The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott

Inaccurate but pretty Yosemite Valley. (All rights reserved)

On a towering and drenched flank of granodiorite in Borneo, Mark Synnott led an expedition that included his trusted friends Conrad Anker and Jimmy Chin, and begrudgingly a 24-year-old Alex Honnold too. Honnold’s historic first free solo of Half Dome the year before was fresh on everyone’s minds, and Anker talked Synnott into adding Honnold at the last minute. Synnott, then 40, was concerned about having an inexperienced and arrogant prodigy on his team. Still, Anker pleaded with Synnott, acknowledging the need for options on this adventure climb: “He can be our secret weapon.” But when they reached the walls, Synnott thought his preconception of this reckless climber was proven true when Honnold told Synnott he didn’t bring a helmet because, “Uhhh… I don’t actually own a helmet.”

Mark Synnott’s irritation with Honnold grew into curiosity during that expedition to Mt. Kinabalu. In the end, however, Honnold borrowed a helmet, and after several soggy nights in a porta-ledge, pulled off a key move – a dyno – for the team’s dramatic route completion. But for Synnott, there were many puzzles remaining.

Synnott wondered what Honnold was capable of, and, at the same time, when he would have “the wake-up call” when climbers pull back the throttle on the risks they take. So when Synnott learned Honnold was committing himself to the greatest first free solo ascent in history, he began to write his new book, The Impossible Climb: Alex Honnold, El Capitan, and the Climbing Life, published by Dutton in March 2019.

In writing this book, Synnott wanted to answer a question underlying the wonder most share in watching Honnold climb without a rope. Even Honnold’s autobiography, Alone on the Wall, (which he wrote with David Roberts,) and even the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo did not fully respond: Was Honnold a unique freak-of-nature or a human like the rest of us? And, if he was indeed human, what can the rest of us learn from him?

You might have seen some harsh criticisms – nearly dismissals – of Synnott’s book in the Wall Street Journal and The New York Times promptly after it was released. Don’t believe them; Synnott didn’t miss the mark, they did. Gregory Crouch argued in the Times that Synnott, and even Honnold, should have done a better job of teasing out the deeper truths of climbing, particularly staring death in its face. However, this is always the attempt in a lot of climbing literature, and Crouch should know as a climber that this is rarely accomplished by anyone, including Reinhold Messner, except for perhaps David Roberts.

Blair Braverman, in the Journal, attacked the whole book on the premise that Synnott was sexist. It appears to be true, and more valid than Crouch’s criticism, but the story remains. In addition, while Synnott uses some “casually” objectifying language, of the two instances she cites one was superfluous to the thesis but the other was not about Synnott’s perspective but rather illustrating Honnold’s own character and womanizing behavior.

Synnott starts his book by providing a general audience with a strategic overview of climbing culture and risk starting with his initial foray into a thrill-seeking approach to rock climbing, and introducing the reader to legendary free soloists like Jon Bachar, Peter Croft, and Dean Potter. Synnott also sheds light into what it is like to climb with the watchful eyes of the virtual audiences through social media and film crews. Synnott lead one of the first expeditions to the Karakoram that required he and his team, including Alex Lowe, to lug a laptop to draft “dispatches” to basecamp that would be posted on the sponsor’s blog.

The Impossible Climb by Mark Synnott

Although the second half was clearly written while the effort to document the events that are now famously captured in Free Solo were underway, Synnott also brings the reader the backstory of events and considers Honnold’s humanity. Synnott goes beyond how the documentary film crew risked disrupting his climbing, but also how it did affect his own mental game, including one instance where the filming disrupted his relationship with his girlfriend. Synnott investigates further into Honnolds’ approach to fear and whether his amygdala – the supposed fear center within the brain – which Honnold’s has been shown to be inactive, and seriously considers whether that is actually unusual or even if it matters at all.

