Mamquam Lake Backpacking Trip

I’m starting to lose count of the number of times I’ve been up the Elfin Lakes trail, but every time has been a very different experience so I keep going back! I’ve day hiked it to the Gargoyles, backpacked up to Opal Cone, snow camped, and taken a group of girl guides up there in very marginal conditions. On the occasion I hiked up to Opal Cone, we’d actually been aiming for Mamquam Lake, but abandoned our pursuit because it was too hot, so I was really keen to make another attempt to get to Mamquam on this trip.

Karen and Grant planned this trip for mid August and invited me to accompany them. An overnight camping pass is required for one of the 35 tent pads, so I quickly booked up one for myself and easily convinced Brandon to join me. He’d been with me on the first failed trip, so it was only fitting. Me, Karen, and Grant took Friday off to hike up and Brandon joined us later in the evening after he got off work. Not something I’d recommend, but he’s very familiar with the trail and he’s a fast hiker.

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I met Karen and Grant downtown and we drove together to the trailhead outside of Squamish. You only need 2WD to get up the road in the summer, but I was a bit surprised at the condition for such a popular hike – it’s seems to have deteriorated quite a bit in the last few years. Parks staff met us on the road on the way up to check our passes and warned us there were a lot of black bear sightings and even one grizzly sighting. There’s a lot of berries on the trail, so make sure to bring spray and a horn if you visit (not bangers though as they present a fire risk).

It was a really dicey forecast for the weekend, so we weren’t really sure what to expect. It had rained on and off on the drive up and it was looking pretty grey when we arrived. We made good time on the old road up to Red Heather hut, but it did start raining pretty early into the hike. It rained solid for about 15 minutes, but then fortunately it slowed down and mostly just drizzled on and off after that.

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We stopped briefly at the hut for a snack and I picked a handful of blueberries before continuing on. The rain had mostly stopped, but the clouds were super low and we knew we weren’t going to get any view, so we took the bike path up. I thought the bike path was in better condition than the hiking path, which often gets muddy, but I learned on the way down it’s been completely redone with crushed rock, so I definitely recommend the hiking path!

We dried off pretty fast after that and made a good pace to the campsite, but unfortunately we didn’t see any views at all. We were clearly right in the cloud and it was super foggy, so there wasn’t much to take photos of on the way in. We didn’t mind though because we were just so happy to be able to put our tents up in dry weather! I had taken my new Gossamer Gear tent for the trip and thanks to Carolyn, executed what is quite possibly her best idea ever and most brilliant tent pad hack! Since my tent is only set up with hiking poles and relies on tension to keep it upright, it’s hard to set up on wooden pads because it relies on being staked. The solution was a pack of 8 tiny wood screws that you could hand screw right into the tent pad! It worked so great and I was thrilled with how easy it was to set up!

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Side note: for those of you who care, I’m still testing out my Gossamer Gear tent and assessing whether the single-walled design and subsequent condensation build-up on the inside are something I can deal with. On the first morning the tent was absolutely drenched, but so was Karen and Grant’s normal tent, whereas the second night it held up very well in the wind and rain and had minimal condensation in the morning. So I guess it is super dependent on weather conditions and I’m slowly learning how to deal with it.

Overall it took us just over 3 hours to do the 11km hike up to the hut. It was after 5pm when we arrived so we went to the cookhut to make dinner after setting up our bedrolls. Because of the extreme high risk of wildfires, BC Parks is requiring all cooking to be done in the shelter. While I agree this is prudent, I’m a little annoyed that they closed the sleeping hut for the season because of covid. I get you don’t want people sleeping there, but eliminating access to it and then forcing everyone to cook inside one tiny cook hut while it is still a pandemic seems counterproductive. Anyways, how busy the hut was varied and fortunately it wasn’t busy on Friday night. Despite all the tent pads being sold out, only about half were actually in use, so I think BC Parks booking system and cancellation policy could use a little updating too.

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Anyways, that’s my rant for this post. We had a real treat during dinner when the clouds finally started to break up and give us a view! At first we’d just get the odd glimpse of a mountain through a hole in the clouds, but eventually they broke up completely and we got the most beautiful cloud inversion down into the valley! We hung out and watched the sun set over the mountains before returning to Karen and Grant’s tent for a few rounds of cards while waiting for Brandon to show up. Fortunately he arrived shortly before 10pm and we quickly hit the sack in preparation for an early rise the next morning.

