Belmore Browne Against Denali


Denali National Park and Preserve (Gregory”Slobirdr” Smith)

Despite what his biography says on his official website, today Belmore Browne is better known as an artist than as a mountaineer. Perhaps that wasn’t always the case. But Browne seems to have been mostly neglected except for a handful of recent articulate pieces from an Alaskan newspaper and a few mentions in some recent books.

It’s Browne’s involvement with the history of the attempts that lead up to the first ascent of Denali that interest me; his role and accomplishments should put him in our collective memory more often.

Alaska’s Greatest Challenge

Denali’s summit was first reached in 1913 by Hudson Stuck, the Episcopal Archdeacon of the Yukon, and Harry Karsten, the “Seventy-Mile Kid,” Robert Tatum, and Walter Harper. Before that it may as well have been the last great problem on earth. Judge James Wickersham stood at the north face and dared to attempt it’s flank in 1903, though he soon declared that wall impassible.

Then in 1906 Frederick Cook returned to the mountain after circumnavigating it in 1903 and came with Herschel Parker and several other Alaskan adventurers. Cook and Parker lead a cross country expedition that took them across Western Alaska, into the Alaska Range and to the a glacier that Cook named for his daughter, Ruth. Crevasses severely broke up the frozen river that season and stopped the exploratory group in their tracks. They turned around going back west to return home.

Shortly before completing the return journey to their starting point, Cook announced he was returning immediately to climb the mountain with one other team member. Belmore Browne, who was among Cook’s and Parker’s men, looked on skeptically with Parker and Cook departed. Cook left, with some gear, but noticeably to both, without a rope, a key piece for safety and moving himself and equipment over glaciers and up slopes. Browne and Parker returned to civilization, with the seed of plans to return.

A Hoax as Big as Alaska

Cook returned announcing that he had climbed the mountain. And he had a traditional summit photo to prove it. Cook was celebrated for his vision, bravery, and the grand accomplishment.

However, Browne and Parker didn’t just doubt Cook, they flat out didn’t believe him. They had seen and been to the Alaska Range. They knew what a concerted attempt would require in time and energy. Denali was too expansive and too treacherous to have permitted Cook such swift access to the top in the time frame he claimed. In addition, Browne and Parker had traveled for weeks with Cook before being sent away and determined that Cook wasn’t trustworthy.

Although Cook’s alleged ascent of Denali is widely discredited as a hoax, the Frederick A. Cook Society continues to promote Cook’s many accomplishments, including being the first person to stand atop Denali, as bona fide truth.

For Browne, Denali hadn’t been climbed yet and still required someone to finish the job. By 1910, in fact, after four years of addressing Cook’s claims, the only way to clear things up was to disprove Cook’s summit photo and dash for the top himself. Browne recruited Parker to help him go for the summit, after they duplicated Cook’s summit photo — wherever it was taken.

Browne and Belmore knew the general return path Cook would have made back to Denali after they separated so they started there and looked to match the features in the photo with their limited maps and their view of the landscape. Then, they found it. Twenty miles southeast from Denali, at an insignificant nub at a mere 5,300 feet above sea level. This was almost 15,000 feet below the summit and nowhere near it. While they managed to prove no one had climbed the mountain yet, their attempt to get to the top was unsuccessful.

The Whiteout

Belmore Browne and Herschel Parker returned to climb Denali in 1912. Unlike any previous attempt, they found a route, and broke the altitude record for the mountain. Bound for the south summit (the highest point), walking up a modest snow field, they entered an absolute white out. The summit was hidden. The return route wasn’t even certain. And the mountain turned away Browne and Parker for good.

Browne would write about his three expeditions in a book first published in 1913, The Conquest of Mount McKinley. Browne also became a renounced painter, and an Alaskan political leader that even helped Alaska achieve statehood.

Browne’s efforts protected the integrity of Denali’s early climbs, laying the groundwork for Hudson Stuck to make his bid. Browne may be better known as an artist today, and he is a better known climber than a politician. Though, maybe he ought to be better known in full.

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Sources: 1) Anchorage Daily News; 2); and 3) David Roberts, The Last of His Kind: The Life and Adventures of Bradford Washburn, America’s Boldest Mountaineer (New York: Harper Collins, 2009).

