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expedition

Hasta Luego Bobby - Nos Vemos!

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Hasta Luego Bobby - Nos Vemos!

One more update from basecamp before we move onto the upper mountain.  Yesterday was a bit of a team change-up, and not of the kind that we like: Bobby woke up in the morning feeling off after a night of coughing and low blood oxygen saturation.  A pre-breakfast visit to the basecamp doc confirmed what we were fearing: Bobby was in the early stages of pulmonary edema.  Altitude sickness can strike anybody at any time, and the cure is simple: descent.  So within a matter of hours Bobby was on a helicopter down to the road, covering the 15 mile trek from the trailhead to basecamp (which had taken us about twelve hours of walking on the way up) in a mere eight minutes. 

Bobby on his way out.

At this point Bobby is back in Mendoza and has been given a certificate of clear health from the local doctor, but sadly won’t be able to rejoin us on the mountain due to the team’s climbing schedule.  He is slated to return to the US at the end of the week and is hopefully enjoying beautiful Mendoza between now and then.  We miss you Bobby! 

Bobby, we miss you!

With Bobby back in the lowlands the team is now only chicas - which wasn't the intent of this particular expedition, but it sure is becoming a familiar dynamic on the heels of all-women climbs on this mountain and in Nepal over the last twelve months.  

Libby and Walker on their way to Camp I on our first carry above basecamp. 

We have great weather and are moving up to Camp I in a few hours; most of our supplies are already up there.  From here on out there’ll be very little connectivity - you’ll still be able to see where we are on the GPS, and find updates on the occasional Instagram post, but that’s it until we return in (hopefully) a little over a week.  Our summit window is January 8/9/10, with Tuesday January 9 being the ideal date - weather and acclimatization permitting.  Wish us luck! 

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Oh Aconcagua...

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Oh Aconcagua...

... why do keeping luring me back! It's been three years now since I first set foot on the mountain, and I'm heading back for my third season and my 5th, 6th and possibly 7th twenty-day climbing permit. To say that Aconcagua has been a formative mountain for me would be an understatement.  

Stoked at the summit in 2014, my first time.  I lost 16lbs in 16 days during that particular climb.

Stoked at the summit in 2014, my first time.  I lost 16lbs in 16 days during that particular climb.

But the story of "why Aconcagua" is for another time.  Right now I'm mainly just stoked to finish my 42 hour transit from Potrero Chico to Mendoza (which began at 1:30am on Christmas Day...), stop dragging around 190lbs of group and personal expedition gear - I'm traveling light this year - and say hello to the most excellent team that I'll be spending the next three weeks with: Bobby, Jennifer, and Kristin.  It's a co-ed team this year, though Bobby is outnumbered 4:1 by the girls if you include our last-minute addition and volunteer team medic Libby in the count. 

I'll once again be sharing stories and pictures from the team and the expedition as we're kicking things off in Mendoza and also from the trail, connectivity permitting.  As always you'll be able to find more frequent updates on Instagram and monitor our progress on the mountain via my trusty DeLorme GPS

In the meantime, if you're just tuning in and are curious about what we're up to... you may want to check out some of the more informative posts from last season: 

Yes, wind chill in the negative twenties is considered pretty prime on Aconcagua. 

And so it starts again.  Except for a storm rolling through when we plan to hit the trail on Friday/Saturday the weather is looking pretty excellent so far, the route is dry, I'm psyched to see what surprises this season holds for me, the team, and the ever-inspiring Libby (yes there'll be some ambitious speed scheming again after the team expedition is complete.).  Thanks for coming along for the journey, and if you'd like to get blog updates delivered to your inbox there's a subscribe option, too. 

Up up we go!!

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On Getting High

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On Getting High

What’s the highest you’ve ever been?  Altitude-wise I mean.  

For me it’s just a little bit shy of 7,000m or 23,000ft.  I grew up at a low elevation, in the middle of Germany, and even though I spent plenty of time in the foothills of the Alps as a kid hiking and skiing I never once approached the 14,000ft mark until shortly after my 25th birthday.  But that’s a different story (which you can read on REI’s Coop Journal here).  

