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There's always a bigger fish

Mon 19 Jul 2010 19:23 » Jon

I used to work with a wise man called Mr Tipler, who had a phrase for every occasion. My favourite (apart from “beware the dangerous floater”) is “there’s always a bigger fish”, a saying that has proved itself time and again.

Leaving Hendaye, the HRP felt pretty special, but over the last five weeks it’s become obvious that we’re very much entry-level HRP’ers. The people I met in Lescun were all on similar timetables and doing the walk in a similar way, but I met a French chap at Refuge d’Arlet who was doing it in 41 days, without any rest days. At the time I was quite impressed.

As Klaas and I were having breakfast this morning, shortly before 07:00, a French guy walked past the tents who’s doing the HRP in three weeks. While Klaas and I have taken five weeks to reach this point, he’s taken two. His bag weighed 12kg at the start, and now weighs 7kg – less than a third of ours. His tent is just the outer, and he uses his survival bag as the groundsheet. When we asked if he was having a rest day, he said “I might have a half-day sometime.”

There is, however, always a bigger fish. In this case, the biggest one we know of is a Spanish fell-runner who was sponsored by Salomon to do the HRP in eight days. That’s running 100km and climbing 5000m each day. Just a walk in the park…

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine these guys on our route. I’ve often wondered how they’ve dealt with the steep, overgrown, pathless areas where your legs get stung by nettles and torn apart by brambles, or how they cope with the massive boulder fields – it’s hard to imagine anyone running there.

Although we may be embarrasingly slow, we actually made quite good progress today, climbing over three cols, past numerous mountain lakes (photo shows the three Estany Inferior de la Gallina) and on a couple of hours into the next day. The only hitch was the two hours in the middle of the afternoon when we lost each other and both set off down into the valley to call mountain rescue, but luckily we met up before any helicopters were scrambled.

UPDATE: Questions have been asked about how we managed to lose each other, so I thought I’d add an explanation…

Shortly below where the photo was taken, we entered a maze of rocky gullies. We were within talking distance, but went different ways round one particular rock, and never saw each other again. The rocks in questions were probably around 30-50m long and 20m high, so finding someone wasn’t as easy as you might imagine!

I began getting the feeling that something was wrong so stopped after ten minutes or so by the first big lake, left my bag with a note on it, and ran back up with a survival bag and medical kit. I retraced my steps, found and waymarked the place I’d last seen Klaas, then followed two other possible routes down, all without any sign of the Dutchman. As I was beginning to wonder what to do next, I met a couple climbing up who’d met someone that could have been Klaas going down, so I thought I’d head for Enric Pujol, the refuge at the end of the third big lake (it’s the tiny silver rectangle above and to the right of the lake) where we’d planned to have a break.

At this point Klaas was walking down the ridge. He too had realised we’d gone different ways, but had decided that searching for someone in the maze was pointless, so had carried on down towards the refuge. Just before Enric Pujol the path makes a difficult crossing of the outflow from the lake in a little ravine, which the guidebook warns may not be possible with a big pack. Klaas didn’t like the look of the crossing so had descended on the south side of the stream, stopping slightly further down to wait for me at Estany de Llavera.

I reached the refuge at about the same time he paused at the lake, and was surprised not to find Klaas or any sign of him. There was no bag, no note, nothing, so I sat down, ate some food, and considered what might have happened. By this stage  I was getting quite worried, so scribbled down possible explanations and next steps on the back of the map – I was expecting to have to explain my thinking to someone (Klaas, mountain rescue, Mrs. Klaas…) so I wanted to make sure I made the right decision.

As far as I could see, Klaas could either be injured and still up the hill (unlikely as I’d searched the obvious ways down) or ahead of me (unlikely as we’d been going to stop at the refuge, and why would he have gone on so far without waiting – was he bored of walking with me?!). After waiting for about 45 minutes I concluded that it was most likely he was injured, so I left a note in the refuge and set off down the hill as quickly as possible, planning to call mountain rescue as soon as I got any reception. Klaas meanwhile had also decided to call the emergency services and was heading down in search of reception!

I ran down for about half an hour and eventually saw a large black rucksack in the distance. I took out my whistle and blew the 3-blast signal we’d agreed, but only succeeded in deafening myself. With my ears ringing, I carried on down for another ten minutes or so, hoping the bag belonged to Klaas. Finally I was within shouting distance and the bag stopped – it did belong to Klaas, we were re-united, and all was well.