‘The Ghosts of K2’ Adds Twists to the Early K2 Saga

Ghosts of K2 Cover

Scouting K2 in 2008 (Maria Ly)

While the early attempts on K2 up until the first ascent has been told in whole and in part many times, I thought that there was enough heroism and controversy to keep people speculating. I also thought nothing could justify a new book. After all, climbers and armchair mountaineers could argue the merits of whether Fritz Wiessner’s leadership on the 1939 attempt and whether it was he or his team alone that lead to stranding Dudley Wolfe high on the mountain for dead.

Then there is the oxygen tank-controversy of the 1954 first ascent. The tanks allegedly ran out well before the summit, but was it from a fluke in the primitive apparatus or part of a conspiracy and a deadly effort to compete against their fellow climbers, which also lead Walter Bonatti to spend an extremely cold night exposed without shelter on the steep flank of K2?

Mick Conefrey, the author of The Ghosts of Everest (1999) and the documentary filmmaker, was in a unique position to share two fascinating and new pieces of information that only recently became available that makes us reconsider the controversies and the characters involved, through his new book, The Ghosts of K2: The Epic Saga of the First Ascent (2015).

Ghosts of K2 Cover

The Climbers’ Perspective

In addition to the new twists The Ghosts of K2 offers, Conefrey gives readers the nearest thing that I have read to an objective re-telling to the expeditions. Conefrey covers seven expeditions, from 1890 through 1954, by telling the story about what happened from the perspective of the expedition climbers that puts the reader in the moment. (Albeit, the 1890 attempt of Roberto Lerco was only a paragraph long, which is all the information available on that mysterious adventure.)

To some degree the book is a rehash of existing literature, so it could feel like a redundant read if you have covered any number of other books, including ones by Ed Viesturs and David Roberts, or Jennifer Jordan, except Conefrey applies hindsight and the insight of “revisionist history” judiciously and tactfully, which allows for two things:

  1. Gives the reader the feel for the expedition’s challenges as they were during the attempt; and
  2. Allows the facts as they were reported by individual climbers to mount so the controversies and biases can mount before he demonstrates how differently we can look at things.

The Ghosts of K2 tells the tales that make up the saga of K2’s firsts attempts through the lens of a documentary film director; we witness Oscar Eckenstein, Aleister Crowley, and Jules Jacot-Guillarmod in 1902, the Duke of the Abruzzi in 1909, Charlie Houston and his star studded crew in 1938, Fritz Wiessner and his rag tag bunch in 1939, Charlie Houston and his “brothers” again in 1953, and, finally, Ardito Desio’s successful all-Italian expedition in 1954. Conefrey made an award winning documentary, by the same title as the book, in 2001 that appears to have laid the track for this cog railway; the documentary was historical and matter-of-fact with a wonderful narrator that gives a suspenseful tone to the old black-and-white photos and film. But the new input Conefrey in offers in his new book is difficult to ignore for any armchair mountaineer, let alone anyone objectively looking at the events on and after the K2 attempts.

Tidbits and Twists

The Ghosts of K2 wasn’t written to be the academic history book I presumed it would be when I started reading it; rather, with the passage of time, and the deaths of some parties, diaries and other documents have surfaced by some of the climbers and their family members of those in the 1939 and 1954 expeditions. This is information that wasn’t available in 2001.

Mick ConefreyThe question of who actually stripped the camps stocked with sleeping bags and food late in the expedition in 1939 is addressed anew with evidence. Likewise, the most controversial expedition to the Karakorum, the 1954 Italian assault on K2 is revisited — with evidence. Conefrey reevaluates whether Walter Bonatti was a blameless victim and if those that made the first ascent, Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnoni, did or did not actually run out of oxygen as they claimed, or if they did, what does that mean for Bonatti and his allegations of Lacedelli and Compagnoni? In both instances, the evidence could be interpreted a little differently, and perhaps discounted altogether, but it doesn’t necessarily diminish the reevaluation of events. And if anything, may make the history come alive again for a younger generation.