The reason I want to talk about altitude is because of the experience that Kat and Tara and I had on our Mera Peak climb last month.  We had a fantastic expedition all in all, but our first summit attempt was cut short by an altitude scare.  Take a look below for the brief summary of what happened as I described it on Instagram a little while ago.  

The woman, the myth, the legend - Kathy Parsons aka @mountainkat10

Yes, altitude struck.  Kat knew what she might be in for, because she had had a similar experience in Ecuador on her 4-day Cotopaxi trip.  I knew what we might be in for, too, because Kat had told me of the Cotopaxi incident; and yet, after listening to her story and understanding the parameters of her Ecuador experience I still encouraged her to attempt Mera: because slow and gradual acclimatization can make all the difference.  

And it did: after ten days of gradual ascent Kat, 60 years old but in absolutely killer cardio shape, breezed through her Ecuadorian highpoint to upwards of 20,000ft.  Yet just a couple hundred feet shy of the summit - literally some 10 minutes below the top - things changed.  Within a matter of minutes Kat went from climbing strong to temporarily not being able to walk. Here are a few thoughts I want to share for all of us who spend time at altitude (or are planning to do so) to mull over: 

  • Fitness and training have very little, if any, impact on your susceptibility to altitude sickness. If they did, Kat would not have had to turn around at 21,000ft
  • Proper acclimatization does make a big difference: acclimatize slowly and thoroughly, and you may be able to climb safely to altitudes that may have seemed out of reach previously.  That said… this is very important:  
    • Acclimatization cannot be rushed. To acclimatize fully to extreme altitude (commonly thought of above 5,500m or 18,000ft) requires more than three weeks! Which is a much longer period of time than most climbers budget.  Expeditions with 10-14 days of trail time to 20,000ft are quite typical for Himalayan and Andean mountaineering. Seven-day trips up Kilimanjaro (19,341ft) are considered standard.  As such, even on trips with “relaxed” acclimatization schedules many of us will pursue high summits on suboptimal acclimatization.  Don’t short-change yourself by trying to save time and move up faster
    • Recognize that, unless you are spending months in the high mountains, you will not be fully acclimatized during most high altitude adventures.  Adjust your pace accordingly; don’t be tempted to push too hard  
  • Kat’s condition changed rapidly.  Leading up to 21,000ft she had - by her own account - no headache, no nausea, and only the occasional mild bout of dizziness.  Then, from one minute to the next, she was slurring her speech and had to sit down. She was lucid enough, and the whole team knew enough of her history with altitude, that we were all clear she had to descend immediately. Thanks to Kat’s tremendous physical and mental strength she managed to descend on her own to feet with assistance from her daughter Tara, Mingma Sherpa, and myself.  While fitness and training may not impact your susceptibility to altitude, they sure do help in extricating yourself from bad situations! 
  • As on all my high-altitude expeditions, I carried Diamox and Dexamethasone on Mera Peak
    • I typically advise against the prophylactic use of Diamox - as I did this time, counseling Kat to not take Diamox ahead of summit day.  My argument is that slow climbing and gradual acclimatization should enable your summit, rather than drug-altered chemistry.  In retrospect, and in a case like Kat’s (i.e. for someone with a history of issues at altitude) this may have been the wrong call; prophylactic Diamox for the final day or two to the summit might have helped prevent Kat’s symptoms at 21,000ft
    • Dexamethasone is a corticosteroid which can be used to reverse the symptoms of acute mountain sickness, though it does not improve acclimatization. While in the mountains, I consider Dex a rescue drug: take in case of emergency, and descend immediately - which is how it was used on this climb
  • Be aware that everyone's symptoms of altitude sickness are different.  HAPE and HACE manifest themselves differently, and not everyone who develops HAPE or HACE may show all of the common symptoms.  Both conditions are extremely serious with fatal consequences if left untreated  
    • HACE symptoms: severe headache, vomiting, slurred speech, confusion, unsteadiness, drowsiness and loss of consciousness
    • HAPE symptoms: shortness of breath, headache, heart palpitations, difficulty walking uphill, cough potentially with frothy sputum tinged with blood, chest discomfort