The Impossible Climb also looks back to key moments of Alex Honnold’s progression in free soloing. He considers a period in 2015, when Alex Honnold felt unusually alone after the death of Dean Potter. Since Honnold free soloed Half Dome seven years earlier he had created a vacuum to insulate him from distractions and foster his greater climbing ambitions. But perhaps it wasn’t actually an insulated vacuum, as he thought. On May 16th Dean Potter died with Graham Hunt in a wingsuit accident in Yosemite. Potter was first a childhood hero to Honnold and later, as Honnold pushed his limits, a rival in free soloing as Honnold pushed more limits. Just days before Potter’s accident, however, they had dinner together in Yosemite, marking a new step in their complicated relationship. With Potter suddenly gone, Honnold’s paradigm was broken. Honnold felt alone and, according to Synnott, an unprecedented pressure to perform on rock – believe it or not – like he had never actually felt before.

Further puzzling over Honnold’s capacity to free solo El Capitan, Synnott compares free soloists to elite circus tightrope walkers who walk a high line without a safety net, often climbing on a partner’s shoulders. He discovers a powerful parallel to how they and Honnold approach their craft without a safety net, and provides a glimpse for anyone that might want to learn from them; ultimately, we all chose who we are and at what level we perform.

Whether we as readers consider Honnold in wonder or chastisement, The Impossible Climb presents enough evidence and new perspectives about Honnold to make a new judgment about his special strengths. For himself, Synnott concluded Honnold is not a freak-of-nature but is indeed human like the rest of us. His life is not about facing and overcoming challenges or even fear, but merely facing choices.

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A Few Feet Short by Jamey Glasnovic

The Himalaya in Glasnovic’s A Few Feet Short.

Before Jamey Glasnovic headed back to Nepal and the Himalayas, this time alone with his bicycle, he wrote what I had started to think:

What of course could be more important than living an adventurous and fulfilling life?

The answer, of course, is work. A dirty, four-letter word if there ever was one… If you grow up in middle class in the Western world, certain expectations become a part of your every-day life, whether you like it or not.

Jamey Glasnovic wrote bout his second visit to Nepal and the Himalayas in his new book A Few Feet Short: An Uncommon Journey to Everest, published by Rocky Mountain Books in 2018. After visiting Nepal several years earlier, Glasnovic had been facing health and life challenges leaving him lost at home adrift among the Western middle-class. Begrudgingly, at first, he packed a few key things, including his bike, and flew to Kathmandu to wander the towns and the hills leading up to the base of tallest mountain in the world.

Glasnovic decided to take this journey right before he turned 46. I turned 40 earlier this week. Although 40 is a milestone, age 45 is the time when many Western middle class men start to face a mid-life crisis. Glasnovic clearly faced one, and I hope to avoid one; Glasnovic’s advice is to slow down and live deliberately, not necessarily conforming to the prescribed path of culture. That’s why Glasnovic went to Nepal. I’m taking notes.

Glasnovic was a bar tender with rising blood pressure heading him down the path toward a stroke or heart attack. His doctor asked him if he had some non-alcoholic beer at the bar. Glasnovic replied that it wouldn’t be as much fun. It just took time to realize he needed a lifestyle change.

Slowly, Glasnovic changed his attitude and agreed: living and living meaningfully were two different things. While he could go “all-guns-a-blazin'” with his friends at the bar or trying to make every day the best day of his life by more and more thrills, to the detriment of his wallet and his health, he decided he needed to do something different.

Nepal took on a practical and romantic meaning for Glasnovic. He appreciated the landscape, the people, and — now — how different it was from his current lifestyle. But in going, going to visit wasn’t enough. He needed a challenge. He needed something to make this life journey a quest. So he wouldn’t just visit the landmarks via car and bus, or even a pied, no, he’d ride his bicycle. He was also certain it hadn’t been done before.

If I didn’t take Glasnovic so seriously, and didn’t empathize with his life changes so much, I would have laughed more early in the book; he was quite funny about his reluctance to actually ride across Nepal. It was cynical. It was also anything but positive. It was funny, but underlying all that it was also sad.

Of course, part of the plan of his journey riding from Kathmandu to Everest base camp was a change of scenery and take a slower pace than back home. As he struggled with the anxiety of the journey, he did have time and procrastination was convenient. But he still had to shift his approach to tell himself to slow down, relax, the town isn’t going anywhere. His bike trek isn’t going anywhere.