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Day 2 was pretty unreal. Karen and Grant woke up at 6am and the sky was completely void of clouds and they were all sitting down in the valley. But when I got up at 7am the entire campsite was shrouded in fog. It cleared out again during our breakfast, but by the time we departed the campsite, it had rolled it once more. So we figured it was just going to be one of those days where you never know what you’re going to get and just have to hope for the best. At least we didn’t have to battle the heat!

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Like I said, this was my second time on the trail to Opal Cone. Overall the entire trail from the parking lot to Mamquam isn’t particularly difficult. It’s not technical at all, but the trail has a lot of cobble sized rocks, so it does get tiring on the ankles and feet after a while. The trail meanders up and down for the first couple kilometres and then it drops down to the river at the base of Mount Garibaldi before climbing slowly back up the side of Opal Cone. There’s a lot of ascent, but it’s very gradual, so it’s not a bad trail for newer hikers. We couldn’t see Mount Garibaldi or Opal Cone on this hike, but we worked our way up the side of the mountain until we eventually reached the trail branch for the Opal Cone summit.

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We’d planned to go up to the cone, but it was still very foggy and we could tell based on the elevation of the clouds that it would be cloudy at the top, so we decided to continue on and hope for the best on the way back. Karen and Grant had initially been thinking they might only go as far as Opal Cone (which is 6.5km one way), but everyone was feeling good, so we continued down into the glacial flat as a group. I don’t know if glacial flat is the correct term, but that’s what it looks like to me. There’s a big glacier behind Opal Cone that melts into a lake surrounded by rocky moraines from the historical glaciers. The whole area is really one big volcanic desert, with lots of dust and little vegetation, it can be brutal on a hot day.

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The other side of the glacial lake was as far as Brandon and I made it on our last trip, so we were now moving into new territory. It was almost as if the weather knew it and as soon as we started making our way into the next valley, the clouds lifted and a few streaks of sun shone through. It never lifted off completely, but we were rewarded with some beautiful dusty views looking down the valley. There were several wash outs along the trail, 2 were before Opal Cone, but the most difficult one is on the way to Rampart Ponds (pictured below), which is the next campsite on the trail, located between Opal and Mamquam Lake.

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My favourite part of this valley was the river that runs through the center. When you cross over it, the bridge is actually located at the merging of two rivers. The main river is incredibly chalky and silty, while the other is beautiful clear freshwater. So we stopped here to replenish our water bladders before climbing the last pass up to the campsite. You arrive at the campsite pretty much as soon as you crest the pass and there are several tent pads and ponds. I figured this would be my last trip to Elfin if I made it to Mamquam, but now me and Brandon are determined to return once more and stay at Rampart Ponds! Although I’d caution against it on a particularly hot day since there’s absolutely zero shade to be found.

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From Rampart Ponds, you continue up another few minutes to the top of the pass, where you have the most incredible 360 degree view of Opal Cone and Mount Garibaldi on one side (on a clear day) and a view down to Mamquam Lake on the other. Rampart Ponds is 3.5km from Opal Cone and it’s a final 1.5km to Mamquam. The only problem is it’s a pretty big descent to get down to Mamquam, so even though it sounds short, it’s a big climb on the return trip.

Either way, we were so close we were determined to get there for lunch. We trundled on and I really enjoyed this section of the trail. It was still cloudy, but they had lifted up a bit and me and Karen both loved the terrain. Everything we’d hiked that morning had been desert, but the hike down to Mamquam is proper alpine greenery and meadows, so it made for a nice change of pace. We arrived shortly after 1pm to grumbling tummies.

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As much as I wanted to eat my lunch, I’d been struck by the urge to swim and knew if I didn’t do it right away, I wouldn’t do it at all. It was not a warm day. I hiked in pants all day and while I only wore a t-shirt, it was chilly when you weren’t moving. So I stripped down to my swimsuit and went in. It’s a beautiful large lake with sloping mountain walls, but it’s very shallow at the foot of the lake. Fortunately, it’s also pretty sandy, so even though I had to walk out a fair way without shoes, it wasn’t painful. At first it felt cold, but I warmed up really quick because the water was actually warmer than the air. I convinced Grant and Brandon to join me and I ended up swimming for the better part of 15-20 minutes, which is substantially longer than I can usually stand to swim in alpine lakes. After I got out I got cold fast though. So I quickly bundled up in my puffy. Surprisingly the guys never got cold and it made for a funny contrast with me in my puffy while they ate their lunches shirtless.

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We really enjoyed the lake, especially because we were the only people there. In general, we didn’t see a lot of people while hiking and Rampart Ponds had actually been completely empty when we hiked through. The slog back up out of the valley wasn’t as bad as I anticipated. The forest was filled will blueberries, so we all did some picking and snacking on the way up.

