walkhighlands

Transcendent Torridon - a unique winter gift

Date walked: 08/12/2012

We had an extraordinary few days in Torridon last December (2012) - an incredible feast of light, sound, and, well, biting cold; otters, ice - vast sheets of it on the sea, and delicate patterns of it on the ground... Brilliant, vivid times...

Firstly, spectacular squalls, tearing sheets of water from the surface of the loch, interspersed with mother-of-pearl skies and dramatic sunrays. Then crystal clear skies, snow on the tops: the sea just outside the cottage froze solid, creating a characterful symphony as the the ice cracked, creaked and broke with the tide: all this was joined for a while by a fiery sunrise, otters, then an afternoon of mackerel skies. Finally, morning and evening alpenglow, and ridges brilliant white against a dark sky.

A few photos to start with:

Sunrise over sea ice at Upper Loch Torridon:

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It's extremely rare for the sea to freeze here. Murdoch MacDonald told us he'd only seen it once at Alligin, during his childhood, and never since. Not long after we'd got back, we read by chance in J.H.Dixon's book on Gairloch (published in 1884, when the climate generally was colder than today), that he also had only once witnessed it.

Probably it was a combination of a lot of rain the previous day (making the sea water in the loch less salty), and no wind, as well as the low temperature which allowed it to happen.

However, just a few days before finishing this report (end of February 2013), Steve Carter showed a photo of a small part of the sea by the shore of Loch Shieldaig frozen. So perhaps it's not so rare, but this was pretty extensive.

Anyway - here was another icy scene: Beinn Damh and Beinn na h'Eaglaise, with suffused reflections on the ice of Loch an Eoin:

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Evening light on the Fannaichs (left), and Sgurr Dubh (right):

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Liathach, viewed from the Annat path to Loch an Eoin, in the morning

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..and its summit and pinnacles in the evening

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So, this report isn't so much about walks and routes, or even history or the hills themselves, but rather a sample of what we saw over a few days of a winter in Torridon - brilliant, vivid times, which we felt priveleged to witness.

We were staying at Lochside Cottage, as we did on our previous visit to Torridon, in July 2011 (http://cdgordon.org.uk/photos/Wester_Ross/2011_07_Torridon_Talladale/index.php). We thought that holiday couldn't be bettered... But this seemed even more unique: given that we don't get there very often, and particularly in winter, we'll probably never see and hear the like of this again. We're so lucky to have some recall, and a camera...

As well as the photos below, there are some recordings of the amazing noise of the sea ice moving: the recordings are rough ones but give a bit of the flavour of the whooshing slides, tinkles, smashes and cracks that were our constant accompaniment on the morning of 11th December, with terrific sunrise. Here is an example at (about 30 seconds long, 0.6 MBytes). There are some more recordings at http://cdgordon.org.uk/photos/Wester_Ross/2012_12_Torridon/recs/index.php.

There are more photos etc. on our website at http://cdgordon.org.uk/photos/Wester_Ross/2012_12_Torridon/index.php - meanwhile, here is a selection. With our thanks to everyone in Torridon who again made us so welcome, particularly Jo and Emily at Torridon Stores, and Murdoch, Mairi and John MacDonald. Also the staff of the Torridon House Estate who look after the holiday cottages, and the staff of the Strathcarron Hotel.


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Day 1 (9th December) - Storm and pearl, plus a short walk along the shore road to the Mains:

We woke to the gales forecast. Squalls ran up the loch, bearing down on the water in visceral swirls, and tearing up curtains of spray from its surface. But in between, something amazing was happening...

The cottage gave us a grandstand view of all this. We did eventually venture out, after lunch, for a bracing walk back to the Mains again. Easy going with the wind behind us, still flattening the waves on the loch. Thankfully they eased for our return... What a day - lousy weather can turn up the most beautiful things occasionally. We've only once (in many years of having our heads in the clouds?) seen more spectacular mother-of-pearl skies than this. Some of you might remember the all-encompassing display in February 1996. But the colours weren't as good as today's... And to see it with a foreground of the pines of Torridon and Beinn Damh...

Squalls came and went - fast-moving and highly visible. We could have stayed in the environs of the cottage all day. Two days later, in totally different conditions, we did...

Nacreous clouds over Beinn na h'Eaglaise...:

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...disappearing into the wild stuff:

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Mother of pearl gone, there was still drama in the skies:

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Even some sun:

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But soon the storms were back. Squalls tore spray up from the loch, though here you can still see Sgorr Ruadh way above...just about:

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This was quite typical weather for the day:

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The walk along the shore was invigorating, but it was good to be back in the cottage...