Prior experiences with acute mountain sickness are the biggest predictor for future episodes; everyone’s ability to acclimatize and function at altitude is different, and seems to be largely driven by your DNA (Example: I have a super fit ultra-running friend who can run a hundred miler no problem, but develops acute mountain sickness as soon as he ascends above 10,000ft). There is only so much you can do in terms of acclimatization schedule, climbing strategy and emergency preparedness. 

Even if you haven’t yet found your limits at altitude, be aware that they do exist - be it at 14,000ft or at 20,000ft or maybe even at the summit of Everest, who knows.  But we all have a limit on how high we can go; if you find yours, make sure you and your team know how to respond - and get back down safely, quickly.  

Kat and myself at 15,000ft a few short days after our Mera Peak adventure.  Photo: @tarebear22

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The Case for Porter Support

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The Case for Porter Support

If you looked at my Instagram yesterday, you saw that I shared a few words about our porter team during the Mera Peak expedition.  The forced brevity of Instagram captions just doesn't do things justice, so here's a more in-depth introduction to our lovely support crew.  

Tara, Kat and I traveled with four locals: Mingma Sherpa, our climbing sirdar with whom I've been friends since I first started mountaineering in Nepal; Antarwu Sherpa, his brother; Geljin Sherpa, Mingma's nephew.  And Gishnagiri, a Chhetri from the Kathmandu Valley for whom our trek was his first foray into high altitude work.  

Kat (L) and Tara (R) with our three most excellent porters: Geljin in black, Antarwu in red and Gishnagiri in tan.  

I have an inkling that Gishnagiri may have signed on to the trek because he thought it would be an easy introduction - three women, taking the long way up the Hinku Valley towards Mera Peak.  Should be nice and mellow, right?  Not with Tara and Kat: these two ultra-running, peak-bagging powerhouses were moving so fast that we all had trouble keeping up with them - particularly on the longest approach days.  When I asked Mingma about the state of the crew after we had made it back to Lukla (our last long day of hiking on the way back towards civilization), he chuckled.  "Ma'am, for the team... Mera Peak climbing: easy.  Hiking days: HARD." 

We could tell that the guys worked hard.  Not only did we trek faster than your typical expedition (going from Karikhola to Tangnag in three days rather than the standard four, and crossing over mighty Zatr La Pass in two days rather than three) but we also brought gifts for the villagers as well as all our climbing gear and tents and food from the US, where many expeditions will only bring the bare necessities and rent crampons/axes/tents/group gear in Khare, the last settlement below the glaciated flanks of Mera.  So Antarwu, Geljin and Gishnagiri unsuspectingly ended up in the perfect storm: walking faster AND carrying more than on your standard Mera expedition - even though Tara, Kat and I also all deliberately carried between thirty and sixty pounds in our daypacks! The guys did very well in all regards, and we acknowledged their hard work and great performance in our collective tipping and with personal tokens of appreciation that were well received.  

We all carried pretty heavy.

Even with the fast pace it was impressive to see how 21-year-old Geljin would constantly run ahead, offer to take extra weight, and always be on the lookout for ways to help us.  He also made an additional 3,000ft ascent to high camp to help carry gear when Tara and I decided to return for a second summit bid after Kat's HACE scare at 21,000ft (more on that in my next post).  Antarwu, Mingma's brother, found great amusement in our initially desperate tries to remember and pronounce his name, and later turned out to be the natural-born dancer of the group.  Gishnagiri, one of Mingma's non-sherpa friends from Kathmandu Valley, was always ready with a smile and continuously pushing hard to keep up with his sherpa companions.  Rumor has it that he decided towards the end of our expedition that construction work, his year-round work, makes for an easier gig than high-altitude trekking - but he was a joy to have around and be part of our small multi-cultural team. 