After that though it was a pretty long slog back. I didn’t mind the hike back to Opal Cone too much, me and Brandon mostly fantasized about where we would explore on our next trip, but the section from Opal back to Elfin was brutal. Opal was clouded in again on our return, so we skipped it, which I don’t regret. My feet were pounding by the time we got there, so we just did our best to get to Elfin. In total it was 22km of hiking, which is a lot to do in one day and the most I’ve done this season. We were all starving when we got back and happily settled in to have our supper.

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We crammed ourselves into Karen and Grant’s tent for a few games of cards before bed, but we were all exhausted, so we called it shortly before 10pm. Unfortunately, it started pouring just as we finished. We didn’t know how long it would last, so we all ran around like banshees trying to do our nightly routines and get in our tents… only for the rain to stop about 10 minutes after we were done. If only we’d played one more round of cards we would have missed it.

Everything was wet in the morning, but the tents actually dried out pretty good before we packed them and nothing was too wet when we took down camp. It was a brisk morning and we all kept our rain jackets on for the return hike. In general the clouds were higher on the way back than the way in and we did catch a glimpse of some views. There’s more uphill on the way back than I remember, but nothing too bad. Once we reached the Red Heather Hut we totally powered down the last 5km and back to the car. We finished with pizza and beer at Backcountry Brewing, which is quickly becoming our new tradition!

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Zoa Peak Snow Camping

It hasn’t been the best year for winter activities. Between the pandemic restrictions and the avalanche ratings, it’s been hard to get out and enjoy the snow. We went snow camping at Lightning Lakes in late January and we’ve been trying to fit in a second trip ever since. The avalanche ratings have been pretty consistently at ‘Considerable’ and ‘High’ throughout the last month and we ended up cancelling our trip twice. But we finally got decent conditions this past weekend and decided to go for it as one last snow activity to close out the season.

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Zoa is popular among backcountry skiers because it’s a relatively easy hike up an old forestry road and thanks to the low incline, most of the hike is in simple terrain. Interestingly, the first time Carolyn and I ever snow camped was at the base of the Zoa Peak trail. We’d intended to go to Manning, but a wrong turn on the highway landed us in the Coquihalla Rec Area and we decided to snowshoe 1km in to the Zoa Peak/Falls Lake trailhead and camp on the summer parking lot (which isn’t plowed in the winter). So we felt like we’d come full circle by returning to this area and hiking up to Zoa.

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It was a busy day on the trail with both skiers and snowshoers, but we were the only ones staying overnight and the crowds quickly thinned out when we reached the top. However, it was a very challenging hike up the mountain. Because it was mid-March, it wasn’t really ideal snow conditions for any kind of activity. We debated for ages whether we should wear snowshoes or spikes and ended up with me and Brandon hiking in spikes and Carolyn and Steve in snowshoes. There was really no right answer, but in retrospect, I think snowshoes were overall the better choice.

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The first kilometre along the access road was very well packed and I had no problem in spikes, but once we started climbing up the old forestry road, snowshoes were preferable. It was really sunny, so the snow became a bit slushy and while we weren’t punching through the snow with spikes, it was a bit like walking on sand and made for a very draining hike up. Most of the elevation gain is done on the forestry road and with the sun beating down on us and reflecting off the snow, it ate up a lot of our energy. We all wore sunscreen on our faces, but I ended up getting burned on the underside of my chin from the reflection off the snow!

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After about 2.5km, you need to exit the road and hike into the woods. The summer trail exits the road earlier, but in the winter it’s better to continue further up since the grade is lower there. There is some pink flagging tape to mark the turn-off, but it’s easy to miss so I recommend being on the lookout and using a GPS. From there you hike up through the woods until you reach the ridge. It’s still steep, but the trail is more packed through the trees, so my spikes worked better here. It can be a bit confusing because the skiers take all kinds of different paths down through the trees, but as long as you keep going up, you really can’t go wrong and will eventually reach the ridge.

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Snowshoeing along the ridge up to the sub-peak is gorgeous! I did part of Zoa in the fall once, but it’s much more scenic in the winter because the snow lifts you up higher among the trees, resulting in a better view and not confining you to a single area. In the summer, the brush makes it impossible to travel along the entire ridge and the trees limit a lot of the view, so I much preferred the winter views.

