04/27/16

Snow Leopard trip Feb-2015

I am writing this blog from my notes more than an year after the trip. Somehow, since the last some years, I was not in my usual frame of mind to pen my thoughts . Also, my photography was kind of curtailed. Well the jinx is off and here we go again !

For reference , link to my earlier snow leopard trip 2014 – To see a Snow Leopard in the wild,  be prepared not to see it – Tracking Snow Leopards at Spiti

18 Feb 2015

I finally managed to get hold of a 500mm lens  for this trip. The 600mm lens that I used or, more like didn’t use the last time was not available for this trip.  We made an easy flight to Chandigarh and got into two Toyota Innova’s for our destination, Narkhanda. Somewhere enroute, we stopped at a dhabha called NH22 for lunch. The food was ok ok but, there I got an idea of clicking some pictures of the kitchens enroute.

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Not much snow this time around, barely any actually till we reached Narkhanda. Short of Narkhanda, we caught a bit of slush & snowfall. The first of the trip. The first Innova climbed easily up the snow and incline to Hatu peak hotel. My driver was new to snow and, he tried to climb up in third gear , up a steep incline and in snow. Sure enough he got stuck. We got off and helped push the guy to roll again. I told him not to stop till he reached the top and, I followed on foot. I then called home and , as usual, mum and dad not happy with my trips . Been that way since I can remember.

We had dinner and an early night. NMB ” No Move Before” was 0400H the next day. Aim was to get to Kaza the next day. It would be a long 18 – 20 hour drive. The “kaza boys” with their Tata sumos would be there in the morning to pick us up and take us to Kaza.

19 Feb 2015 – 0400H

I met up my old driver from my last trip, Rapchick – Kesang.  It was great to meet him. I noticed that it was not as cold at 4AM as I remember it was in 2014. As usual we stopped for tea at Rampur. Then the next stop for breakfast was at Tapri bus stand. The dhabha guy was super with his “seva” (service) and the food was excellent too ! I took a lot of pics of the kitchen , which was part of a shack.

Kesang

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Breakfast @ Tapri

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Bad roads or no roads !

Bad roads to Spiti from krish photo on Vimeo.

The next stop was Nako where we stopped for tea. I took out my Sigma-150-600 and gave it a spin. Not bad I thought. I could try working this. Very hand holdable.

Nako Kitchen

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We rolled down Malling Nalla and into Sumdo. Sumdo was blocked by a landslide that happened in the early morning. We waited some thirty odd minutes by which  time, the road was cleared. All the traffic that  had stopped through the day, was finally getting through. Enroute, I sighted my first of the bharals for this trip. It felt great to be back in “Kibber mode” !

View from Malling Nalla towards Sumdo

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We crossed Tabo and it started snowing hard. Halfway to Kaza we encountered an broken down Bolero coming towards Tabo. All the vehicles stopped to help and after a dela,y we set off again to Kaza.The snowfall had worsened and it was hard to see the road.

Bolero Breakdown  enroute to Kaza

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It was coming down thick and heavy. Kesang expertly opened the road and got us into Kaza only to find the road blocked by snow just about a kilometer from our home stay.  It was 2030H now. We had been on the road continuously for more than 16 hours. We doubled back and  parked in the market and walked about a kilometer in the blizzard to the home stay where we were to spend the night. The main road to the home stay was blocked due to an avalanche that had happened, just a few hours ago. We got some locals to help with our bags and walked in the heavy snow to the home stay.

Alighting at Kaza market in the blizzard

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The dinner was hot and awesome. I ended up eating a bit more than usual. More than anything, it was most welcome. I pulled out my down sleeping bag to bed down for the night. Absolute life saver. The last time, I had not got my sleeping bag. The heavy blankets had kept slipping off and my bum kept getting stabbed with super cold air. This time it was not the case, I was setup pretty good. I woke up thrice through the night to drink water. Overall the usual and expected  slight headache induced by the altitude but, other than that, I felt  ok.

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20 Feb 2015 ( Planned rest day at Kaza)

Woke up at 0730H and straight gulped three glasses of water. The WX was pretty bad and still snowing heavily.

Bad weather and snowing in the morning

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The breakfast was “Bhaturu” a kind of “nan” with some very yummy veges. I had got along a print picture book of the 2014 trip and showed that to the group. Someone said that the pictures needed captioning and I borrowed a pen and wrote a caption under each photo . I was a little reflective and silently thanked the powers that be to make it possible for me to be on this trip and everything in life.