Although it all turned out fine, it was one of the more unnerving afternoons of the trip. I had concluded that the most likely explanation was that something had happened to Klaas, and I had all sorts of negative thoughts flying around my head as I ran down to call mountain rescue. At one point I was trying to decide what I’d do if he was dead – I thought Hedwig would probably appreciate it if I went to the funeral, but Klaas would probably want me to finish. I asked him later and he never gave me an answer, but he said he would have gone to my funeral!

So…about those bears then…

Sun 18 Jul 2010 17:00 » Jon

When we were in Gavarnie a few weeks ago trying to decide which route to take, we read a section of the guidebook that said “the choice of the HRP is a choice for challenge!” This has become a bit of catchphrase, and is now wheeled out whenever things get a bit tough.

As far as the route goes, today’s challenge was the largest boulder-field Klaas or I had ever seen, full of the largest boulders either of us had ever seen (1st photo – it’s worth looking at the full version as Klaas is actually visible in the middle of some enormous rocks). At one point Klaas dislodged one that he described as “about the size of a refridgerator.” The boulder-field was only about 1.5km across, but it took about an hour and a half to cross. The GPS showed that we’d only actually been moving for 34 minutes though – the rest of the time was spent balancing on a rock trying to work out a way through.

Before we reached the boulders though, there was an unexpected challenge awaiting us as we woke up. Klaas looked out of his tent first and yelled over to me that my bag was outside and that there was a hole in my tent. Since Klaas is only serious about 20% of the time, I didn’t take much notice at first, but when I sat up I saw that the side of my tent was ripped open and my bag was indeed missing.

Going outside I saw my muesili supply all over the grass and the bread and chorizo wrappers empty (2nd photo). Worse still was that one shoulder strap of my rucksack had been torn through (3rd photo) and the hip belt was hanging by a thread.

To begin with we assumed that it was probably a fox, but as we studied the teethmarks on the tent and realised that the animal had moved a bag weighing 10-15kg, we concluded it was probably bigger than a fox, and we’ve since spoken to a refuge guardian who said that the altitude (2400m) was too high for a fox.

The bear had thoughtlessly cut the shoulder strap right at the end, so I had to spend 40 minutes sewing it together and reinforcing it with safety pins. The hip belt has always been quite generous, so I’ve just tied a knot in that, again supported by safety pins. The tent has also been sewn and duck-taped together, so the show will go on.

The food may yet turn out to be the biggest problem. I managed to rescue some of the muesili but losing bread, chorizo and muesili is not very helpful.

If Carlsberg made campsites

Sat 17 Jul 2010 16:30 » Jon

For the last three days we’ve been in the Vall d’Aran. We saw three villages there, and a remarkable proportion of each one looked new – very tastefully done so that it fitted in with the old buildings, but quite obviously new. It turns out that there are two reasons for this: the first was a tunnel that connected the once-isolated valley to the rest of Spain, and the second was the ski resort at the end of the valley, Baquiera-Beret. The locals seem very proud of the resort: they’ve told us that it’s the most important in Spain, and that it’s where the king skis.

Today we passed through the outskirts of the ski area as we left civilisation behind and headed back into the high mountains. We climbed 1500m today, over a couple of summits around 2600m and ended the day at 2400m.

It’s great being back on the trail, but my legs don’t feel nearly as energetic as I’d hoped after 3 days off! I don’t know whether it’s the weight of the food but I definitely wasn’t on top form today.

The Marines’ mountain training course involves technical training and also a ‘daily beasting’ to keep them fit. We don’t have any technical training, but today’s daily beasting would surely have kept them happy. The guidebook simply said “climb to the summit”, but the climb was about as steep as is possible on grass and boulders. With a bit of GPS & altimeter wizardry we calculated that the slope was 78%!

It was all worth it though, as we’re now camped by Estanyet de Marimanya d’Isavarre, one of the nicest lakes in the universe, and home to possibly the best bivouac site ever (you might be able to make out the tents in the centre of the photo below). The lake is warm enough that I swam right across it (around 5 minutes) then had a proper wash when I got back so I’m now feeling lovely and clean. We’re at 2400m, miles from anyone, and the only sound is a little stream trickling out from a small patch of snow near the lake. It doesn’t get much better than this.