In total, it’s about 5km from the highway to Zoa Peak. We decided from the beginning that we would cut off a kilometre and only hike as far as the sub-peak. This is because after the sub-peak the trail gets steeper and the avalanche terrain changes from ‘simple’ to ‘challenging’. The avalanche risk on the day we went was ‘moderate’ in the treeline and ‘considerable’ in the alpine. Zoa seems to be kind of on the cusp between treeline and alpine, so we decided to play it safe and camp at the sub-peak.

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By the time we reached the ridgeline, we were all exhausted, so we decided to camp just below the sub-peak. It was calling for a bit of wind overnight and we wanted to be sheltered, plus the views are gorgeous all along the ridge. So we found a good looking spot and got right to work on setting up camp. Unfortunately, stopping triggered a few issues for me and after a few minutes of shoveling I found myself getting really lightheaded. I think I was dehydrated, so I took a break and tried to re-hydrate with some electrolytes. We all suffered some mild dehydration throughout the hike, so it was a good reminder to drink lots of water prior to a hike as well. Fortunately we had lots of electrolytes and were all able to recover.

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So Brandon did a lot of the shoveling for our set up and eventually I got to work on a snow kitchen. The snow was really sticky so it was good for setting up a kitchen and we didn’t have to pack it down too much. There were 4 of us, so Brandon and I shared one tent and Carolyn and Steve shared another. We had a great view of what I think was Thar, Nak, and the back of Yak Peak and enjoyed hanging out watching the mountains. One of the benefits of going so late in the season was that we had a bit more daylight in which to enjoy the view.

Brandon made us miso soup to help with rehydrating and then we all got to work on melting snow for dinner. I shared Brandon’s classic thai curry chicken, which is my absolute favourite backcountry meal! My parents had sent me some chocolate from Newfoundland Chocolate Company, which we enjoyed as a treat for dessert.

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Usually when we go snow camping, we go to bed super early because it gets so cold and dark, but it was a warmer evening and the clouds had completely cleared out, leaving a beautiful view of the stars! So we stayed up much later than we usually do and I took star photos while Steve messed around with his radio to get us some tunes. Two night hikers passed us right after it got dark, but otherwise we were the only ones around and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. It ended up being 9:45pm by the time I finally crawled into the tent for bed, which is by far the latest I’ve ever stayed up snow camping!

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I didn’t get the best night’s sleep as the wind picked up overnight and shook us around a bit. Nothing to be concerned about, but it did make it a little harder to sleep. I made an egg and bacon hash for breakfast and then Brandon and I hiked the last few metres up to the sub-peak to check out the view. Otherwise we just took down camp and packed up again to head home. It was a lot easier on the second day because the sun stayed behind the clouds, meaning the slush had become more solid and was easier to hike out in spikes. We didn’t see as much traffic and powered down the trail in just an hour and a half (versus the 3 hours it took us to hike up).

So overall it was definitely one of the more challenging hikes, but the weather and views from the top were amazing and we ended up having a great time!

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Elfin Lakes Girl Guide Trip

Since I just wrote about the bike trip I took with Girl Guides, I figured I’d continue the trend by writing about a backpacking trip I did in September 2019 to Elfin Lakes. I wrote this post almost right after the trip, but I never got around to posting it, so with the changing of the seasons (foreshadowing), I thought it was finally time! This was my most recent trip to Elfin Lakes, but I’ve been 3 other times, all of which were very different experiences. Read about my Fall day hike, summer tenting trip, and winter snow camping experience for my stories about the trail.

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I’ve been wanting to take my Pathfinder group into the wilderness, but you need previous experience on backcountry trips with girls before you can lead your own, so I jumped at the opportunity to join the North Vancouver Trex group on this trip. It was only my second trip into the backcountry with Girl Guides, but for some reason I always seem to encounter the craziest weather on guide trips, and this one was no exception!

We were a group of 12 and we planned to hike up to Elfin Lakes on Friday, tent for 2 nights – day hiking to Opal Cone on Saturday – and then hiking back down on Sunday. Needless to say, things did not go quite as planned. We do our best to be prepared as girl guides. The forecast was calling for rain on Friday and temps down to -8 degrees celsius overnight, so we packed lots of rain gear and warm clothes for sleeping. However, the temperature ended up dropping a lot faster than we expected and the rain started to turn to snow just before we reached Red Heather Hut, which is almost the halfway point up to the lakes.

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The girls were thrilled about the snow, which was falling gently, and I have to admit, hiking in the snow is a lot nicer than hiking in the rain. We had hot noodle soup for lunch before continuing on to the lakes. It was still September at this point and it was obvious it was the first snowfall of the year. However, the snow started to accumulate pretty quickly and it started snowing heavier as we continued on from the hut. Fortunately, there was no wind, but visibility wasn’t great and we couldn’t see any of the views on the way up. I admit, the further we hiked, the more apprehensive I got.