Construction work in Nepal... which pays ~300Rs ($3) per day. 

At one of our early teahouse stops, day 2 on the trail in Nunthala, I spotted a sobering sign in the dining room.  It said: Porters: STRONG.  PROUD.  VULNERABLE.  Please provide your porter with necessary food, shelter and shoes. Yes, guys like Antarwu and Geljin and Gishnagiri may strike us as incredibly strong and fast and seemingly invincible - but they are not superhuman.  They may cheerily cross icy steeps without crampons, balance 65lbs+ loads on their backs with jerry-rigged carrying systems and dance up and down thousands of feet of snowed-in passes barehanded and in tennis shoes or even sandals... but just because they do it with a smile on their faces (or because the porter pay of ~$15/day is a high-earning gig compared to Nepal's average annual income of ~$700pp) doesn't mean that this is how it should be.  The often desperate state of warm weather and mountain gear available to the locals working to support high altitude expeditions is the reason why I am very excited about having been able to partner with CAMP USA to bring a few sets of cutting-edge, lightweight glacier travel gear into the country for our sherpa friends to use on future climbs.   

New CAMP glacier safety gear for our crew to keep! And these harnesses only weigh 3.2 ounces... 

Of course the collective high altitude workers' gear need is a lot greater than what can be covered by the harnesses and jumars and helmets and pulleys we gave to our crew... but it's a start. Passing on high quality personal gear - boots, crampons, gloves, hats, warm socks, insulated pants and the like - is another step that we, like hopefully most other Himalayan climbing expeditions, naturally incorporated into our giving at the end of the trek.  And then there's the ultimate engine to help alleviate the porters' and high altitude workers' plight: keep climbing in Nepal, spend the money to hire local support staff, compensate them fairly and make sure they're well taken care of.  The moments and friendships that you'll share during the trek will make it more than worth it.  And who knows, you might even learn some local dance moves along the way! 

The whole crew (minus Mingma and myself) once more. 

  

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Moving Up

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Moving Up

The team in front of Mera Peak (L-R Kat, Geljen, Antarwu, Gishnagiri, Tara; missing Sunny and Mingma)

The team has made it to Khare, our last teahouse settlement below Mera Peak.  From here on out it’s all tents and snow camping and brutally cold temperatures - the meat of high altitude mountaineering.  We had a wonderful acclimatization hike on our rest day in Tangang on Sunday, which offered fantastic views of Mera La (basecamp), Mera’s triple summits, and the surrounding peaks.  We also got to go over skills to practice basics of glacier travel and crevasse rescue, putting to use the awesome lightweight gear that CAMP USA set the team up with; life is good. 

Jumaring practice in Khare, with a new buddy

Jumaring practice in Khare, with a new buddy

Mingma! This guy has stood atop Everest four times and also has summits of Manaslu, Makalu and K2 to his name. And he's stoked on his new CAMP crampons that we brought over from the US :) 

On Monday we hiked from Tangnag to Khare, a small hamlet with half a dozen tea houses nestled high in the Hinku Valley just about two hours below Mera’s glaciated north shoulder. At almost 16,000ft it’s a battle to stay warm and sleep well, but as of now everybody is handling the altitude well.  Today (Tuesday) saw us walk up to the glacier for more acclimatization and skills practice.  

Tomorrow we leave the comforts of teahouse lodging behind us and move onto the glacier.  Rather than staying at basecamp we’ll head straight to high camp at 19,000ft and launch or summit bid that same night after just a few hours of rest.  If all goes well and the weather remains stable we should be on the summit around sunrise on Thursday, and back down in Khare by dinner time! 

One last acclimatization session on the glacier - tomorrow the real climbing starts!

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Update from 12,000ft

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Update from 12,000ft

Day 5! The team is doing great.  We are currently in Kote, a small village in the Hinku Valley.  Yesterday was a long, long day - nearly nine hours of walking with 10,000ft of vert (6,000ft up & 4,000ft down).  Tara and Cat crushed it and were ahead of the group for a big part of the day. 