After he wandered Kathmandu for several days, visiting the tourist-congested neighborhoods and the lesser known and places the foreigners rarely see, he started pedaling. He took in funeral tradition at river, the likes we never see in the Western world. The deceased are wrapped in colorful cloth, dressed in flowers, and carried on a stretcher to the Bagmati River. There the deceased are burned to ashes in front of the whole family and gathering. It was hardly a private affair; Glasnovic could just stop and watch, meanwhile the traffic along the path by the river simply routed every else around.

The traffic, when it wasn’t merely manic, it was curiously reckless. Many rode motor bikes, and while the drivers wore helmets, well… why don’t the passengers?

As Glasnovic pedeled for days uphill toward Everest, he began to finally appreciate the journey, despite the pain and aches as his body found a new groove. Nepal was poor. Nepalese didn’t have much. Nepalese worked hard. And they were joyful. Perhaps he didn’t want to get too intimate to find out the outlook for the Nepalese, but he’s convinced they had a lesson for someone like him.

Glasnovic argues that Nepal has it hard, but maybe they have a lesson for we Western adventurers and Western middle-class workers, both in our rush to the Himalayas, Rockies, Alps, or even to our jobs. Maybe the problem is how we measure everything:

We measure distance in time, not miles or kilometres. Speeding up the experience of travel has changed how we view each trip. Movement becomes about the intervening period to the destination, and the ground covered loses significance. The focus is on being here and getting there, and te details simply pass us in a blur.

I recommend A Few Feet Short. I don’t recommend it because of Glasnovic’s journey, but because he helps open eyes. We ought to be aware of what norms are cultural and pushed on us, not to rebel, but to know what inside and outside us hold us back from being at peace.

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Not All Climbing Books Are About Disasters

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Broken snow. (All rights reserved)

I am grateful for Jimmy Chin’s film Free Solo about Alex Honnold’s ascent of Free Rider for one big reason. Of course, I think his film Meru was better and more representative of great climbing (and I am biased toward alpine climbing anyway.) Free Solo has given the nonclimbing and novice climbing audience a new reference point for climbing. They understand the risk differently than even before the 60 Minutes piece about Alex Honnold.

But on the flip side of this coin, I can’t tell if this novice climbing audience understands that Alex Honnold’s exploits in Free Solo were still outliers among climbers of the future. Well, they probably do and recognize that Honnold is unique. Well, I guess it won’t help people to continue to mistake El Cap for the biggest big wall in North America (it’s not, in case you were wondering.)

What I appreciate more, for being widely well-known, is Tommy Caldwell’s and Kevin Jorgeson’s free ascent of the Dawn Wall on El Cap. It’s also more representative of climbing in general. It was a multi-year project. It required years of honed skills. It was not merely about being an extreme outlier. And thanks to a very slow news cycle after Christmas in 2015, the whole country knew of their climb and heard something about the now infamous boulder problem.

But that’s all mountain films and climbing news. Mountaineering and climbing literature has some challenges, and yet really shouldn’t. The mountaineering and climbing genre has some of the most amazing literature in the world and yet, the nonclimbing and novice climbing audience still hasn’t gotten past the tragedies:  The first book about climbing and mountaineering they often think about is Jon Kraukauer’s 1997 book Into Thin Air. It is “tell-all” book exploiting the tragedy of the 1996 disaster on Mount Everest where eight climbers, mostly guided clients, died.

In fact, when new acquaintances learn about my blog they often tell me about how they read Into Thin Air and how it moved them. I think that’s great. No, I am not being sarcastic; I genuinely do. Good climbing books are powerful and insightful about humanity, what we are capable of doing, and finding dignity despite our weaknesses. However, in all seriousness, if they don’t cite Into Thin Air, it’s one of these titles…

  • The Climb by Anatoli Boukreev (1997)
  • The Naked Mountain by Reinhold Messner (2002)
  • Forever on the Mountain by James Tabor (2007)
  • One Mountain Thousand Summits by Freddie Wilkison (2010)
  • No Way Down by Graham Bowley (2010)
  • The Last Man on the Mountain by Jennifer Jordan (2010)
  • Denali’s Howl by Andy Hall (2014)
  • Surviving Logan by Erik Bjarnason and Cathi Shaw (2016)

And there are still miscategorizations of the climbing disaster genre. Just look at this list from Good Reads.