Around breakfast I taught the group  some snow exposure techniques ( as in camera exposure ). I got to know that there were some very experienced trekkers in our group. Someone mentioned the Great Lakes trek in Kashmir and, to me that sounded real good one to try ! The doc on the trip was passionate about the mountains and had done a lot of treks and expeditions. He said something interesting about the Sherpas, that they have 2x the mitochondria per cell than the normal average. Hence, their metabolism processes the lack of oxygen at high altitudes much better.

Post lunch we ended up having a discussion on books. Stuff that I noted to read

  1. All 14 Eight thousanders – Reinhold Messner
  2. Himalaya through the lens of a sadhu – Swami Sundarananda
  3. Seven years in Tibet – Heinrich Harrer

The weather (WX)  was now better and the avalanche roadblock  to Kibber was being opened by dynamiting the snow. As the snow was being cleared there was another avalanche and it took down three people.  Luckily all three were rescued. By 1500H it started to snow again. So the plan was to stay put at Kaza for the night.

21 Feb 2015

I woke up real easy. The WX was clear, however the road Kaza – Kibber was not fully cleared an also the avalanche at the Kaza bridge was still to be cleared.

Clear weather

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To get to Kibber the vehicles would have to cross the avalanche patch since, that was the only road access.  Since our vehicles could not make of across the bridge, we scouted and got hold of a “gypsy” which was possibly used by some administration official. The gypsy was on the Kibber side of the bridge and we could use that to ferry us to Kee, which is half way to Kibber from Kaza. We took our bare essentials and loaded up into the gypsy.

Gypsy

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Road opening in a loaded Gypsy

Gypsy opening road in snow from krish photo on Vimeo.

The bags would have to come in later since there was only so much space in the vehicle. The snow as real bad and the fully loaded gypsy had to be expertly driven to cut through the snow. It was a 4×4 drive all the way.  After a share of stops and slides we reached Kee.  The road upto Kibber was still bad due to heavy snow. Somehow the folks at Kibber managed to drive down a tractor to Kee. So there would be transportation change at Kee. We had to hop on to our tractor for the final push to Kibber. I met our old friends Sheru and Sushil at Kee. They had come down with the tractor to meet us ! We loaded up and rode the slipping and sliding tractor to Kibber. A couple of places the tractor tilted precariously but the driver managed the situation expertly.

Tractor

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Kee Monastery

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We got into Sheru’s home stay and grabbed a quick lunch. Just as we finished lunch, Tenzing came down to tell us that there was a snow leopard  sighting and that we should move up to the ridge. We quickly kitted up and started up the mountain. My tripod and 500mm lens and one bag was still to fetch up, so I had only my Sigma 150-500 that I had carried with me to use. I thought I would be able to do the climb in some 2 hours but , I surprised myself by doing the climb in 1 hour 15 minutes ! The cat was on the far slope and I had a hard time spotting it despite looking through a spotting scope ! Finally I was able to spot it. And then it moved and came into some gorgeous evening light and I grabbed some pics with my D3 and then switched to the D800.

The snow leopard

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Remembering the last trips diffraction issue since I had used F14,  I limited myself to F8 and bumped up the ISO to maintain a high shutter speed. Since my tripod & bags were still at Kaza and  had not fetched up, I ended up shooting hand held. By now my sweat was beginning to cool me down and I began to feel very cold. I pulled on my big down parka and decided to move down. The snow was not as high as the last year and it was much easier to walk on the trail. The trail was actually walkable without gaiters, which was not the case the last time we were here in 2014.

The bags were still stuck at Kaza because of the road block. So all in all an intense day, Gypsy- tractor rides on fresh snow blocked mountain roads, a hike up the mountain to look at the “Phantom of the snow” , I was pretty knackered by the end of the day and,  crawling back into my sleeping bag was most welcome 🙂

22 Feb 2015

I woke up to my second amazingly clear morning. I decided to take it easy an rest the day. We spotted a red fox on a cliff from our room. The pleasant warm sunshine and a good breakfast put me to sleep. I slept soundly till 3 PM ! Rahul too stayed back because of a bad cough. We had a lazy lunch and by that time, the Doc was already back down from his hike up the mountain.  No sightings reported. We then watched the India- South Africa cricket match . The generator was acting up and Mr. Nene from our group promptly fixed it up. That night I had a hard time sleeping since I had a good sleep during the day. Something to keep in mind for the future  I thought. The bags has still not fetched up due to the heavy snow on the road that was not yet cleared for traffic.