Tara and Cat during one of the trek's early days

In addition to enjoying beautiful (steep!) trails and a bit of wildlife - monkeys and a deadly snake - we also got to distribute a few small gifts to local families that we've met along the trail.  Cat and Tara have been carrying toys and coloring books to give to the kids, and I brought along a few solar lights from LuminAid - all of which have been a huge hit.  It's amazing to see the joy that these small gifts can bring, and a privilege being in a position to give.  

Mingma explaining how LuminAid's solar rechargable lanterns work

We are now about five days from being in position for a summit bid, and are enjoying our last couple days of teahouse lodging and home cooked meals before we move into our tents and break into the freeze dried rations from Backpacker's Pantry that we brought along.  If things continue as they started, we look all set for a smooth climb on summit day: everybody is moving well and excited to be out here.  The weather has been decent, and we're all keen to get on the mountain!

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Mera Peak: the route

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Mera Peak: the route

"Wow, really?  You are really going to climb MERA?" - that's a reaction that I get a lot these days.  Now I agree that Mera Peak is a big objective (it's 21,247ft tall after all!), but I also know that most folks hear Mera and think I am talking about Meru, subject of a powerful mountain film by the same name that came out in 2015 after Conrad, Jimmy and Renan completed their badass route up the Shark's Fin.  

Conrad Anker on Meru.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

Conrad Anker on Meru.  Photo: Jimmy Chin

So, yes, we're going to climb Mera and, no, it's not the same as Meru nor does it have anything to do with sleeping on a portaledge at 20,000ft or climbing terrifying mixed pitches that are disintegrating as you're moving up them.  

Mera Peak is a beautiful mountain with an imposing rock face on its east side which is how it first presents itself during the approach trek.  To climb Mera, however, we will pass under the steep East Face and access the mountain from Mera La on the glaciated and less forbidding north side. 

Below the east face

Below the east face

There are two common ways to start out the trek from Kathmandu: either by flying into Lukla and crossing a 14,000ft pass on the very next day, or by driving by jeep to Salleri and approaching on a more gradual, longer foot journey - which is what we are doing.  

The approach from Salleri to basecamp at Mera La meanders through valleys, across ridges and passes for roughly ten days, which allows plenty of time for acclimatization.  

The intended approach from Salleri (and return via Lukla).  There are many options to get from Salleri to Mera La - this is just one of them. 

The intended approach from Salleri (and return via Lukla).  There are many options to get from Salleri to Mera La - this is just one of them. 

The last teahouse settlement below Mera La is Khare at ~16,000ft.  From there on out the route heads onto the glacier, with two camps established on the way to the summit.  All in all, the trek clocks in at somewhere around 50 miles (one way) with 30,000ft of ascent - though GPS in these mountains is notoriously unreliable, so everyone's measurements are different.  But that's part of the fun of being out here! 

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'tis the season...

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'tis the season...

.... to go climb something!  It's October, and that means that this year's big mountain expeditions to Nepal and the Andes are about to kick off.  In just a couple days, we (myself, Tara Miranda and Kathy Parsons) are off for an all-female climb of 21,247ft Mera Peak in the Solokhumbu district of Nepal.  

Nepal is one of my favorite places in the world, and I can't wait to share it with Tara and Kathy, an ultra-running, peak-bagging mother-daughter team from California.  We're leaving the US later this week and are set to convene in Kathmandu on Sunday, October 22.   Per the usual, I'll be posting blog updates and photos here while there is connectivity, and also maintain our live GPS track once we're on the trail; in addition, my our lovely basecamp manager (aka boyfriend extraordinaire) Paul will keep my Instagram updated as regularly as is feasible.  