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Day 2 (10th December): Bealach a'Chomhla

After yesterday's spectacular, fast-moving rain and light, today gradually emerged as clear as a bell, and beautifully crisp: a perfect winter day.

Before we set off for Coire Mhic Nobaill, we had a dawn diversion down to the loch: all of 10 yards or so, but we spent some time there. Surely not, but yes, the sea was starting to freeze!

Clear reflections at dawn...:

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..soon became fuzzy

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Seaweed under ice, thin ice as yet:

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We were initially heading for Coire na Caime, but at the junction just beyond the bridge over the Abhainn Choire Mhic Nobuil (N882591), we headed left to head upwards to get close to Beinn Alligin, and perhaps catch some sunshine; our objective was now the Bealach between Beinn Alligin and Beinn Dearg.

Still some faint colour on the Horns of Beinn Alligin:

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Alltan Glas joining the Abhainn Coire Mhic Nobuil - a much photographed waterfall:

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and, from the path to Bealach a'Chomhla, Beinn Eighe:

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Beinn Dearg:

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A little diversion in the direction of Tom na Gruagaich kept us on the west of the Allt a' Bhealaich, so when we got higher up, we were on the wrong side of it to get to Carn Doineig, but we did at least see it from a little way above. The sad story behind this particular march cairn is beautifully told in Murdoch MacDonald's "Walking into the past". Also in Brenda Macrow's book. We hope one day to make another trip to see it close to.

Tom na Gruagaich, with "swags" of snow:

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Indentations in the snow on Sgurr Mhor:

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Nearer the bealach - Baosbheinn:

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Beinn Lair, and A'Mhaighdean (left), Slioch (right):

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Ice on the path:

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Evening light: Loch Torridon again:

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Nearly back at the road by the Coire Mhic Nobaill car park: the last light of the day through the pines. A brilliant starry night followed, as we walked back along the road, with the distinctive profile of Sgorr a'Chadail way above us:

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We got back to the road at about 5 p.m., so it was only very dim twilight: too dark to go back to Lochside directly through the woods and along the estate road. So instead we walked the long way round, on the public road from the Coire Mhic Nobuill car park towards Fasag, picking up the estate road at its other end. Under the stars - brilliant, brilliant stars, with the distinctive profile of Sgorr A'Chadail high above to our left - what a day that hill blessed us with on our previous visit to Lochside (http://www.walkhighlands.co.uk/Forum/viewtopic.php?f=9&t=16251). Tonight, there wasn't a hint of haze or moonlight to fade this stellar show.

The cold deepened as darkness completed: would the sea still be frozen tomorrow? But for now, we just couldn't keep our eyes off the milky way and the great ridge ahead of us. The end of another fabulous day...


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Day 3 (11th December): sea ice; a short walk to the Coire kirk

Today again we were up before dawn. Soon we noticed some colour in the sky, but the real draw to start with with was the extraordinary symphony of crashes, cracks, clinks, tinkles and whooshing hisses as the sea ice, now quite thick, moved with the tide. The ice - literally square miles of it - was a great soundboard, giving a resonance to the audio display.

The colour soon got going, though, and we were spellbound with the spectacle of sound and light, from first dawn through midwinter's long waxing and waning of sunrise colours. Fortunately there was still no wind, so the cold was barely noticeable amidst all this excitement:

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As the light grew and whitened, the sky became more and more dominated by wonderful lines of "mackerel" cloud:

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Much of the sky seemed to radiate from across the Loch:

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Then we spotted something a little way up the loch - unmistakably a distant otter profile! It was in the same spot we'd seen otters before, the previous year, and also back in 2000. So we gingerly made our way round the ice on the road, towards a large rock where three otters were busy.

We assumed that they would be gone by the time we got nearer. The rock was perhaps 30 yards or so from the road. We didn't try to go onto the beach partly as it was very icy but also it would have been noisy and that might have worried them. They clearly had seen us but didn't seem worried. They were in and out of the ice and water, climbing around the rock, appearing to play hide and seek. We were again absolutely spellbound.

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Emerging from under the ice... Apologies for the blur - perhaps it reflects how the otter was feeling - it must have taken a fair whack to get through:

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After about an hour, the otters moved on - we weren't quite sure where: they were often swimming under the ice. They anyway could move a lot quicker than us! We had had the view of a lifetime: still on cloud nine, we wandered back for lunch.

