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January through March 2013

Post date: Mar 27, 2013 3:34:47 AM P had a big decision to make this week.

He was invited to speak at a major national conference in his chosen profession--but it was a direct conflict with one of our big plans for the summer: a ten-day hike through the backcountry of Sequoia/Kings Canyon.

Oh dear. We checked the calendar, and there really was no other time that we could possibly do the hike. And we'd already filed the paperwork for the permit---and it had been accepted.

So he looked long and hard at the calendar, and then at the permit. And then he called them back and explained that he would be delighted to speak at their conference.

Next year.

Post date: Mar 21, 2013 4:05:57 PM Some major construction projects in our area got us thinking about the homeless in our town. In a way, these folks are backpackers, too, albeit in an urban environment.

And so we started thinking about campsites: what are the criteria for a good urban campsite? And how would that be different from a good campsite in the wilderness?The first difference would be shelter. Most of the homeless people in our area don’t have shelter—yeah, that’s why they call them homeless—so the first thing to look for is a roof over your head.

That’s why highway underpasses and bridges seem to be so popular.

Would that change if the homeless had effective tents? Interesting to consider.And the next items on the agenda would be food and water. Backpackers usually carry their own food—but the urban homeless are going to be foraging. That means an ideal campsite will be not far from sources of food and water—whether those are official sources like food banks and the Salvation Army, or simply the back parking lot of the local grocery store.If possible, you would also want access to a public restroom—although we don’t use those in the wilderness, and plenty of homeless people follow that same example in the urban environment.

And finally, you would think that all people still want a bit of privacy—so that would be another consideration for the urban backpacker/homeless person. Do social services networks use this kind of matrix to work with the homeless?

Are there elements of backpacking equipment or technique that could improve the situation?

Post date: Mar 11, 2013 6:50:23 PM We've been getting a lot of requests for information about backpacking this summer. Many of those questions have to do with equipment, routes, permits, and trailheads. Those are the easy ones. The harder ones have to do with the weather. Yes, we know that 2013 has been a light snow year. And if that continues, the high country will be opening up earlier this year. (The mosquitoes will be out earlier, too.)

But don't count on anything yet. There is still a lot of time between now at late May, and you know how fickle Mother Nature can be, don't you?

We live in the Napa Valley, so we are always concerned about the weather. We have an old saying here: Mother Nature always laughs last. So when you plan your trips for 2013, go ahead and start getting your permits. Plan to start a little earlier, or aim a little higher than usual. But keep your options open. And don't forget that just because there isn't a lot of snow doesn't mean the trails are easy. High water from snowmelt can make any trail a real adventure...we chose not to try and cross this creek, for obvious reasons. Most importantly, pay attention to the weather reports. Because Mother Nature has a wicked sense of humor.

Post date: Mar 4, 2013 4:36:11 AM We're often asked about what equipment to take on a backpacking trip, and that's why we put together our list on this site. It's everything we take when we hit the trail. But people keep asking about other stuff, so we thought we'd put together a list of things NOT to take backpacking. Of course, there are no rules on this stuff, but here are ten things that we never take backpacking in the Sierra:

Bear spray. It's illegal in many National Parks, and we can't imagine carrying it around all the time on our belts--where it could accidentally go of and make a real mess of things. We've seen exactly one bear in the backcountry in the last 700 miles and six years, and he wasn't the least bit interested in us. Leave the bear spray at home, or save it for Alaska.

Bear bells. These are for grizzlies, not black bears, and there hasn't been a grizzly in California for ninety years or so. These are also really annoying to everyone else you meet on the trail. One of the great joys of hiking is the sound of nature. Give yourself (and others) the chance to hear it.

Firearms. These are illegal to fire in the National they are just dead weight. If there is one thing we avoid when backpacking, it's dead weight. Leave them at home along with your fears.

Ice axe. OK--we admit it, there are times when you should really use an ice axe---when you are climbing on steep exposed snow slopes. But if you don't know how to use an ice axe properly, and haven't practiced and trained with one, you are far more likely to hurt yourself with this thing than save yourself. Unless you get the training and practice, do the smart thing. Leave the ice axe at home...and avoid steep, exposed snow slopes. There is always another route---even if it is back the way you came.