23 Feb 2015

Early morning, I finally was able to get a few shots of the snow finches and finally a Greater Rosefinch in the snow. Yippe !

Greater Rosefinch

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Robin accentor

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Snow finches

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Breakfast today was “english breakfast”. After that we had the local soothsayer  Kalzang come in and pray for good luck. Kalzang goes into a trance and speaks “bhutia” which an interpreter interprets. Kalzang does not know the Bhutia language otherwise in his normal non trance state.

Kalzang

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We kitted up and went looking for the Ibex. The Ibex were in a gorge that separates Cheecham and Kibber villages. We spotted two families of Ibex.

Ibex

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Also spotted snow leopard tracks

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Walking at 14000 ft and snow is hard ! from krish photo on Vimeo.

I wore  my ski pant for the first time. The hike was not much by distance but was a steady climb. I was profusely sweating in my new ski pants. I was dog tired by the time we reached back. The last time in 2014, the wind was so sharp that my legs froze. This time, no wind and a bright clear day,….. oh well 🙂 . When we go back to the house the bags that were down at Kaza had been ferried to us via the tractor. The road was still “iffy”  and not fully open. Finally I was reunited with my 500mm lens in its original case.

A good lunch and we were looking up our “pulseoxymeter” readings at Kibber. Mine was 85% saturation with a pulse of 62 per minute.    80% is the cut off and one should not move to a higher location below 80%.   I was strolling around the house in a thoughtful mood. My head was real clear and I felt good about my new start on my work front and form a great team that cracked some brilliant work. I also was clear that I need to work on some automation stuff if I wanted to hit my goals.

In the mountain you take the WX real seriously. Soon we got news of very heavy snow predicted for the 25th and 26th. So the plan changed to leave Kibber on the 24th itself.

24 Feb 2015

We woke up leisurely  and strolled around the village looking for the red fox. The trackers went up to the ridge to try and spot the snow leopard. Around 1130H we got news of a snow leopard.  We hiked up the ridge in 1 hour flat ! Not bad I thought ! The cat was moving up and away. The WX was partly cloudy. I used my 500mm for the first time and got a couple images. However the cat was real far and I thought my AF Fine tune was not set for the 500 with the D800. Note: Never use fresh new gear that you have not fully tested on a trip. Old lesson that I had not really kept in mind this time, had come back to bite.

Second snow leopard sighting

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It was cloudy and the sun was behind the clouds.  Not much in terms of images but super super thrilled  to see the “Shan” again !  We then made it back down to the village,  in flat 45 minutes.

By this time,  this time the GREF  “dozer guy” (General Reserve Engineer Force – GREF is part of the Border Roads Organisation that maintains the roads in this region ) was pleaded with to help clear the road from Kaza till Kee, which he helped out , thankfully.  Kee to Kibber was still not motorable. The Kaza avalanche had by then been cleared. We decided to move down to Kaza at 1500H.  It began to get cloudy and the barometer reading went down from 622 to 619 HPa. We again used the tractor but, not all would be able to take a ride. Some of us hiked down and,   the remainder bags were man ported down to Kee with us. When we trekked down, we found Kesang  our stud driver was able to push the Sumos, about a kilometer beyond Kee towards Kibber. He was ferrying some rations to Kibber so wanted to get as close to Kibber as possible. Anyway, the long and short of it was that  both the Sumos got royally stuck in the snow. It took a good two hour plus to free them,  and then turn them around on the narrow mountain road piled with snow. We loaded up on the Sumos  and reached Kaza by 1900H.

Turning the Sumos around

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It was decided to move to Rampur after dinner. The WX was getting worse even as we ate “Thupa” for dinner.

Tense moments at Kaza

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2200H departure from Kaza in snow

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It has started to lightly  snow. We wanted to really hot foot before the snows piled up and blocked our return. We drove through the night and crossed Malling Nalla at 3 AM.  Hats off to Kesang and the drivers for the superb night driving while snowing. We wanted to keep going to Rampur and hoped to cross “Pangi Nalla” ( which is a bit ahead of Spillow on the return leg towards Rampur) a landslide prone section at the soonest. We crossed Spillow at around 6AM and about some 10KM short of Powari we hit a major landslide.  There was no way we could cross that and the road was completely buried under  huge rocks.