Into the wilderness

Fri 16 Jul 2010 20:15 » Jon

Although today is Friday, there’s an undeniably Sunday-eveningish feel to it at the moment. After three days feeling pretty relaxed, it’s back to work tomorrow. We’ve managed a few hours by the pool today, but the time has come to start getting stuff ready for the next 10 days.

Most of the preparations have gone well, but there’s been the odd minor irritation. For example, I wouldn’t say €1.65 is a lot of money, but it’s a frustrating amount to have to pay for four fragranced pink toilet rolls, when you’d be quite happy with a single unfragranced white roll. Once again, I can’t help thinking these villages could cater better for walkers.

A few weeks back I was walking with a French guy who lived in the Alps. He told me that, although the Alps are bigger, the Pyrenees are much more of a wilderness – there are fewer trails, fewer villages and fewer people.

The fourth section of the HRP is titled “Eight days through a mountain wilderness” in my guidebook, which rates it as the toughest section. It’s by far the most remote of them, so it may well be that the next blog post is several days away – please don’t assume I’ve been eaten by bears if nothing appears for ten days. Having said that, we do pass the odd hamlet and the Spanish networks have been amazingly good in the mountains, so it may not be too much of a problem, assuming I can convince the iPhone to survive long enough.

I parcelled up my ice-axe and crampons this morning and shipped them back to the UK, so I’m hoping the snow is less of an issue from here on. The theory is that the passes are a few hundred metres lower, we’re nearer the Med, and the snow has had ever more sun, so hopefully we’ll be OK. At the very least I’ll be over 1.5kg lighter, so should be able to skip across any snow like Legolas.

By the way, a brief update for anyone worried about the marmottes after my switch to using shower gel: it turns out that Sanex Zero % is specifically designed to be biodegradeable and environmentally friendly, so the wildlife should be OK. Which is nice.

Things to do, people to see…

Thu 15 Jul 2010 21:04 » Jon

Although rest days give you a rest from walking, there’s a lot to do. Yesterday involved a bit of exploring the village, some shopping, kit-maintenance and an afternoon by the pool, while today we’ve had a trip into Vielha for some more serious shopping.

While the four of us were by the pool yesterday, Klaas and I went through the next section and worked out which route we’re going to take, primarily so we could calculate how much food to buy. We’ve adapted some days from my book to end in slightly different places and used the route from Klaas’s book towards the end of the section, which saves us a day. Unfortunately the only places we can get food are a single refuge and a restaurant near the end of one of the days, so we’re going to be carrying way more food than before.

I’ve got a few freeze-dried meals I brought from the UK specifically for this section, so it will be good to get rid of them. They’re going to be supplemented with the usual evening meals of couscous and cup-a-soup, with muesili for breakfast, and bread, cheese and chorizo for lunch. On top of that there are energy bars, nuts and boiled sweets to snack on, so hopefully there’ll be enough calories to get me to L’Hospitalet-près-l’Andorre on July 25th, when we get to our next shop.

In an effort to build up some spare calories I ended up eating five meals yesterday. It’s quite strange feeling totally bloated and patting your stomach, only to discover it’s still completely flat! If only it was always this easy…

One of yesterday’s meals was a farewell to Lucy and Ross, who left Arties early this morning to head to Barcelona. We had a great meal at a lovely pizzeria, including some free shots of cassis from the waitress, which went down very well!

Today I’ve only managed three meals, but they were all pretty big, especially lunch. I discovered last night that Di and Doug (the couple from Hobart that I met in Lescun) were also going to be in Vielha today, so we had lunch with them and swapped tales of derring-do from the first three sections.

Apart from resting, the main reason the route heads to a village every now and again is to replenish food supplies. This time there are other things too though – toothpaste, suncream, loo roll, fuel and liquid soap are all close to the end. Until now I’ve been using a single bottle of biodegradable soap to clean me, my clothes and my pan, but no-one in Vielha has ever heard if such a product. Instead, I’m going to have to rely on using shower gel from now on, and hope it doesn’t cause the marmottes too much inconvenience.