Crampons: See ice axe. There is no better way to slice open your ankle than a pair of crampons. We do think that the slip-on traction devices work pretty well on slippery ice and snow---but they're not for use where a fall might kill you. A long steep climb up an icy snow-covered pass, with pointy rocks below, is not a place for someone who is inexperienced. Period.

Climbing Rope: This is another one that is dangerous unless you really know what you are doing. A rope alone, without a harness or hardware, is not really a very good safety device. And unless you and your partner are skilled climbers, the most the rope will do is tie you to together as you both fall. If you are experienced climbers, feel free to ignore this advice. If you are not skilled climbers, leave the rope at home and find another route. True, you can use a rope to raise and lower your pack....but we use a lightweight cord for that, and save way more than a pound of pack weight. These ropes are heavy.

Multitool: We know. These are so cool! But they weigh many ounces, and most of the tools they include don't help you on the trail. Screwdrivers? Pliers? We take a sewing kit and a small pocketknife. Because what gets broken on the trail needs sewing...not screwing. Or pliering.

Big Knife: Boy, do the television survivor shows like these things. So do the home shopping networks. But we use a knife on the trail to cut salami and cheese for our lunches, and maybe slice open a trout or cut a piece of light line to use as a shoelace. A twelve-ounce combat knife is pure overkill...and overweight. Leave it at home. (If you meet a bear, you can always just wrassle it bear-handed!). Take a small blade that weighs next to nothing and you will be just fine. You can always pose for pictures with the big knife later, back at the trailhead.

Sierra Club Cup: It's heavy, makes a lot of noise on the trail, and burns your lips every time you drink hot liquids. Worst design ever for a backpacker.

Boy Scout Folding Shovel: Big, heavy, and ugly. We take a small plastic trowel for our bathroom activities. And we know people who just make do (!) with a stick they find on the ground. We like the trowel because sometimes the ground is harder than the stick can manage. You don't need to dig a latrine, so leave the shovel for the Boy Scouts.

Anything Cotton: Not t-shirts or jeans. Cotton is among the heaviest materials you can wear, and once it gets wet, it gets twice as heavy...and it never dries. The new synthetic materials are lighter, warmer, dry quicker, and wear better than cotton on the trail. And yes, we know. That's eleven!

Post date: Feb 24, 2013 6:00:01 PM There seem to be four basic schools of thought concerning backpacking routes. We've done versions of all four (including a fifth variation we discuss below) and we are not sure that we have an outstanding favorite. After all, all of these routes get you up into the mountains, and that's what really important.

The Through-hike: Some of the most serious hikers swear by a through-hike, where you start at one trailhead and hike straight through to another. The grandest of these, like the Pacific Crest Trail, might run for more than 1,000 miles, and require numerous re-supply points along the way. The great thing about a through-hike is that you never pass the same way twice, and every day is a completely new adventure. And, of course, you can cover a lot of territory this way. The downside is that you need to arrange some kind of shuttle transportation to the two different trailheads, and that often means having to count on someone else to help you. Or you might need an extra day or two of driving as you shuttle cars from one end of the hike to the other. Since our hiking time is often limited by work schedules, we prefer to spend most of our days on the trail, not shuttling cars. But we have done some through hikes that were lovely, and we're planning another one this summer, 2013.

The Loop: If you don't want to worry about car shuttles, then the next best option for many people is the loop. These can be pretty extensive itineraries (we've done some that were eight days long and over fifty miles of trail) and they have all of the advantages of a through-hike in terms of sights: you really don't pass the same way twice, and the all the scenery is new. We know some hikers who refuse to consider any hike that is not a loop--but that seems a bit extreme to us. There are some parts of the Sierra that have only one way in and out, and that means you will never visit them on a loop trail. And because of their popularity, many loops have more traffic on them than on other parts of the Sierra. If your goal is to get away from people, loops are usually not your best choice. The In-and-Out: No, this is not a hike to a local burger joint. You simply start at one trailhead, hike into a destination, and then hike back out again. No shuttles required, and these hikes do have one advantage: you don't have to guess about the conditions on the second half of the hike. While some people avoid these and claim that they are too repetitive, we find that we often see different things from a different point of view on the way out--and that the scenery often offers surprises. These also allow you to adjust your itinerary during the trip. If the hike is turning out to be harder than you thought (or easier) you can always turn back sooner, or extend the route. You can't do that very well on the other hikes. And let's face it--on a short weekend trip, this is often the only option available. Two of our favorite hikes of all time were in-and-outs, and we wouldn't hesitate to do another one to the right area. This photo above left is from a hike up Mono Creek in the John Muir Wilderness out of Lake Thomas Edison.