They know these stories because they heard about the event in the news, or even (gulp) Outside Magazine, and decide to pick it up. Unfortunately, they have only scratched the surface of climbing books.

The majority of climbing books are not about disasters. In fact, I’d argue that a disaster is not the prerequisite for a good or even a great climbing book. I have read what critics have called the best or greatest climbing books and articles and I think the best are biographical or auto-biographical and introspective stories of a climb or a life climbing. A good character, a wild landscape, and a transformational journey — that’s worth reading.

I think you might argue that Into Thin Air did those things, and in some ways it did. But there were better ones. Here are five just off the top of my head (sorry if I repeat these too often):

  • The Mountain of My Fear by David Roberts (1968)
  • Art of Freedom by Bernadette McDonald (2017)
  • The Tower by Kelly Cordes (2014)
  • Honouring High Places by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe (2018)
  • Beyond the Mountain by Steve House (2009)

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Contraindications by Alison Criscitiello Nominated for Banff Article Award

Squamish bouldering (All rights reserved)

The Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival is in the fourth year of going beyond honoring great films and books to also awarding great mountaineering articles. This year there are four finalists that are all outstanding, but for different reasons.

James Edward Mills wrote “The Force of the Soul” in the Alpinist 60 to profile a racially significant, yet underrated climber named Hughes Beauzille. Andrew Allport wrote “Suicides and Pirates” in the March 2018 issue of The Climbing Zine, which was a personal tour of the climbing life that I have since reread twice (making a total of three reads.) Ed Douglas wrote “The Other Annapurna” in the July 2018 issue of Rock and Ice, which goes into a significant climb on Annapurna’s South Face by Yannick Graziani and Stéphane Benoist that was overshadowed by the frenzy around another alpinist on the same face (sorry, there is no link to the article available.)

Alison Criscitiello wrote the most haunting of the finalists in “Contraindications” in Alpinist 59.

As Alison points out in her bio, she loves the cold. To make a living, Alison is a glaciologist and Technical Director of the Canadian Ice Core lab at University of Alberta. She also serves as a climbing ranger for Parks Canada and has guided expeditions to peaks in the Andes, Alaska, and the Himalaya. Her track record and consistency has also earned her grants to help her climb professionally, including the 2016 Mugs Stump Award (here is the announcement from Alpinist), which she received with her climbing partner Anna Smith, to attempt Brahmasar II and The Fortress in the Garhwal Himalaya, India. That’s where Alison’s bio stops and where “Contraindications” takes over.

Alison opens with several anecdotes, that, if like me, upon first reading, you don’t know why these stories of she and Anna in the mountains are so important to what is about to happen. We learn how close they were, and how much Alison deeply admired Anna. Alison’s prose in each one are both precise and mysterious — precise in that I can see and feel the cold air and pine trees below, but I feel like we’re destined to see a spirit.

Her language is precise in illustrating through examples how different she and Anna were. Before they leave for their big expedition to the Garhwal Himalaya, Anna texts Alison to say how nervous she was. Alison replies even if they didn’t make any summits, she would guard Anna’s life like a sister, and she would still be happy. Anna texted back: “Oh, I’ll get over it.” Was it the nervousness or the summit? But Alison successfully established their bond.

In the Garhwal, Alison and Anna had to change their objective because of the effects of the monsoon on their destination. After consulting Freddie Wilkinson, who had established “daring” new routes in the region a few years earlier, they headed for the Himachal Pradesh, sheltered from the monsoon where, according to Wilkinson, there was “alpine gnar galore.”

As the two of them had done dozens of times in less remote locales for years, Alison and Anna went into the backcountry seeking unknown objectives. Here, Alison tells us of examples of what I think we all do when we go to new places a little excited but completely unfamiliar, we think of comforts: ” I felt as though I were rising through layers of dreams. Flashes of home life — turning on the kettle for coffee, watering the jade plant that sits on my pine desk — came vibrantly to mind, then faded away.”