I wasn’t really nervous about camping in the snow, because I have done that before and we had brought really warm gear, but we didn’t have snow boots or snow pants and it was increasingly obvious we weren’t going to be able to hike to Opal Cone the following day. Even though it was calling for sun and blue skies on Saturday and Sunday, there was too much snow to hike further without proper footwear. But we just focused on getting to the hut and the girls did really well managing the conditions. Fortunately no one got cold or wet feet on the way up!

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We hit the hut around 4pm and everyone was thrilled to go inside. I think the girls were thinking we were going to abandon the tenting idea and just sleep in the hut, but as we had only booked tent pads and there were 12 of us, that wasn’t really an option (although obviously in an emergency we would have camped out on the floor if we had to.) We made them hot drinks to warm up and everyone hung their wet gear by the fire. I have to say, the girls had a great attitude when we told them we were still planning to camp. The snow did start to slack off and was almost stopped when we went back outside an hour later to scope out the tent pads. Fortunately the clouds had started to lift and you could just start to see the surrounding mountains (which are incredibly striking from the tent pads at Elfin Lakes), so the girls started to get excited again about tenting.

We shoveled off the tent pads and set up 4 tents. This proved to be a bit more of a challenge than we anticipated because it was pretty darn windy when we were setting them up. We had to weigh them down with rocks and then shove all our gear inside them to hold them down. Then we had the added difficultly that we couldn’t peg them because of the tent pad, but we eventually managed to get them set up and soon after that the wind died down and I didn’t give it much more thought.

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By the time we finished it had really cleared off and we had fun getting some photos of the mountains and the tents. Time really got away from us with the weather though and it was 8pm before we finally had supper in the hut. We had pesto pasta and re-hydrated coleslaw for dinner, with 2 bite brownies and reese peanut butter cups for dessert. After that we pretty much hit the sack because we were all exhausted. Unfortunately we decided we couldn’t stay for a second night because it just wouldn’t be safe to hike to Opal Cone and the girls didn’t have the appropriate gear to play in the snow, so it made the most sense to just hike back out on Saturday. The girls took the news pretty well and were very understanding.

I stayed up to get some star photos and then nestled into my sleeping bag for the night. It was pretty calm when we went to bed, so I thought that was the end of it, but oh was I ever wrong. Around 3 or 4am a wind storm blew in that totally put our tents to the test. I grew up in Newfoundland, which is super windy, but I never really did much tenting there, and not in recent years, so sadly I’ve kind of gotten used to tenting without wind. As a result, I never guy line my tent and only ever peg it really to protect from the rain. So it never really occurred to me to guy line the tents. It had occurred to the other leader though, but she had forgotten her rope, so she never brought it up (not realizing I always bring extra rope with me).

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Anyways, I’m sure you see where this is going, but the wind was really strong. I’ve never tented in wind like that and it was totally billowing the tent in and out. It woke everyone up and the girls started freaking out a bit, but everyone’s tents looked fine, so we told them to go back to sleep. Then I was woken up again at 5:30am by one of the other Guiders when her tent collapsed on her and two girls. When we looked at the other two tents the girls were in, it really looked like they were going to collapse soon too. So we had to put the first tent back up and then I got my rope and we guylined them all to the tent pads. Somehow my tent was the only one that didn’t look close to collapsing, but we were in a slightly different area than the rest of the tents, so the wind may have been blowing slightly differently.

It was still super windy in the tent, but the guylines did the trick to prevent any more collapses and we were able to go back to sleep until 8am. The wind never really let up though and it battered us all morning when we tried to take the tents down as well. but it was a beautiful sunny day and the blue sky and fresh snow made for a really beautiful view. We had sunrise spuds for breakfast and then packed everything up again to head down.

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I was worried it was going to be super slippery on the way down and was concerned about not having spikes (my friend once broke her arm in similar conditions), but the snow was still fresh enough that it hadn’t been compacted into ice yet, so it wasn’t too bad. We had a little photo shoot on the ridge looking down on the lake and then hiked back to the Red Heather hut for lunch again.

We had one more spot of adventure on the way down. One of the girls rolled her ankle about a kilometre from the end, but fortunately it seemed to be only sprained and she was able to slowly walk the last little bit out. We divvied up some of her gear and strapped the rest of the pack to my front to carry it out and we all made it down to the parking lot in one piece!

With the exception of the first photo, all pictures were taken on Day 2!

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