Along the journey, the Conefrey includes insightful trivia pieces and observations on the shifts mountaineering has taken over its history, the stuff that climbers and armchair mountaineers devour. My favorite of which was when Conefrey explains the revolutionary thinking involved in climbing in the Himalaya and Karakorum and likened it to the move to climb the great north faces of the Alps, but only after all of the major ridges have been climbed. The notion had been considered reckless by some, and a natural advancement to others. For example, the attempts on the north face of the Eiger was a significant milestone in mountaineering history, but it might as well have been going over Niagara Falls in a barrel to many witnesses at the time.

Overall, The Ghosts of K2 makes the reader feel more intimately involved with the attempts on the mountain, and they are rewarded with some tantalizing new twists about what may have really happened when some great climbers tried to reach the top. After reading it, you might find yourself speculating on the controversies anew at the crag or at the bar.

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10 Awesome Things About Hiking with LITTLE Kids

Young hikers in Arizona (Take a Hike Arizona)

I have two little ones under five. While I’ve slowed down my own ambitions for hiking and climbing, I haven’t let their little legs limit the fun of being outdoors. In fact, focusing on the kids’ experience in nature has made for some experiences that rival some of my adventures in the Adirondacks and even Alaska. They don’t normally get your adrenal gland feeding the machine, but they make you feel just as alive. And isn’t that the whole point?

Here are 10 things that are awesome about hiking with the little ones that I had no idea about just five years ago:

10. You have to smell the roses. They’re slow and see the smallest things, sometimes for the first time.

9. Municipal parks come into their own. I professed to being a trail snob before kids. Now that I am a father a little woods and an urban creek becomes a gateway to sharing nature.

8. You get to teach, and talk about trees, and streams, and maps, and gear, and outdoor basics! Nuff said.

7. They get into packing. Nobody likes packing, except these little guys, and it’s contagious.

6. Rain isn’t a problem, it’s an excuse to wear rain boots and jackets. Go play!

5. Finding trailmarkers can be a game. My Uncle Tom started this one with me, albeit when I was older.

4. Puddles aren’t just mosquito havens. Before we drain them, you have to jump in them.

3. Sticks, stones, and leaves are the attraction. And it can occupy them for a real long time. (So I suggest bringing a nice picnic for you and your spouse.)

2. They’re early risers. I’m a morning person. Big people aren’t always willing to go out an watch the sunrise, but these little buddies will!

1. They make you look at everything with renewed wonder.

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Three Things Climbers Cannot Ignore Much Longer

Ines Papert climbing ice along a fjord near Eiksvag (Thomas Senf)

Did you get the email from the Access Fund asking you to take-part in their survey? It asked two heavy questions, and for me, it revealed three things we cannot pretend isn’t happening.

Question 1: “What do you believe is the most pressing issue the climbing community will face over the next 5 years?”

Movie audience (Emily Barney)

Answer 1: How Climbing and Mountaineering is Portrayed in Major Films

Bad climbing movies may be more than just an irritant. Everest. Vertical Limit. They’re more likely to steer people away from climbing and draw the public’s attention away from the craft involved, the discipline and skills, and the beauty of nature, and sometimes elusive goals. Instead, in movies, climbers that die look obsessed and the survivors like lost souls with regret. None of which tells a truth that can be generalized for all of climbing-dom.

Climbing movies made for a broad audience draw in responses from all walks of life, but the group that sees a high peak and only thinks of cold and discomfort rather than beauty of nature and the nobility of patience and fortitude probably won’t easily get it through a film; we’ll always be “crazy” to them.

Is there anything we can do? Possibly.

When U.S. military veterans were returning from combat in Iraq and Afghanistan they were depicted as battle-weary, likely to be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, and people that were owed something. In some cases that was true, but largely it was not.  It made it difficult for some to get jobs or at least the best jobs for them. Chris Marvin, an army pilot that was shot down and suffered many bodily injuries, returned to civilian life and started the veterans’ advocacy nonprofit Got Your 6, taken from a military phrase about protecting one’s blind spot; its mission was to refocus the public’s image of veterans as a public asset and to do so through a partnership through veterans nonprofit organizations and Hollywood. His effort was seen as successful and I recently invited and met him at a conference to learn more.

Climbing needs some ambassadors to the movie industry to help depict climbing in a more real light. Like the best comedy, where you don’t have to make things up, the best climbing film and stories, even for broad-audience movies, don’t have to be contrived and overly fictionalized (or even darkened) to represent what climbing is really like.