After arriving at their advanced base camp they started to advance to the peaks, but Anna lips turned white and turned short of breath then vomited. It looked like AMS. They started to descend back to ABC, but it became clear that it was ketoacidocis — complications of diabetes. For three days, Alison watched Anna as she “shuffled around slowly in a thirty-foot radius of our base camp tent.”

It’s a tragedy, but here’s where I will let you read the article for yourself, but with this one passage:

At night, I shattered into the landscape. Images of Anna — skipping across the river ahead of me, watching tennis and eating sesame bagels in Canmore, shaking the tent on Mt. Robson with laughter, running and climbing and drinking whiskey in Skaha — suddenly lost shape and faded, and I descended into murky, bogged woods where a shape-shifting threat waited behind an oak tree at night, hiding something behind its back. Terrified of getting out of my sleeping bag, I talked to Anna and clenched tiny prayer flags in my fist. I repeated Om mani padme hum for hours until the sun rose, dim auburn on the horizon. My only true belief is in science. It is absolutely absurd and out of my character that I was chanting. I did anything I could to distract my mind.

I had to look up contraindications in the dictionary. It’s mainly used in medicine and is the opposite of indications, as in indicating and directing the use of a particular medicine. But contraindications are the signs that point to not using medicine. After Alison sent messages to Anna’s mother and Anna’s partner from base camp, Alison contemplates the hardest question of love and risk: “What, really, was contraindicated? Oxygen-starved alpine objectives and a family and community at home held close? Climbing and falling in love?”

I read all four finalists, and I think Alison Criscitiello’s “Contraindications” in Alpinist 59 is deserving of the Banff article award. Read it for yourself and let me know what you thought, email, send me a message; I’m not hard to reach.

For a little more background on Anna Smith and her final visit to the mountains, the CBC published this online article with several photos that also appeared in Alpinist.

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Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei

2018 Banff Mountain Book Competition Nominee, Tabei’s and Rolfe’s Honouring High Places.

When my friend Rick Wood was still working at Rocky Mountain Books, the mountain book publisher in British Columbia, he and I exchanged emails about some of their upcoming projects. The one he was most excited about he couldn’t talk about, at least not yet. He just said: just wait!

Several months later what I was waiting for arrived in my mailbox. It was a significant new book for the publisher and the English language as a whole. Helen Y. Rolfe worked with texts from Junko Tabei, whom Rolfe knew, to bring Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei to life. It was written by Junko Tabei and Helen Y. Rolfe and translated by Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved (Victoria, BC: Rocky Mountain Books 2017.) Although we all know that she was the first woman to reach the top of Mount Everest and the first woman to complete the seven summits (the Puncak Jaya or Messner version,) there was less context for the challenges she overcame to accomplish so many great climbs.

What shined through Honouring High Places is Tabei’s spirit, which was extremely aware of herself and everything and everyone around her. And she wanted everyone to share in what she saw in the world, though she seemed to encourage it by urging her readers to go outside and explore new challenges for themselves.

Tabei wrote about how her birth in Fukushima Prefecture, a rural community, first distinguished her among her urban classmates in the city, later in life. She had a country girl accent, which stood out. She was also the dreamer, yet conscious of everyone’s limited imagination: When her women’s mountaineering club was organizing an expedition to Mount Everest, Tabei writes: “A common response was: ‘Wow! Himalayas! I would love to go, even just to see Everest.’ Then, ‘But … I don’t have that much skill, or time, or money….,’ and so on. I found it difficult to hear people crush their dreams with the word ‘but,'” (Tabei 128.) In fact, her attitude of “I will go on” without any excuse or any “but” to offer was her hallmark.

There was a disproportionate amount of chapters on the Everest expedition, for my taste. While it is what she is most known for, the other seven summits were much less encumbered with expedition and media politics; perhaps for that there really was more to tell; there certainly was more drama. Learning about her roots in the country, to trying to come to form in the big city, and navigating the mountaineering clubs hierarchy, was the most unique and enriching part of her story.