So, just like two days ago, we spent the whole morning on the shore, within a couple of minutes' walk of the cottage. Today was dry and bright, though. Eventually we tore ourselves away, and headed along the shore in the other direction, taking the Estate road down the loch, through the woods, and along to Coire Church. We later heard that the Estate have bought the church, which was closed a couple of years ago. We revisited the Darroch memorial, behind the church from the path, on a little rise with wonderful views. We hope the Estate will preserve access to this spot if they do convert the church into a house or similar.


The middle of the day - tidal ice...:

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...and frost

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The estate pond, just west of the path up to the road bridge: winter colours:

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The Darroch memorial, looking to Beinn Dearg:

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The cloud remained distinctive and pretty, but was starting to thicken as the afternoon light lowered. We walked a bit further on, to the gate just before Rechullin. There we saw another otter. This spot is a fair way above the loch, so it's a very different feeling. Sgurr a'Chadail is still prominent here, as Liathach appears almost end-on, though the summit of Mullach an Rathain is also still visible.

Some of the more intricate ice patterns:

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This short, very easy walk, from one side of the Torridon House Estate to the other, has to be one of our all-time favourite routes, and it's great that we've been able to do it several times. Hopefully we will return there soon. We were interested to find that Peter Barton, in his Cicerone guide to Torridon, rates it as the best, even compared with all the many fabulous mountain and corrie walks that Torridon has.

The show was gradually fading as time for sunset came: it was softly benign but without palette: the sky was looking a bit greyer and the sea ice was starting to melt, with broken sheets of ice leaning at funny angles on rocks, partly submerged in water. It had been another incredible day.

Sunset over Beinn Shieldaig:

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Day 4 (12th December):

Yesterday we'd stayed by the shore, captivated by the sound and sight of ice, fiery then patterned skies, otters, forest and the favourite profiles, white-topped, all round. Unbelievably, today promised yet more clear, cold weather: in fact it turned out even with an extra spectacle or two... But we were keen to see Liathach in full glory along its length from the front, so it was time to do some legwork.

The loch remained solid. We walked the shore road from Corrie to Fasag and round to Annat, as the first hint of dawn grew. Talking routes and times, we decided eventually to head towards Loch an Eoin and see how things went. That way we should at least get some good views of Liathach even if the weather turned later in the day. Meall Dearg was a possible continuation, perhaps even down to Lochan Neimhe and the Ling Path. In the end, we got to the Bealach na Lice. This felt like a good objective, with its suddenly new views to Sgurr Ruadh, Fuar Tholl and across Glen Carron. We came back the same way, getting off the hill in almost complete darkness.

The walk from Annat there and back isn't long, and there's a very good path all the way, but it's a fair road from Lochside, so we probably walked 14 or 15 miles in all: for us, that's not bad, particularly in midwinter. We couldn't have done it without spikes on the path, much of which was sheet ice. Almost no free-ranging today, but that didn't matter: today wasn't only about light and long views, but they were so absorbing, the immediate environment was a light complement to it, somehow. Actually, there was plenty of interest on the path itself...

This was our last full day before the weather turned, and we had a train to catch. We'll be very lucky to experience again what we experienced today; certainly on so few visits to the Highlands, even fewer in winter, that we can make. We will always be grateful for these memories and hope that you enjoy some of the images we want to share.

Morning light on Beinn Alligin, reflected on one of the few parts of the loch not frozen:

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Contrasts started early, though they got stronger: The skyline is Beinn Eighe's Spidean Coire nan Clach (left) and Sgurr Ban (centre), snow-covered quartzite territory; low sun picks out Seana Mheallan's very different (Torridonian) structure in the foreground.

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More path ice:

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The Fannaichs, from the path as it veres south round Beinn na h'Eaglaise:

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The stepping stones over what becomes the Allt Beithe (via Loch an Uillt-bheithe), the outflow from Loch an Eoin. The burn was low and we found it easier to paddle than use the stones! Beinn na h'Eaglaise in the background:

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Ice on Loch an Eoin:

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Fuar Tholl, from just the other side of the Bealach:

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Heading back now towards Loch an Eoin, Beinn Alligin re-appeared dramatically:

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Maol Chean-Dearg, low sun now at its heel:

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Back at the stepping stones:

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..and back at the big slabs:

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Beinn Eighe (left) and the Fannaichs (right), at sunset:

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Long after sunset, nearly back at Annat: reddish haze on the horizon, mimicing the colours just there at the opposite end of the day:

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Although we still had a little way to go, it was a fitting "endpoint" to pause at Jo's place - Torridon Stores and Cafe - even after it had shut for the night, looking bright and welcoming:

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Day 5: 13th December: exit from Torridon...