The Base Camp: Frankly, these are more frequently done by horse-packing groups. The horses transport everyone to a base camp in a nice location, and then the group can spend the next two or more days exploring those areas at leisure on a series of day hikes. There are very popular with fishermen and climbers, who can spend days seeking new adventures in the surrounding areas. We don't usually do these, for two reasons. First of all, the ideal locations are often frequented by horse-packers, and that means that we meet more people, and have to use campsites that have been pummeled flat by that traffic. And the other reason is that we do like to keep moving and enjoying new campsites every night. But we have done a few of these, and they were wonderful. The Lollipop: This one is obvious--you hike an in-and-our route until you can connect with a loop, and the final figure looks just like a lollipop, with a stem and a loop on top. These may be the best of both worlds, and we've got one of these planned for this summer as well. And most loops do require you to hike at least a short portion of the trail again, so they are often lollipops with shorter stems anyway. Our favorite lollipop of all time was the hike we took from Courtwright Reservoir up to the Red Mountain Basin in the John Muir Wilderness. We don't really worry about the shape of the route we are going to hike--we focus more on what we want to see and do: spectacular scenery, pristine lakes, and occasion day of good fishing, quiet spots away from the crowds, and a lifetime of memories for us both.

post Date Feb 20, 2013

When it comes to backpacking, there sure is a lot of talk about gear. We can't think of a single backpacking forum where there aren't many more posts on gear than there are on trips and adventures. That strikes us as a bit strange. It's a bit like musicians talking about their instruments more often than the music they play--a crazy idea. The equipment is a tool to get you out on the trail and having adventures. The point of the whole thing is the time on the trail.

Equipment is not main character in this movie; it plays a supporting role. And everyone knows that a good supporting actor never steals the scene from the star. It's not about the shoes (Jordan), or the bike (Armstrong), or the backpack (M&P!). It's about hiking the Sierra. For every post about a new backpack or a upgraded stove, we'd like to see five posts about a great hike, a wonderful destination, or an effective technique for the trail. That's not going to happen, of course.

But we are happy to note that on THIS blog, and on THIS website, the philosophy, trips reports, and adventures outnumber the equipment pages by about ten to one. Which is as it should be.Don't worry quite so much about which sleeping bag is the best, The best one is the one you sleep in when you are out on the trail. And if you are lucky, you will sleep amid towering trees and know that you and your equipment are only a very small part of a much larger world.

Post date: Feb 11, 2013 5:31:17 AM We've been getting a lot of email from people who are hoping to take off this summer for an adventure. And the word they often use is "epic,." What they want is that one lifetime adventure that somehow give them credibility--a story for the ages--a transcendent experience that will transport them above. It might not come as a surprise to you to learn that most of these people are younger.

Yvon Chouinard once said "It's not an adventure until something goes wrong." And we like that thought. We never set out for an adventure. We do set out to have a wonderful time in the mountains, but never with the idea that we're hoping to make it out alive. If we are not dead certain that we are going to come out alive (more than alive--really happy and comfortable) we won't go. Or we'll change our plans.

We're not interested in epic. We're interested in fun.We often find backpackers who are interested in doing these "epic" hikes aren't really sure what they will do next. It's as if they think that doing one "epic" hike with either cure them forever, or answer any questions they might have. Been there, done that. And now they'll move on to other activities. After all, what else is there after "epic?"

(We once met a charming young woman on the trail to North Dome in Yosemite who announced to all: "Well, that's it. I've done all the trails in Yosemite." We didn't believe her. She was in her early twenties, and we're pretty sure she didn't even KNOW all the trails that you could take in Yosemite...)

In fact, we would suggest that there are more wonderful hikes in these mountains that you can ever complete, and even if you did, there are still hundreds that you would want to do again. And while we understand the idea of going boldly where no man has gone before, we also think that the best part of backpacking is not the struggle of man (or woman) against nature.