Indoor rock climbing (Claudio Brisighello)

Answer 2: Integrity of Climbing When Transiting to the Outdoors

Climbing has been growing in popularity. (There are a lot of reasons to know this, but I’ll cite just this New Yorker story as the most comprehensive package.) This has been happening for a couple of decades but the last 10 or so years have been different because the attraction of indoor gyms have been leading the way to growth in the United States. And the movement by some to “advance” from gym to crag presents a new set of risks.

While there are efforts by gyms and even climbing groups like the American Alpine Club to educate people transitioning to outdoor climbing presents a unique risk to the activity for all of us.

New outdoor climbers need mentorship and support to ensure safety practices unique to the outdoors are done effectively, etiquette among climbers are maintained among other climbers as well as land holders and managers, and, last but not least, the traditions and history of climbing are passed on to younger climbers.

About traditions and history, it doesn’t surprise me but it bothers me too, that young climbers have no idea who some of the most significant climbers in history are, from Reinhold Messner, Walter Bonatti, to say… Fred Beckey or Tom Frost. These are leaders that set the bar for the expectations of what is possible and our new level of what is our horizon. These historical figures aren’t likely to be forgotten, but they seem to be easily dismissed or taken for granted.

Regarding etiquette and safety, efforts appear to be underway, but this singular concern, may have the broadest reach to affect all climbers. A few bad practices, a poor headline at the wrong time, could ruin access and costs for all of us.

Question 2:  “If you could change one thing about the Access Fund, what would it be?”

Hard hat climbing helmet (Darren)

Answer: Promote the Development of Concussion Protective Climbing Helmets

I wore a yellow hard hat when I was a college kid working for my father’s general contracting business. My climbing helmet, which was the old version of the Half Dome from Black Diamond, was the same thing except with a chin strap. Like my hard hat, it was great to protect my skull and brain from hard falling objects. But if I ever took a whipper by head would be mostly unprotected from the jolts and my brain was squish to one side, hopefully unscathed.

But that’s the thing, as this article in Climbing magazine said, no climbing helmet on the market protects us from the injuries of a concussion. Skiing has gone from no skier wearing a helmet to nearly everyone wearing fully protective — including head trauma — helmets in a mere few years. Much research and science has gone into the development of better preventative equipment and treatment for concussions thanks to professional team sports like American football, hockey, and other sports. We should join in.

If the climbing community, or its leaders (such as the helmet manufacturers), guide services, and land managers, required better helmets we’d all be safer.

The risk and adventure of climbing will still be ever present, but by reducing the risk of the potentially years-long or life-altering concussion injury.

Your Job

Whether these are really tasks for the Access Fund or some other organization like the AAC or AMGA, I don’t know. What I do know is that all of us that care about these things must speak up and say these three things are important.

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Why Do We Climb Indoors?

That’s a lot of climbing (and ice) gear for Kansas City!

I was waiting for the dentist and a headline on the cover of the October issue of Outside magazine caught my eye: “The Most Hated Men in Climbing.”

I don’t read Outside, mainly on principle. It’s headlines are made to make you pick it up and turn the pages, and I rarely feel edified for the content. When I finally found the article, which was under a completely different headline (damn it!), the most hated men turned out to be route setters at indoor gyms.

To a greater surprise, I kept reading. I’ve always climbed in gyms, but only recently embraced indoor climbing as a way for me to climb more regularly. Wait, no, accept it is a better word than embrace. I love mountains, not plastic. I get excited about snow and ice, sometimes big walls, but not warehouses separated from valleys and vistas. Still, I was getting into the article. What’s wrong with me?

Climbing Mystery

I just got back from a business trip to the greater Kansas City area in the American Midwest, which is one of those destinations that’s known for being flat. I met with a Kansas public official who has spent a lot of time in my home in the Washington, DC area and he said the biggest difference between there and Kansas was how we measure time: In Kansas they talk about miles driven, but in DC it’s about minutes spent in traffic jams. After covering 200-plus miles driving at mostly 70 mph in three days, I got it.

