness.

D:  I know where we are.

L:  Find me a path.

D:  This is a path.

L:  This isn’t a path.  It’s just stupid rocks.  I want a proper path.

D:  I think you’ve got symptoms.

L:  What of?  My headache’s gone.

D:  You may be irrational.  You’re certainly grumpy.  It could be the altitude.  Or it could be just you.

P1020952 (2)The glacier is forbidding up close, an apocalyptic moonscape of slow moving rock and ice, and unfathomably huge.  From the flank of Cho Oyu it descends in a blue-white ice-fall, turning to stone as it reaches the floor, carving out a great grey gravel lake before creeping southwards along the valley to Gokyo and beyond.

The trail leads close to the edge.

Angtu:  Go back!  Not this way.  The path has fallen into the glacier!

They climb up the steep shoulder and down the other side, to a sandy valley and grassy slope.

L:  A lovely proper path!

L cheers up considerably.  Her symptoms recede.

Angtu stops and sits down.  Points.  There, across the valley, behind a couple of low rocky hummocks, is Everest.  Not just the summit, but the whole West Face.

L:  It’s so close!  It’s just there.

Angtu:  This is the best view.  We’re very lucky with the weather.   Very clear today.  Mother of the Universe.

L:  Mother…?

Angtu:  Sagarmatha.  The Nepali name.  It means Mother of the Universe.  Tibetan people have another name for it – Chomolungma.  Mother Goddess of the Snows.

An hour further on they arrive at the fifth sacred lake, hidden behind a ridge.  They climb to a viewpoint but are buffeted by a bitter wind, and retreat into a sunny dip, where they shelter behind a boulder and eat chapati sandwiches.

L:  You know I said more walking?

D:  Yes?

L:  I’m knackered.  And we’ve got to walk all the way back.

Angtu:  So, shall we go?  Slowly slowly?  On to lake 6?

D:  I think this is far enough.  Thank you.

Angtu looks politely resigned.  Phurba has continued to lake 6 and has with him Angtu’s lunch.  D&L feed him biscuits and make apologetic faces.

The lovely proper path leads them back to Gokyo along the bottom of a sandy wrinkle in the landscape, avoiding the boulders but also the views.   The end is in sight.

D:  It was good to do both routes.

P1020925 (2)L:  It’s the lake!!!

D:  I can see it’s the lake.  We’re nearly back.

L:  No – it’s the lake making the noises we heard!

They stop near the edge of the village and listen.  From under the surface of the ice comes a prolonged eerie rumble.  Then a series of loud hollow whumps, bouncing along from one shore to the other.  Spring is on its way and the ice is contracting, beginning to melt.  It’s the weirdest thing they’ve ever heard.  It continues through the afternoon, audible from indoors.

Once again, for warmth and comfort, they are in bed.

L:  Am I on fire?

D:  Not that I’ve noticed.  Why?

L:  I can smell burning hair.

D:  It’s yak dung.  They’ve lit the stove.  It must be 5.00pm.  Time to get up.

***

At breakfast they are once more enveloped in the fog of their breathing, clutching plastic mugs of tea to thaw numb fingers, gulping porridge while it still retains some heat.  Beyond the iced-up window the frozen lake is booming, as though something gigantic under the surface is thumping to get out.

D buys two small packets of tissues and 8 Snickers bars.

L:  How much was that?

D:  24 dollars.

L:  HOW MUCH?

D:  I can’t talk about it.  It’s too painful.

L:  It HAS all been carried for a week by a yak or a donkey or a porter to get here.  If you consider that, it’s remarkable we can get any of this stuff.  At any price.

D:  Anyway, the Snickers are medicinal.

P1020986 (2)A brief scramble behind the village brings them once more to the rim of the glacier.  Today they’re going in.  They look down over the edge.  There is a steep slope of loose stone and scree and gravel and dust that they must descend to get into the glacier, in order to cross it.  A couple of people are ahead of them, already at the bottom of the slope.  They are tiny, ant-like.  D&L shake their heads, trying to knock their brains into registering the scale of what they are seeing.   There’s a scuffle and a hiss and a puff of dust below.  Loose stones are rattling down the slope.  D&L start downwards, skidding and sliding.  Another flurry of pebbles tumbles across the path ahead.

D pauses to take a photo.  Angtu and Phurba say nothing.

L: Don’t stop here, for chrissakes!  We’re about to be hit on the head by falling rocks.  Swept to our deaths by a landslide.  Wiped off this slope and swallowed by the glacier!

D:  You’re right.  All those things.  Sorry.  Carry on.

They make it to the bottom and move away from the fall zone.  The wall continues to crumble before their eyes, a little bit here, a little bit there.  Down on the glacier itself, it’s a bizarre twisted gravel-pit mess.  A sea of crumbling mounds and dips and hillocks and hollows spreads before them, as far as the eye can see.   A faint serpentine line weaves its way circuitously into the maze.  Down low in the craters, they lose all sense of direction.  Up high on the hummocks, the choices are bewildering.   Angtu sets off confidently.  They follow.

L:  When did you last walk across it?

Angtu:  Maybe six weeks ago?  Twice so far this year.  But the path changes each time.  It moves.

He observes a guide ahead lead his charges down to the right.  Angtu veers uphill and left.

D:  Err…should we…umm….follow them?

Angtu:  That way’s much longer.  This is a short cut.

Sure enough, further on they spot the others completing a long loop to cut in behind them.

L:  We won.

Angtu looks pleased.  They pause for a rest in the middle of the glacier, on a high mound of debris.  In every direction is a formidable wasteland and no sight of a clear trail.  They are very glad to be being guided.

P1020995 (2)They continue, dropping down past the edge of a frozen pool of water.  On one side rises a vertical wall of multi-layered ice, festooned with icicles and topped with a carpet of rubble.   They stare in fascination at the cross section of glacier.   A down-stream path leads them eventually to the foot of the moraine wall on the far side.  Their exit is a vertical scramble over loose rock and stones and dust, all crumbling and slipping beneath the soles of their boots, until without warning they suddenly burst over the rim onto a grassy plateau.  They are out.

They stride along the flat turfed ground, slaloming around boulders, dwarfed by a soaring black cliff of coarse rock, to Tagnag.   Behind the tiny settlement starts the cleft climbing eventually to the Cho La Pass.   The five buildings face west, towards the afternoon sun and a stream and a stony parched-turf plateau stretching away to the glacier edge.

The ambitiously named Chola Pass Resort has terraces paved with turf cut from the ground nearby.   Four solar kettles glitter blindingly in the bright sun and a pair of women are energetically breaking up an enormous pile of yak dung.  Away from the icy lake of Gokyo it feels warmer here, despite being at a similar altitude.

In the evening the dining room is cosy.

L:  Look at that!

She is pointing in amazement at the centre of her pizza.

D:  What is it?

L:  A slice of fresh tomato!  At 4,700 metres!  In March!

D:  It’s a miracle.

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