While in Vielha we’ve also shipped Klaas’s crampons off, bought him some new boots and bought me a rucksack cover. Although my stuff lives in waterproof “dry-bags”, the rucksack itself soaks up a lot of water (its about 20 years old and not as water-repellent as it once was) and the cover should prevent that.

We’re taking a rather luxurious 3-day break here, so tomorrow is another rest day, then we set off on Saturday, hopefully fighting fit. Tomorrow we’re going back to Vielha (it’s only 10 minutes down the road) for a few more things, and to post home some more kit so we’ll be able to carry all the food.

Section Three – Complete

Tue 13 Jul 2010 21:08 » Jon

After his easier day yesterday, Klaas was back on top form for the final stage of section three, while Lucy, Ross and I were all nursing our injuries from yesterday’s beautiful but damaging walk along the lakeside. None of the injuries were serious enough to slow us down much though, so we made pretty good time apart from an unsheduled Compeed realignment stop.

There was only 600m of ascent in today’s route, which is comparatively little. We climbed up from Refugi de la Restanca past more amazing lakes and over three cols, then began the descent towards the stage end at Salardu. The first 400m or so were pretty tough, with some steep sections and some huge boulder fields to cross, but eventually we made it down to Refugi de Colomers, beside yet another beautiful lake. The guide said that our brief visit to the Parc Nacional d’Augüestortes would inspire us to return and it’s right – it’s an absolutely stunning place.

We lunched overlooking the refuge, then climbed down below a dam and soon reached a dirt track. Lucy and Ross thought Klaas was joking when he said we had about 10km on the road, but he wasn’t – we were heading down to a village for the end of the section, and the route out of the high mountains was a long descent down a track. The views were still amazing, and personally I was quite happy not to have to concentrate so hard on where every step was going!

We paused at a nice hotel halfway down for a drink and an ice-cream, then carried on down and eventually reached Salardu. We’ve actually taken the bus a few km down the valley to Arties as there’s no campsite in Salardu, but this hasn’t broken my rules – we’ll be getting the bus back to exactly the same place when we restart!

Before we consider any more walking though, we have a couple of rest days to think about. The first thing we have to do is finalise our plan for the next section – we have two guidebooks with different routes, so we need to work out which one looks best. Either way, we’re not likely to pass any shops for the next 8-10 days and there aren’t many refuges, so we’ll be carrying a lot of food, which needs to be planned carefully and then bought. As well as that there’s the dull stuff like washing clothes, and we may also need to buy Klaas some new boots as his are beginning to look like they may not make it to Banyuls. Tomorrow though, will probably be mainly spent by the campsite’s pool, enjoying the sun with Lucy and Ross before they head home later in the week.

It’s been interesting having some friends join us, experiencing what life’s like on the trail. Lucy commented that she was amazed how physical it was – she’d thought it would be normal hill-walking and was quite surprised to find every muscle in her body aching! They’ve had a tough few days though, climbing Aneto on Saturday then dealing with some very rough and bouldery trails yesterday and today.

The Famous Four

Mon 12 Jul 2010 19:31 » Jon

Today was the first day of the walk that there’s been four of us – after a couple of days of trying, Ross and Lucy finally joined Klaas and me as we set off on a section of the GR11 from Hospital de Vielha, hoping for a drier day than yesterday. Some of the kit had dried out overnight, but my rucksack was still pretty wet so it was a relief to set off with a blue sky.

Getting four people moving took a little longer than Klaas and I normally take, but all nine of Lucy’s blisters had had Compeed applied by 08:45 and we left the miserable owner of the refuge, hoping we never had to return.

After a couple of hours we faced a choice between an easy walk on the GR11 or a longer but more scenic walk on the HRP. Klaas was keen for an easier day so stayed on the GR11, while Lucy, Ross and I turned off for the climb up to Collado d’Estany de Mar (2468m).

We left Klaas at the end of Estany de Ruis (1st photo), which was already pretty scenic, and climbed up past a few more lakes, getting ever more dramatic. After a quick lunch we climbed the last little bit up to the col (2nd photo) and were greeted by an amazing view over the other side down to Estany de Mar. It was generally agreed that the view was one of the most beautiful views we’d ever seen (2rd photo).

The descent was pretty steep, and I felt a bit like I’d had a limb cut off as I’d given a pole to Lucy, so had a spare arm with nothing to do. We made it safely down to the lake and Ross went for an impressively long (i.e. 5 strokes) swim, though it should be noted that there was no ice floating in his lake!