The best part is the pure enjoyment of being the mountains and in touch with nature in a way that is impossible just about anywhere else. And that enjoyment brings peace, calm, and...yes, joy. Maybe not so much adventure.That's not exactly the way we would define epic. But we're not young anymore, and we're not looking to impress people with how many days and how many miles.

Don't hike to impress people. Hike because you love it. The rest will take care of itself.We're just collecting great memories together. And you can't have too many of those.

Post date: Jan 31, 2013 8:06:27 PM Life on the trail Lots of people ask us how we stay clean on our hiking trips. That always brings a smile to our lips, because, of course, the answer is that we don’t. After all, there are few trails in the Sierra that include campsites with en suite bathtubs or showers.

So we get dirty—especially our feet and ankles from the dusty trails. And we get sweaty—particularly on a long hot afternoon, toiling uphill. And sometimes we stay that way for days on end. But we also make some efforts to clean ourselves up along the way. It’s amazing how much a little rinse of the feet in a mountain lake or stream can do to refresh you. M is a big believer in that, and it’s usually the first thing she does when we arrive at camp. We sent up the tent, organize the packs…and then she sits down at the nearby stream or lake, takes off her shoes, and wiggles her toes.

If the water is warm enough (and when you are really dirty, it doesn’t have to be very warm at all!) we’ll rinse off most of our bodies. We don’t use soap, because that is a really bad idea in mountain water, but we do rinse off the bigger chunks of dirt with the water. It’s lovely.

On longer trips, we take it one step farther, and wash our hair. P is the expert at this, and manages to wash his hair in just about one cup of water. Here’s how he does it, using only a washrag, comb, Dawn, plastic cup, and towel.

1. Soak your head in water—get it very wet. This has the added value of making you scream out loud when the water is cold enough. Get the washrag wet as well.

2. Fill the cup full of water, and take everything on the list to an isolated spot far (200 feet or more) from the water. Sandy soil is best.

3. Put some Dawn in your hair and lather up. We like Dawn because it is very concentrated, and it is used by environmental agencies to remove oil from birds during oil spills. It’s gentle. 4. Facing down, use the washrag to rinse/rub the soap out of your hair.

5. Use the comb to comb as much of the soap out of your hair as you can.

6. Now take the cup of water and slowly pour it, a little bit at a time, over your head to rinse your hair. Scream again, if you’d like. Repeat until the entire cup is gone, and your hair is rinsed.

7. Dry your hair with the towel.

8. Comb out the tangles. More screaming. Use your mirrored sunglasses to see where to part your hair.

9. Arrive back in camp looking like a million bucks, and ask innocently: “What was all that screaming about?”

10. Feel good for days afterwards.

11. Repeat as needed.

Post date: Jan 18, 2013 4:16:42 AM We posted our note about SAR on the a retired ranger and SAR volunteer had this to say:

"M&P, you make a very good point. The typical serious rescue scenario involves bad decisions - typically not just one, but a sequence of at least two or three (often starting with what to take or where to go) that lead to an emergency and the need for outside intervention.

Often a trip can withstand one bad decision if people get on track and compensate with good thinking.I did most of my SAR before cell phones were the factor they are today, with the result that the operation was often initiated by a third party who only knew that little Johnny was overdue and might be in trouble. Very often we would encounter a tired and thirsty little Johnny who was proceeding homeward down the trail, but not in any real trouble.

As an organization, we received a training benefit.That is no small thing. Particularly for a volunteer outfit, there is a certain optimum level of activity that keeps everyone sharp, organized, fit and alert. Too many operations and the group is overwhelmed and over worked. Too few, and volunteers (or professionals, too, for that matter) become listless and unfocused.We were a great bargain for the tax payer.

The typical operation would involve one paid deputy who was on the clock and anywhere from ten to forty volunteers who got some exercise and the satisfaction of dealing with challenging situations. The greatest benefit was the exaltation that hit you when you had intervened and actually saved a life and clearly benefited someone.

In my experience, there is nothing quite like that feeling."endangered lives" = please! Very seldom did that occur, and always on a voluntary basis. Frankly, during a lot of the time I was most active in SAR, my career in the NPS had hit a flat spot (I was a paper shuffling, bureaucratic archaeodrone in a crummy organization) and many times was sitting in a mid numbing, fruitless meeting praying for my pager to go off and get me out of there. Unlike some of my work colleagues, I respected and trusted my SAR buddies.