As with every trip, I try to squeeze in a little hiking or climbing, and these days all of the climbing is indoors. Still, I have found some interesting gyms. I liked the Great Western Power Company in Oakland, California. I was surprised that the greater Miami, Florida area had one well-kept gym let alone its two gyms. Kansas City has three. The greater Washington, DC area where I live has five. My hometown in Upstate New York only had one (albeit the Adirondacks and Gunks weren’t too far away either, so they probably weren’t needed).

I spent time in both the Kansas and Missouri side of Kansas City, but the Climbing Business Journal had an interesting story recently about how Kansas, which is one of America’s flattest states, has opened several indoor climbing gyms. This was a surprise to me; usually gyms open nearby traditional outdoor climbing destinations, so climbers can train regardless of the season or the weather. But the Midwest — America’s heartland — it seemed like a bit that there was something drawing people in that I didn’t understand.

Gritty and Underground

I stumbled upon a MooseJaw outfitter by happenstance after a meeting with the local Habitat for Humanity leaders, and saw a peg wall stocked high and wide with ‘biners, cams, slings and even a modest selection of ice tools. It turned out that the previous store manager was a native of Kansas City and he climbed ice. He recently took a promotion and moved to Chicago, but the gear was still prominently featured. It was then that I realized something about geography about Kansas City that I hadn’t thought about from living in Washington, DC — the Colorado Rockies weren’t really that far from Kansas City; less than nine hours away by car.

I didn’t have time to go to Colorado, so I asked about the local gyms. Ibex was the area’s full-service gym with long, high routes. The Cave, on the other hand, was a bit “gritty.” It’s what he said next that told me I had to check it out: “You have to take an elevator to get to it because it’s underground.”

So I found directions to the The Cave. and the instructions on the website said, “Take the elevator down and follow the signs.” The elevator entrance stood alone in a parking lot and the inside had two signs. The first you couldn’t miss: “No Climbing: Please Help Us Keep Our Elevator Clean and Safe.” The other was smaller and said something urging riders to enjoy the ride down 10 stories underground.

After walking through a labyrinth of hallways, I was signing my waiver. I asked the guy, a 20-something running the place solo, what these tunnels were built for. He promptly replied, “It was a mine.” I said really? “Yeah, I mean it must be. What else could it be for?”

The facility, called Dean’s Downtown Underground, was actually built by Lester Dean, Sr. in 1954 with the help of a lot of surplus government explosives. He purchased land that had an incomplete railway tunnel that was started in 1873, drained it and got to work.

The gym had a plastic cave, 14-foot bouldering walls, a climbing treadmill, and a slackline setup. They used the standard V-scale but also had their own “VB” scale for beginners; I think it only went to VB2 before going to V0. I wasn’t too impressed by the 14-foot walls, though they managed to compress a lot of routes in a small space.

The cave was the gem. Well padded. Overhanging. And deep; it felt like the cave at it’s farthest point went about 15 feet in, which meant the wall was a ceiling.

The best part about The Cave was the other climbers. They were focused, knowledgeable, and very funny. I was about 15-years older than most of them and they even made me feel welcome and comfortable. But, then again, that was how I felt almost everywhere in Kansas City.

We Need Hobbies

Just before going to Kansas City, I took family my family apple picking near Shenandoah. Near Front Royal we passed the a warehouse that’s been there forever that has been the local Crossfit gym. It had a new banner this season: “Need a Hobby?” Maybe that was what was wrong with me.

I’ve read that climbing gyms are very popular among 20-somethings because of the appeal of the socialization. But I have recognized, that it’s a sport that encourages participation over excellence, even though excellence is a natural goal. It’s also an action sport that requires more socialization and more interaction and trust than say mountain biking or paddle sports.

The other thing is the nature of adventure. Yes, you can’t have adventure without the unknown, and the walls in a gym seem pretty obvious. But the unknown is personal performance, and trudging past your own fear. For me, it’s more adventure than I ever got playing soccer or basketball.

We need hobbies, and if that hobby offers some adventure… well, maybe that’s what gets us climbing indoors these days.