High up on Kusum Kangru, a technical peak just across the valley from Mera Peak

I'm particularly excited about this trip not just because it's Nepal and because I get to climb with two generations of the same family (which I just love: my own mom came to Kilimanjaro with me last year and it was a phenomenal experience for both of us), but also because we get to make a small contribution to the local Sherpa community as well: we've got two dozen solar lanterns from LuminAid and four sets of sweet glacier travel gear from CAMP USA on board, all of which we are going to gift to local climbing Sherpa and teahouse families out in the mountains. It may be a small gesture within the grand scheme of things but I'm super excited that we get to contribute beyond the dollars that we're spending as visitors in this amazing country. 

Now, if you're itching to get out there yourself... ;) How'd you like to go climb Aconcagua after Christmas! One spot is still open, just putting it out there.  In the meantime though, wish us good weather and happy trails - and I'll check in as I can.  

Kathmandu's Swayambhunath Stupa (Monkey Temple)

A little high altitude jog (ha...) in front of magnificent Mera Peak

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An Introduction to the Normal Route

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An Introduction to the Normal Route

Aconcagua is the perfect high altitude mountain for all sorts of shenanigans, because it has something for everyone: the South Face is among the biggest walls in the world, with some 9000ft of highly technical climbing; the Polish Glacier on the east side of the mountain offers a moderate technical option.  And then there's the Normal Route leading up the northwest ridge. 

The Normal Route is mostly a walkup; there are no glaciers or major cliff bands that could pose serious objective hazards. It is also the most popular way up the mountain; Plaza de Mulas at its foot is rumored to be the second largest basecamp in the world, and from there a well-worn track leads most of the way to the summit.  Now... that's not to say that getting up the mountain via the Normal Route is easy.  No matter how non-technical it may be, the route still gains almost 4000 meters / 13,000ft from the park entrance to the summit. It is long, it is steep, and the conditions above basecamp are often brutal.   

Aerial view of the Horcones Valley Route

How long and steep, you ask?  Great question - it’s not that simple.  Interviews with Fernanda Maciel, the current women's speed record holder, suggest that the entire route is somewhere between 40 and 45 kilometers in length one way.  Kilian Jornet, who briefly held the men's  speed record in 2014, recorded a distance of 59.85km for the roundtrip or just under 30km one way.  My own GPS data from a 2014 climb comes in at right around 34kms one way.  

So much for the distance question. But how steep? This one is easier to answer: at first not very steep at all; then, very steep. The approach to basecamp follows the Horcones Valley which ascends so gradually that it is almost imperceptible for a good portion of the hike.  But the story changes drastically after Plaza de Mulas: the final 10 kilometers from basecamp to the summit cover almost 2,700m of elevation gain, translating into an average gradient of 26-27%.  

Normal Route Elevation Profile

There are five camps in between the park entrance and the summit.  The first two, Confluencia and Plaza de Mulas, offer relative luxury thanks to local logistics providers: Inka Expediciones and a few others maintain semi-permanent tents to provide meals and bunk beds for their clients.  In addition, there is ample mule traffic all the way up to Plaza de Mulas which makes it easy to move loads up to basecamp. Once past Plaza de Mulas everything gets harder: the air is thinner, the temperatures colder, the comfortable logistics support a distant memory (unless you’re hiring expensive porters to help carry gear as high as Nido de Condores).   Put all those factors together with the increased steepness, and you’ll easily see why the 25km to Plaza de Mulas is typically done in only three days, while it’s then another ~ ten days to cover the remaining 10 kilometers from Plaza de Mulas to the summit.  

A map of the upper mountain, via www.aconcaguaexpeditions.com 

Aconcagua via the Normal Route is not much of a technical challenge, but (or maybe "because of that") it makes for an excellent introduction to high altitude mountaineering; the Normal Route also lends itself to comparatively safe solo missions.  Hopefully these maps are useful for you as you’re following along friends on the mountain or if you are researching your own Aconcagua climb. 

On that same note here is one last resource: the tentative mountain itinerary for our women’s team climb that starts right after Christmas. The actual schedule is of course dependent on weather and team condition, but this strawman is a pretty good blueprint of how to tackle a 7000 meter peak with solid acclimatization. 

Lots of time for acclimatization and flexibility from 4000 meters on upwards

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