The bottom line is that there are complex interactions going on; those who volunteer have good reason to do so and are compensated in many ways. The "selfless volunteer dedicated to serving suffering humanity" is a cardboard caricature, hardly representative of the real nature of volunteerism. Most are semi-addicted to adrenaline and physical activities and happy to put their talents to a useful end.

Let me just say that, of all the things I have done in my life, I am proudest of my SAR activities.

Blatant abuse of SAR resources is not overlooked. The NPS can and will charge you with "creating a dangerous situation" but this is done, and rightly so, only in extreme cases. Other jurisdictions can do likewise, I believe."

Here's a link to the whole discussion--it's a very good group of people over there:

Post date: Jan 17, 2013 11:18:27 PM Every year there are new stories of people hiking up into the mountains and then calling for help. And every story seems to provoke a flurry of discussion in the internet backpacking community. While some of the hikers have clearly had accidents and need assistance, others seem to use their cell phones to call for help because they are tired….and want to go home.

That rubs a lot of people the wrong way. Search and Rescue (SAR) squads are often volunteers, and almost always underfunded, and it’s hard to argue that they should be called out every time someone has a blister on their heel and wants a ride. Or maybe they have a sprained ankle, or a broken toe, or a broken leg or… Whatever the situation, there is always a lot of second-guessing and Monday morning quarterbacking about what they SHOULD have done, and whether they really needed rescuing at all.

What’s the solution? Some regions now charge people to be rescued, although most SAR experts oppose this. If people are afraid to call SAR for fear that they will have to pay, they might hold off until it is too late. And that’s an outcome nobody wants. But in all these discussions, there is one element that we think is often missing.

Many of the people who call for help are already admitting something pretty obvious: they have made at least one serious error in judgment. They got started too late, ignored the weather, didn’t take the proper equipment, took the wrong trail, got lost, etc. They are quite likely to be either dehydrated or slightly hypothermic, which is likely to make them less rational. And they have already realized that they don’t/can’t trust their own judgment. That’s a pretty good reason for us not to trust their judgment either.

And if their judgment can’t be trusted, there’s a good chance it won’t get them out of the trouble they’re in. They have already made at least one bad decision, and usually more than that—some of which they may not recognize as such. And there is no guarantee that is going to change any time soon.Most SAR experts take that into account. And so should the backseat drivers.

Post date: Jan 16, 2013 11:27:14 PM Yes, it’s different. When we hike in the Sierra, we don’t see many couples hiking together. We see a lot of men, and a few groups of women. But plain old couples like us, not so much.

And it’s funny what happens when all those men see M on the trail. P tends to hike a little faster than M, so he usually greets these hikers first. They are perfectly happy to be seen resting on the side of the trail while P hikes up and past them.

All is well in the world until M comes around the corner. The minute they see the lovely M hiking along, they make a great struggle to get going again. They jump to their feet, hoist up their packs, give a few grunts, and push themselves up the trail. So now we are hiking along the trail, P in front, and a group of guys who are just killing themselves to keep up, and M hiking merrily behind them all.

The only problem is, they often can’t keep up the pace. And so, slowly and inexorably, M passes them by. Her only hope is that they don’t die of a heart attack while she does so. They gasp and wheeze, sweat and groan. M smiles sweetly at them. Well, sometimes she does.

They just don’t want to admit that a woman might hike faster than they do—especially a woman of a certain age. (And no, we are not disclosing proprietary information. Let’s just that we’ve been married well over thirty years, and neither of us is in the bloom of youth.)It’s true that there are a lot of people who hike faster than we do.

We’re happy to let them walk on by. And we admit that we often have an advantage, as our packs are certainly lighter than a lot of the packs that we see on the trail. It’s always easier to climb up a pass with 25 pounds than with 45 pounds. Or sixty.

But none of that matters to those guys when M appears on the trail. Go figure.

Post date: Jan 15, 2013 4:44:03 PM You may have detected just a touch of cynicism in yesterday's post about crowd funding adventures. We applaud people who get out into the wilderness and share their adventures with others. Heck. we applaud people who get out and don't share. Asking for money while you do it? eh.