Kutang bridge

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The landslide

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So far the snow had been light but by 7AM, it began to snow hard. There was a small tea stall catering to the GREF and we huddled inside. We had some hot tea and some parantha  and noodles. by now we had already been 12 hours on the road.  At around 0730 Kesang called for two vehicles to fetch up from Rampur to Powari to pick us up. No way these vehicles could cross the landslide. We would have to  trek our way down to Powari and quickly. Kesang had some local girlfriends along hence, wanted to head back and cross Malling nalla to Kaza before the snow shut down the road. We transferred our bags to the second sumo. But since we had to trek down we picked up only our most essentials,  donned our outdoor gear and manported.  For me it was only my camera gear that was most important. I carried a smaller rucksack and got help to man port the 500mm in its hard case. I improvised by making free a duffel bag and putting the 500mm with hard case in it , so that it could be man ported. Sounds easy now but, was extremely difficult in a cramped vehicle in  blizzard conditions to reorganise packing. Most of the luggage would be left behind and later brought down and couriered to us . With the help of the drivers and some back up staff, we started our trek to Powari in heavy snow and sleet.

But first we had to cross the landslide. The scramble through the rockfall was scary. Small rocks were still falling and you never know when one could smash into you. As luck would have it one of our members ( Sriram sir ) got  a rock hit on his knee. But despite the pain he managed somehow to Powari. Hopefully this wasn’t too bad.  This was one serious rockfall and ahead there were a few smaller ones and also a patch of large mudslide. Everyone waded through knee deep mud mixed with snow and ice. There was no letup in the snow and sleet. The slog was wet and cold, and not easy while also watching for landslides and carrying some weight. The weather was so bad that none of the GREF personnel were out clearing the road. Everyone was inside their huts huddled from the cold. Thankfully we were now at 6500ft , down from 13500 ft. Hence it was not too bad while walking.  Atleast you did not have to worry about altitude issues !

Snowing enroute

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We reached Powari around 1240H. Powari is a GREF unit headquarters.  Some of us managed to knock on the door of a GREF soldier. He turned out to be from Pune. He opened his home and offered us much needed warmth and hot tea.

GREF camp Powari

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Meanwhile an empty Bolero came by and five of us hitched a lift in it till Karcham. At Karcham, the two vehicles that Kesang had requisitioned from Rampur arrived shortly after we reached.  We piled into one and moved to Rampur via Tapri. The second vehicle moved to Powari to pick up the others. At Tapri, we just had to stop at the awesome dhabha and grab a much needed meal and, also try and dry ourselves a bit.

It had been snowing and heavy sleet all through our trek from the landslide to Powari. None of the GREF personnel were out on the road given the bad weather and scope of more landslides. All the GREF shacks had a sick sweet smell of “weed” :-). My camera gear in my Kiboko bag , my 500mm in its hardcase in another duffel and a smaller 36L rucksack with a change was all brought down along with me. The bigger luggage would come down as and when the road opened. We were tired and wet by the time we reached Powari. My down parka and my ski pants, though completely wet, held up well on the snow and sleet. My gloves however did not do well. the snow had slipped inside the goretex gloves and made for a wet and cold hand. I think in the hurry I mad a mistake of not putting the parka sleeve over my gloves and velcro them down. Had I done that, the snow and water would have slid outside my glove. My sleeve of the parka ended up inside the cuff  of the glove and, no wonder the snow got into my glove.   Note: Do carry a poncho for the mountains. A poncho is lightweight and will cover you and the rucksack in wet conditions and prevent clothes and jackets from getting soggy and heavy when in rain / snow sleet.

At Tapri,  we stopped at the same dhabha where we had stopped for breakfast on the way up. We spotted a “Thali” meal that looked delicious and we ordered that “seva’. All of us were wet and soggy and the kind dhabha owner set us up a small fire to warm ourselves up.

Warming fire

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Hot rotis, Kadi,  Malkha ki dal and potato -cauliflower subzi with sliced onions is what the Thali was about. Super tasty stuff and I am salivating as I type this !

The dhabha “Thali”

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The dhabha guy was super efficient and kind. He used to replace the cold rotis on the table periodically with hot ones. A nice hot coffee and all we paid for all five of us was, just Rupees 570 for the unlimited meal. After this lunch we got moving towards Rampur. Our driver kept hitting every stone and pot hole and ended up breaking the rear road spring of the vehicle. I urged him to keep moving since we were in the middle of nowhere and told him we could stop where we find a workshop or mechanic.