The walk along the side of the lake involved a large number of boulders, which began causing Lucy’s knees problems, so she ended up with 2 poles, while Ross and I made do with 1 each. Neither of us found the change from 2 poles to 1 very easy to cope with, and within half an hour both of us had sprained an ankle. I would always have said poles were fundamental to staying upright on snow, but I’d never realised how much I’d got used to having them on normal terrain.

By the time we’d reached the end of the lake and advised a French couple who’d somehow ended up in the wrong valley, we were all looking forward to getting our various damaged knees and ankles down. We made pretty good time, and were met at the refuge by Klaas with a welcome beer. Although he and I had talked about carrying on to find a bivouac spot, by the time we’d arrived he’d booked us into the Refugio de Restanca so we’ve since showered and had a great meal.

We were sat next to four English walkers at dinner, who are spending a couple of weeks doing bits of GR11 and some other tracks. They were amazed that we kept getting our bread basket refilled, then ate as much of the fat from our chicken legs as possible but, as I mentioned a few days ago, Klaas and I need every calorie we can get, and any form of fat is very welcome!

Half Way Storm

Sun 11 Jul 2010 21:02 » Jon

Today was a momentous day, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I’ve now completed 23 stages and have 22 to go, so I’m counting down the days to Banyuls. Secondly, it was the fourth and final of the extreme grade days, so from here on things should be a little bit easier. Unfortunately, just as I was beginning to celebrate, nature stepped in and threw the biggest storm yet at us.

After leaving Lucy and Ross with the crowds at Renclusa I’d dropped back down to the HRP and walked for about half an hour to catch up with Klaas, who’d pitched his tent on a nice remote plateau near the base of today’s climb. As with the last few days, the climb was fairly straightforward to begin with, but at about 2500m we attached the crampons and set off across a huge snowfield towards Col des Mulleres.

It was a pretty steep climb but, just before we began it, a group of 15 Spaniards arrived out of nowhere and left us a nice trail of footprints to follow. Whilst it made the climb easier, it wasn’t quite the same, arriving at 2900m with another 15 people. Luckily they were heading up Tuc de Mulleres (the summit), rather than to the col, so Klaas and I turned away from the group and made for the col, where we paused for lunch, staring at the infamous descent that Klaas’s guide advised using a rope for.

After a quick visit to the summit, we packed away poles, crampons and all the usual paraphernalia so we could focus on the climb down from the col. We’d watched a couple of other groups coming up various routes and had decided how we wanted to approach it, so we climbed along then crossed over at the top of the chimney we wanted to climb down (see photo taken from the summit).

The climb down to the snow was pretty nervy and involved the occasional change of plan, but after 10 or 15 minutes we were safely down and breathing a sigh of relief. We reattached the crampons and dropped a few hundred metres down into the valley before we hit rock, then began the long walk out. These walks always seem a bit of an anticlimax after the excitement of climbing over a big snowy col, but there doesn’t seem to be anyway to avoid them!

The sky had been a bit grey all day, but it hadn’t actually rained until now. It began with alternating showers and hail, then the thunder started rumbling and Klaas spotted an unmanned refuge so we went and hid in there for 40 minutes while the worst of the storm blew over.

The problem was that we only waited while the first storm blew over. As we set off the thunder carried on rumbling, with occasional flashes of lightening, but it wasn’t until about half an our later that the rain began again. When it did, it was torrential.

By the time we’d arrived at the refuge it had been thundering constantly for about 3 hours and raining heavily for at least 1, so we were glad to make it. Since then we’ve showered, eaten and Lucy and Ross have arrived, so all is well, though the refuge is run by the most miserable Spanish woman in the world – she’s just turned off the TV half-way through the World Cup final, so Klaas is now receiving updates by SMS!

The High Point

Sat 10 Jul 2010 17:45 » Jon

Today began with a short sharp climb from the refuge up to Col Inférior des Literoles which, at 2983m, is the highest that the HRP goes. We had a great climb up, both feeling pretty strong after our two half-days. Reaching the high-point of the route felt great, but obviously we couldn’t leave it at that, so we climbed on up the remaining 17m and took a few photos at 3000m.