But here is a guy who really does it right. Alexius R. Wierbinski has written some nice things about our site, and the respect is certainly mutual. But Alex does more than just host a website dedicated to hiking from Tahoe to Whitney: TahoetoWhitney.comHe also gets out there and tries to hike, post, and videotape every section of the trail from Lake Tahoe to...well, yeah, Mt. Whitney. And a couple of days ago he posted a two new videos for his viewers, and they are quite amazing.

Take a look:For the Cold aspect I submit a mid-Winter backpacking experience, my last since 2011:Winter Disaster 2011

For the Warm sentiment this Winter I offer a bit of Winter Heat:Death Valley in Winter.

Now, to be fair, Alex does suggest that if you have some money you'd like to send him, he's happy to accept it for the work he's done and services he's offered. But he mentions that all the way at the bottom of his homepage...after what seems like endless videos, posts, comments, forums, and statements of philosophy. If you DO get to the end, you will have learned quite a few lessons on the way.

Post date: Jan 15, 2013 1:54:30 AM If you have been following the world of social media, you know that one of the latest trends is seeking funds from strangers on the internet. From Kickstarter to all sorts of crowd funding, there are lots of interesting ideas out there looking for a leg up--and quite a few that are not so interesting after all.

But two of them caught our eye, because they have to do with hiking! Clever Hiker looks to create a series of videos on the joys, skills and equipment of ultralight backpacking. A worthy goal, although we're not sure that it needs a whole series of videos...we like the written word, as you can tell from this blog. But still, at least they're on our team.

And these guys are looking for money to make a video about another hike: "We are now turning our sights to Death Valley and hope to create a short film of a solo unaided 10 day winter trek across 228 miles exposing the many faces of this region few see. We've put this up on Kickstarter and have reached 88% of our goal so far with 7 days left. This trek will of course be executed following the ul mindset and philosophy:"

Well great. And if you'd like to send us money, we'll go hiking in the Sierra Nevada this summer, and we'll take a lot of photos and write up notes on the trip as well. Then again, we'll do that whether you send us money or not.

Post date: Jan 10, 2013 5:07:03 PM Yes, it's darn cold, and the snow is falling in the high country, and for most of us, that means it’s a time to pull out the maps and study the routes we would like to explore. This is wonderful fun.

Obviously, each map combines trails that we would like to take, destinations we would love to see, and rivers and lakes we would like to fish. But they also include trails that we have already taken…and that allows us to drift off into reveries, and pull up Picasa pages full of photos that we took. And then there are the routes that we left for next time.

What if we went back there, and instead of going over the pass, we went down that canyon.Whew! That looks steep. But I bet not many people get down there. The fish must be huge and hungry. It’s hard to see on the map, but it looks like that trail just kind of dies out down there…maybe we could climb up those slabs to get out?

And we’re off on another adventure. Right now out two major trips next year have been more or less identified. We do want to explore Jack Main Canyon in Yosemite, either from Hetch-hetchy or as a through hike down from Sonora Pass/Kennedy Meadows. And we’ve also decided on a SEKI hike, either to Cloud Canyon or up the North side of Kings’ Canyon into the Volcanic Lakes area. Or maybe over Lamarck Col…Hmm. Better get those maps out again and take another look.

By the way, if you like this kind of research, check out great site that allows you to explore the whole Sierra (and much more) to your heart’s delight.

Post date: Jan 1, 2013 3:54:51 PM In one of the less publicized developments in Washington over the past week, the Senate unanimously (!) passed legislation to make the Pinnacles a National Park. The bill only needs the signature of President Obama, which should be a formality, to go into effect. In one of the less publicized developments in Washington over the past week, the Senate unanimously (!) passed legislation to make the Pinnacles a National Park.

Since P grew up quite near the Pinnacles, this spot holds a special place in his heart---and he heartily recommends that you visit it. An amazing place with wonderful hikes. P particularly remembers one hike during his college years when he reached the top of the crest to see the clouds all beneath him--and a clear shot to the Sierra towering over the far side of the Central Valley. And then the wind began to blow...and the clouds below began to send tiny snowflakes up the cliff and into his face. Yes, it was snowing uphill.

That was also the tip he hiked the caves trail without a flashlight. Pitch black, with a swiftly running creek, deep crevices, and low overhangs. Quite the adventure. Not recommended!The trails here do involve a little more exposure and effort than in most parks.

What a great way to start the New Year!

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