It seemed that as we left, the surroundings gradually disappeared under a murk of mist and snow.

Overnight, it had been clear that things were changing. The wind got up, but its wailing was dwarfed by what sounded like a massive fireworks display - midnight at the turn of the Millenium in a big city - Tuesday's quirky and diverse ice music had become a wild cacophony of crashes and bangs, as the waves broke up the sea-ice, dumping and smashing it unceremoniously on the shore.

When we got up, the sky was, again, completely clear. But in the pre-dawn half-light, the ice was hard to spot - waves chivvied the surface of the loch and it just didn't have the look or feel of a fine day ahead. We left the cottage mid-morning: it was already overcast. As we headed towards Fasag, we looked back to see snow showers approaching.

Smashed ice - plates several feet across and an inch or two thick, on the shore:

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Silver world: nearer the head of the Loch, it was still frozen. Looking back, there was a sharp angle in the precipitation behind us - a sign of snow on its way...?

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We started the holiday as we ended it, at Jo's place, where we were introduced quite by chance to Dorothy, the music lady of Torridon, and her friend whose mother-in-law used to live at Lochside - she was housekeeper to Lady Lovelace. Then we met up with Murdoch and Mairi MacDonald, and their son John. We chatted for an hour over tea and cakes, before finally saying our goodbyes. It was a fabulous way to end a uniquely beautiful holiday.

The snow had arrived, and it was time for us to head for the bus-stop, back to Strathcarron and the train to Inverness. The following morning we headed home. Snow turned to rain somewhere around the Border, but we didn't care. Sometimes you take something with you which truly transcends.


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Gateways: 6th-8th December - Leeds to Edinburgh (train); to Strathcarron via Kyle of Lochalsh (train); to Torridon (walk to Lochcarron, then minibus);

Finally, here are a few photos from the journeys, mainly snapped from inside moving trains!

Moraines near the Drumochter pass

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Emerging from the shadows - Wyvis:

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Loch Achanalt:

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The ghostly profile of Sgurr a'Mhuillin:

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We took a diversion to Kyle of Lochalsh before returning to Strathcarron: there was a final brief spell of brightness across Loch Carron:

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The next day, at Strathcarron: Lichen-covered trees:

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The craft centre on the road east out of Lochcarron:

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The final day: about to head home, at the Torridon bus stop. It's nearly two years since the fire here and the trees still carry the scars of comprehensive burning, but amazingly there seems to be some recovery in their tops:

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The bus shelter hasn't recovered yet... It did its job admirably, though:

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Snowy Inverness Cathedral:

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and, at the other end of the trip, Durham Cathedral as viewed from the station (this one taken on another day - the train was just going too fast this time!):

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Finally, it wouldn't be a Torridon_snails report without some rock:

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and lichen:

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We leave you with a full-length view of Liathach and Beinn Eighe, with Loch Uillt-bheithe in the foreground:

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(Text and photos by Daniel and Clare Gordon. March 2013. For more, please see our website at http://cdgordon.org.uk/photos/Wester_Ross/2012_12_Torridon/index.php. Thank you!]

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Comments: 25



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Attachment(s) Date walked: 14/07/2011
Distance: 6km
Ascent: 200m
Comments: 2
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Attachment(s) Munros: Mullach an Rathain (Liathach)
Date walked: 13/07/2011
Distance: 17km
Ascent: 1200m
Comments: 37
Views: 14287


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Attachment(s) Grahams: Beinn a'Chearcaill
Date walked: 07/07/2011
Distance: 20km
Ascent: 800m
Comments: 9
Views: 6815


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Attachment(s) Munros: Conival
Date walked: 26/06/2007
Distance: 14km
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Torridon_snails


User avatar
Location: Kirkstall, Yorkshire
Activity: Wanderer
Pub: Torridon Stores and Cafe!
Mountain: Liathach
Place: Assynt
Member: RSPB, Yorkshire Wildlife Trust, National Trust, Organic Gardening (HDRA)
Ideal day out: An early start, through forest and moor to a top, with loads of time to stop and savour, observe, and see the sun set and light fade as we return.

Munros: 22
Corbetts: 9
Grahams: 6
Wainwrights: 2
Hewitts: 17
Sub 2000: 11



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Statistics

2012

Trips: 1

2011

Trips: 3
Distance: 43 km
Ascent: 2200m
Munros: 1
Grahams: 1

2007

Trips: 1
Distance: 14 km
Ascent: 1000m
Munros: 1


Joined: Jul 21, 2011
Last visited: Aug 15, 2018
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