The steep descent from the col was one of the things people had warned us about, but it wasn’t too bad. It was completely covered with snow, but was manageable without an ice-axe.

Having dropped down a bit we had a slight climb up to Portal de Remune, then a seemingly endless descent towards Benasque. There was a huge amount of snow for the top half, which caused us a few problems with navigation, but eventually we left the snow behind a dropped down through less exciting terrain until finally we had mobile reception for the first time in four days and shortly after that, a Coke and a Magnum.

During the four days we’ve been cut off, one of the things on my mind has been two friends who I was supposed to be meeting yesterday evening at Refuge de Renclusa. Lucy and Ross were due there either Friday night or early Saturday, but the half-days Klaas and I took meant I didn’t get to Renclusa untill today – unfortunately the lack of reception meant I couldn’t tell them. After searching in vain for 20 minutes I eventually found them in the dinning area, which was a huge relief. Having discovered I wasn’t there this morning they’d decided to climb Aneto, the highest peak in the Pyrenees, so were both a bit broken – quite a first day! They were going to walk with me for the next few days but there’s a notoriously nasty bit tommorrow so we’re going to meet them tomorrow night instead, and hopefully finish off the section together, reaching Salardu on Tuesday afternoon.

Beaucoup de Vent

Fri 09 Jul 2010 17:35 » Jon

Two things happened after I wrote yesterday’s post. The first was that I did actually manage to swim (a single stroke) in our icy lake. The second was that the sun disappeared and we experienced the biggest storm we’ve seen so far. So don’t believe anything you read on this blog.

The storm had been forecast, and was one of the reasons we decided not to tackle the Col des Gourgs-Blancs – the guidebook says it’s dangerous in bad weather. Actually, if I’m being perfectly honest, we’d decided to have the two half-days before we found out about the weather, but the storm seems like a better excuse than being tired, so we’ll just pretend, ok?

For an hour or two the cloud had been building and the thunder began rumbling, though it seemed like it was missing our valley. Klaas and I climbed a little hill and watched some dramatic lightening in other valleys but predictably that was the moment the rain hit our part of the world. We ran back down to our tents and hid as the rain turned into hail and 1cm chunks of ice began falling out of the sky. The tents didn’t seem too concerned by this though, and the only damage incurred was when I looked out from the tent’s porch and got hit on the head!

By the time we went to bed the skies had cleared and we assume the worst was over, but during the night the rain returned and the wind became quite terrifying. Around 02:30 Klaas and I both switched our head-torches on to check the pegs were all staying in the ground – it was one of the windiest nights I’ve ever had in a tent. The tents survived this second battle with nature fine, but it wasn’t the best night’s sleep!

The sky still looked a bit suspect this morning but the worst it managed was a few short showers. Klaas and I had a great climb from our lakeside bivouac site (first photo, lake is left of centre) up to Col des Gourgs-Blancs, ending with an enormous snowfield leading up to the col (second photo). For some reason that snowfield gave me a real buzz – it felt so remote, like it represented what the HRP was all about.

We had quite a steep descent but it wasn’t long before we began climbing again, firstly to Col de Pluviometre then on up to Tusse de Montarqué (2889m), which is the highest we’ve been so far. The third photo is from the summit, and shows the Col des Gourgs-Blancs in the upper-centre. From there we descended left, then climbed towards the top left of the photo. The frozen lake is rather imaginatively called Lac Glacé. The fourth photo is Klaas and me on the summit.

From there we dropped down just over 300m to Refuge du Portillon, which may just be the best refuge yet. We’ve had two huge meals, warm showers, a couple of games of chess (turns out Klaas is a Grand Master) and have been able to recharge phones and cameras.

For a while it looked like we were the only guests, but then some crazy Polish students arrived – having hitch-hiked from Poland they attempted the same route we’ve done today, only without crampons or ice-axes! One of them had slipped but miraculously not hit any rocks, and the other two had ended up throwing their bags down the hill so they could rock-climb down to avoid the snow! Nutters…

The food here has been great, and I’ve tried to eat as much as possible, but my stomach just isn’t used to massive second helpings at the moment. Getting enough calories is really difficult, especially when we’re cooking for ourselves, so I’m making a big effort to eat everything I can in restaurants and refuges, especially when there’s butter or other fat available. Despite this I reckon I’ve lost betwen five and ten kilos so far.

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