Rolfe bound together Tabei’s writings from several sources and leveraged Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved as translators to get to, what Rolfe understood to be, Tabei’s original tone and intent, regardless of the change of language. While previous interviews with Tabei have an affectionate and admiring tone, here Tabei’s energy and everlasting enthusiasm and observations left this reader impressed by the contrast to previous works, as well as feeling ready for my next challenge, regardless what the final outcome might be (Tabei’s enthusiasm is infectious, even in the written word.)

Tabei’s and Rolfe’s work with Yumiko Hiraki and Rieko Holtved has since been nominated in two prestigious competitions: Banff Mountain Book Competition (literature-nonfiction category), and the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature.

It’s a significant book that deserves a place on your bookshelf.

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What I Am Reading Now and the Right Sized Home Town

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Quite a week when all this arrived, plus another book just weeks earlier. (All rights reserved.)

I recently visited Portland, Maine for the first time on my way to take-in some trails further northeast. I really enjoyed the restaurants in and around South Portland in particular. I have always heard great things about the city (and they’re all true,) but I couldn’t help but compare it to Lancaster, Pennsylvania. After much thought, Portland felt bigger than Lancaster, making Lancaster the ideal size for me. When I looked up the population, Portland had just 10,000 more people; I guess that’s my tipping point.

When I do need a “big city” (which I actually don’t,) I go back and visit friends in the Washington, DC area where I moved from. In fact, I’m hoping one of my climbing writing friends who has a Banff Mountain Book Competition book on the 2018 shortlist will be visiting those of you in DC very soon to do a book reading and signing. I recommended the usual event spaces for things like that, like Patagonia Georgetown, the new (is it still “new”?) REI flagship store, or one of the climbing gyms; I urged him to go to my favorite, Sportrock Alexandria. We’ll see and I’ll update everyone on Facebook and Twitter.

Well, I thought as I haven’t posted in a little while that I would start by updating you on what’s on my list. No award nominees right now. I hope to have a few new book reviews for you this fall, including a book that was just released from Rocky Mountain Books. I’ll let you know when I have that.

Alpinist 63 — Always stop, drop everything else, and read Alpinist. In this issue, Pete Tekeda completes the lengthy Mountain Profile on Nanda Devi. And I must admit to be being a sucker for stories about the supposed edge or future of alpinism, and I think Jumbo Yokoyama’s article on K7 West fits the bill. I am also really excited to see so many bylines in 63 that I haven’t read before.

The Glorious Mountains of Vancouver’s North Shore: A Peakbagger’s Guide by David Crerar, Harry Crerar, and Bill Maurer, published by Rocky Mountain Books (2018) — I love the Coast Range and I liked Vancouver very much when Natalie and I visited in 2008, just when their Winter Olympics were building up. This guidebook is bright, beautiful, and sets expectations for every reader by providing the traditional narrative (thought the print is a bit small) and a fantastic bullet summary made for bona fide peak baggers. It makes it simple to consider and compare to other mountains: The guide gives warnings, rates things out of five like “bang for buck” and “peak view,” and — I love this — says where there is and is not reliable cell coverage. Of course trails and mountaintops that overlook the sea are pretty compelling by themselves. Go get a copy and buy a plane ticket!

Blisters and Bliss: A Trekkers Guide to the West Coast Trail by David Foster and Wayne Aitken, Illustrated by Nelson Dewey 6th edition, published by B&B Publishing (2010) — The first edition was out in 1989 and it has quite the following, even if you haven’t or don’t plan to hike this short trail. The West Coast Trail is a relatively short, but complicated obstacle course, with a variation along the “beach” and the woods in some portions. Unlike other hiking trails, you need a tide chart and a watch to safely navigate this trail. The guidebook is sometimes tongue-in-cheek with comments and illustrations that never take itself too seriously. I just finished and highly recommend it.

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The current reading stack. (All rights reserved.)

2018 American Alpine Journal, 2018 Accidents in North American Climbing, and the American Alpine Club’s 2018 Guidebook to Membership — Members of the American Alpine Club receive this all around the beginning-to-mid-August. the 2018 Guidebook to Membership is the sixth they’ve published and is part magazine, part program directory, and part annual report and is surprisingly anything but dull. I’ll be digging into the new AAJ and ANAC in the next few weeks.

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