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A Review of ‘The Calling’ by Barry Blanchard


The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains by Barry Blanchard (2014) from Patagonia Books is a finalist for the prestigious Boardman Tasker Prize in Mountaineering Literature. As in it made the short, shortlist. Previous winners were Jules Lines’ Tears of the Dawn, Harriet Tuckey’s Everest, The First Ascent, and Bernadette McDonald’s Freedom ClimbersThe Calling is a worthy peer.

The Calling is Blanchard’s autobiography. He is an alpinist with a titanium will and a gentle touch. Although we have never met (though we have corresponded recently,) I would not have latched onto climbing the way I had without his influence.

I first learned about Barry when I was a newly minted ice climber in college. Steve House was one of my heroes and he wrote about how anyone in North America who wanted to train hard for big mountains needed to train in the Canadian Rockies. (House was actually referring to an article by Mark Twight, but I didn’t get that subtle detail at the time.) Training in the Rockies meant getting beta from or climbing with “Bubba,” a.k.a. Barry Blanchard.

I started collecting references to and anecdotes about Blanchard, mostly from articles involving House. This was before everything about climbing was on the Internet, and I on wasn’t social media yet (and I doubt Blanchard wasn’t either). I’ve since lost it, but I used to have a photo from a magazine of a grey-pony tailed Blanchard look at slides from behind a projector. I daydreamed about the line he might have been contemplating.

Through the snippets I managed to snag about Blanchard, I was never disappointed. He always had more more thing to up his own accomplishments. From his dirtbag climbs in the Alps, his youthful solo ice climbs in the Canadian Rockies, and his still legendary ascent of North Twin, he just kept going. Denali. Nanga Parbat. He climbed ice so thin it impressed his peers of his day. He lived.

Blanchard’s autobiography is told to tell a good story, and it’s doubtful that it needed any embellishment. There are also moments of jocular humor that you only get from a bunch of grown men hanging out. Then there were moments that would make you pause and those that made you sad, a little upset, and need a drink.

His book also explains his family background in colorful detail. How his mother was abused and how he was helpless to save her. He raged and was forced to rage inside, alone. He hurt, but he doesn’t seem to mourn anything in his tale; rather he seems to grieve but with a great deal of acceptance. And he hurt for those that hurt, including his sister and his brother, from being poor, and a lost.

Discovering climbing seems to have saved him and given him skills and self-purpose. Interestingly, he became determined to be a climber though he was growing up in the flattest part of Alberta that was absolutely peakless. He bused, walked, and hitch hiked to the mountains whenever he didn’t have to work or help his family.

It seems that through the tough times in Blanchard’s life, he learned to see the joy of good hard work and things that were precious. When the story reflected at a quiet time during a bivy on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, Blanchard was romantic:

We were four men in the prime of their lives who’d all pursued their love of alpine climbing as if it were an art form. We believed that we painted lines on these magnificent mountain walls. Shigri was beautiful, seductive, and virgin.

But the other thing that Blanchard does well, especially for a new reader diving into mountaineering literature for their first or second time, is showing how consuming climbing can be and how, if we choose, commitment to climbing — and alpinism in particular — can yield satisfaction of being. After he and his friends, adopted the ideas of Reinhold Messner in his book The Seventh Grade, they immediately applied it to their approach to a climb as a matter of almost religious faith:

We called it “pure alpine style” and our unwavering belief in it defined us as “alpinists.” Alpinism was the most important aspect to our lives, our fountainhead. We believed in it, and the mountain, unconditionally.

I got into climbing for a lot of reasons, but David Roberts book, and Steve House’s “introduction” of Barry Blanchard to me drove me deeper into curiosity about climbing, its culture and its history. When I started this blog and joined Twitter, I was surprised that Bubba was one of my earliest followers. Flattered might be a better description. But that’s the kind of guy he is; welcoming and self-confident.

All climbing stories can be told we went up, we arrived (or we didn’t arrive,) and we went down. Maybe something went wrong along the way. But if all climbs were as boring as that we wouldn’t read them. We wouldn’t even climb. It’s only through the writer’s perspective, and the events he/she chooses to share and when, that tell a story worth reading.

Blanchard is a hero to some of us, but he’s also a very likable guy. His book is as likable as he is. And his stories are better than I gathered in bits in pieces years ago. Blanchard lays sits himself next to the reader and asks, so what do you want to know and he didn’t hold anything back, and I felt like a better person for it.

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