Enroute we had to ford the river across a small patch to get to the road to Rampur that was across the river. I was scared that this was a perfect place for a flash flood given the recent snow & rain from where we had come.  Luckily the water was still fordable and we made it across to the other side. Later , we would come to know that this patch had become a raging river and became unfordable for days. Meanwhile the second vehicle had reached Powari, and picked up the rest of the group. The made straight for Rampur without stopping at Tapri since the road condition was deteriorating.  At Jakhri, about 10 Km short of Rampur, our driver got hauled by the cops for not wearing a taxi driver uniform. While at Jakhri,  the second vehicle caught up with us and we exchanged notes.

Jakhri cop

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The video of the landslide and the trek to Powari

Landslide trek from krish photo on Vimeo.

We were at the HPTC hotel at Rampur by sundown. I chose the old room 304 from my earlier 2014 trip. This room overlooks a garden and there is a ficus trees which enable some birdwatching opportunities.

View from Room 304

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Great barbet from my window

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I wasn’t too hungry after our fabulous lunch at Tapri. A quick dinner and a much needed cleanup we hit the sack around 2230H.

We had been on the road for 28 straight hours. So from 24th morning we had trekked down from 13500ft drove some 350Kms in the night in snow and mountains, trekked again in snow and sleet for about 10Kms and finally hit the hotel at Rampur on the 25th at 1930H. It had been a hard and rough two days and I was mighty glad for the heater in the room !

26 Feb 2015

I woke up at 8AM and opened the window for some much awaited birding.  I saw Rufous Sibias, Himalayan bulbuls, Whiskered Yuhinias, Plum headed parakeets, and the great barbet , all from my window. I heard the yellow billed blue magpie but did not spot it.

27-28  Feb 2015

We recuperated at Rampur the whole of 26th and moved from Rampur to Chandigarh on the 27th. Enroute we stopped at Solan  to see the  famous Mohan Meakin Brewery where the “Old Monk” rum is manufactured.

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The 27th night was spent in Chandigarh. We were in full winter clothing and snow shoes and did not have much in terms of a change. On the 28th we had our flights back to Mumbai. I just used an inner as a tee shirt and continued to wear my snow boots all the way to Mumbai !

Our bags fetched up some good twenty days after we were home. The roadblock where we started the trek  had not been cleared for almost 10 days since the weather was continuously bad. Also, the fording point was now a gushing torrent and the vehicles had to wait till the waters subsided. But the luggage reached safe and all is well.

Kudos to the entire team &  especially drivers  at Spiti who were able to pull this off in very tough circumstances.

All in all an absolutely unforgettable experience, especially that I went on this second trip to thank the mountain for giving me clarity of thought 🙂

“Hump a load up a mountain at 15000ft for a few days – Get clarity of thought.”    Well, sure works for me,….. everytime !

Link to my earlier 2014 snow leopard trip ” To see a Snow Leopard in the wild,  be prepared not to see it – Tracking Snow Leopards at Spiti”

If you want detailed  info on cold weather clothing and trip preparation, please read my link above.

And to organise your trip, do connect with Spiti United

01/1/16

The mundane is “Awesome”

Firstly wish you all a very Happy New Year !

 

As usual I woke up early today to the screech of parakeets , on a wire outside my window.

I decided to take out the old faithful and try a few balcony bird shots.

 

A Rock Pigeon in marvelous light (Nikon D3, 70-200 F2.8 + TC17 , ISO1600, 1/2500th @F6.3 ( Manual exposure)

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Black Kite (Nikon D3, 70-200 F2.8 + TC17 , ISO1600, 1/1600th @F6.3  Manual exposure)

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A peregrine with a kill (Nikon D3, 70-200 F2.8 + TC17 , ISO1250, 1/1600th @F6.3  Manual exposure)

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Alexandrine parakeet  (Nikon D3, 70-200 F2.8 + TC17 , ISO800, 1/640th @F5  Manual exposure)

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Alexandrine parakeet  (Nikon D3, 70-200 F2.8 + TC17 , ISO1250, 1/1000th @F5  Manual exposure)

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Alexandrine parakeet  (Nikon D3, 70-200 F2.8 + TC17 , ISO400, 1/30th @F11  Shutter Priority with Auto ISO ) exposure)

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