The Short Long List of Books

Winter in the Adirondacks. (All rights reserved)

So here is my list of books.

It started as a mere 36 titles in December which grew to about 60 in January, and now, a month later, it stands at 98 books. It’s no longer a list of just classics, but books that could be modern classics, and ones that are trendy or influential, and those that simply interest me. The goal, as I mentioned in my previous post, is to help me be more intentional and satisfied in my reading.

I reviewed all of my clippings in Evernote and my notebooks with book recommendations, names of authors, and then looked over Banff Mountain Book Competition winners in the Mountain Literature category, and winners of the Boardman Tasker Award. Then I removed books that didn’t interest me and I did not think, from what I knew about it, would be a classic or modern classic. I could always change my mind.

To get myself started, I then looked over the list at what excited me most and decided to focus on those. I will either obtain them from a library, my local bookstore (not a chain,) or Top of the World Books in Vermont. My short list — the start of a tick list — was supposed to be 10 titles, but I decided to include both of Nick Bullock’s books and Andy Kirkpatrick’s books, so it came to a rounded list of 10:

  1. Annapurna South Face by Chris Bonnington (1971)
  2. Tides by Nick Bullock (2019)
  3. Echoes by Nick Bullock (2012)
  4. Minus 148 Degrees by Art Davidson (1969)
  5. The White Spider by Heinrich Harrer (1959)
  6. Espresso Lessons by Arno Iglner and Jeff Achey (2009)
  7. Psychovertical by Andy Kirkpatrick (2008)
  8. Cold Wars by Andy Kirkpatrick (2011)
  9. Found by Bree Loewen (2017)
  10. The Bond by Simon McCartney (2016)
  11. The Villain by Jim Perrin (2005)

While I was developing the list I have been reading Found by Bree Loewen (2017) as I knew it would make my list and I already owned a copy.

If you look at the spreadsheet I included, I have a handful of obscure titles about Alaska. I love Alaska, so my list has another bias regarding the state’s mountain adventures.

During this project, which will take years, I am still going to read Alpinist Magazine, books on fundraising, management, social issues, and fiction but the books on this list are part of a different quest. I am seeking their insight about climbing, humanity, and drawing on the power they felt among the mountains. And it is not romantic bullshit. As Amrita Dhar, professor in English at the Ohio State University at Newark, said, “Mountaineering is the most literary of all sports.” We go, we come back, we write and the best writing is the introspective that borders on the metaphysical. It’s a theme that has been done by hundreds of climbing writers and it makes the best climbing stories. And most interestingly, it’s unprompted. We haven’t been taught how to write about climbing, but those of us that have been brave enough to go into the mountains have come back talking deeply about our humanity.

One day I hope to make a list of what would be the must-reads, having read many of them. I will probably add to my list of 98 and maybe even remove a few to keep the list manageable. But regardless, I hope to learn from the writers and apply it to my own more modest mountain adventures. I will keep you posted on how it goes.

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My Strategy for Fulfilling Reading in the Year of the Rat

Annapurna 1952 Color-Gravure of Lionel Terray at fixed rope above Camp II.

While I am considering better ways to satisfy my climbing reading interests this year, it’s a funny coincidence that we are in the year of the rat. The year of the rat is about demonstrating inquisitiveness, shrewdness, and resourcefulness. I read a lot in 2019, but I don’t think it was entirely fulfilling; perhaps some rat characteristics will help me.

In 2019, I read 18 books and all four Alpinist issues, which is a book unto itself. That was more books than I read in 2018 or 2017. However, I read far fewer climbing-related books last year, which saddens me because there are a lot of climbing books on my “short list.” In fact, you won’t be surprised that one of my ambitions is to become extremely well-versed in climbing literature.

So isn’t this as simple as just reading more climbing books in 2020? Well, no. Reading more has been my strategy for years, but I rarely look back and feel that the books I read helped me make progress toward my goal. And at times the book, while germane in scope, was not especially moving, though it was unique in its story. In fact, the long-form articles in Alpinist Magazine are more consistently stirring. So now, at the beginning of 2020, I realize that my standards and hopes have risen.

I have read 80 to 100 books (I think) about mountaineering, climbing, the mountains, and skills. However, the quality and enjoyment has been mixed. My strategy has, however, been haphazard. Whatever books I find I acquire for my shelf. I like the process of discovery at used book sales, which can mean many used book sales before finding a gem or even a popular or semi-popular title I do not own or haven’t read.

So what do I need to do in 2020 in order to read more climbing books?

First, I need to make a plan. Or perhaps it’s a list of books. I now have a list of 60 or so titles about climbing subjects along with their authors, and the year the book was first published. I have to consider the books on that list and whittle what I haven’t read and do not own.

Second, I need to change some habits. In previous years, I would read in the evenings, weekend mornings, and several pages scattered during the week after lunch, sitting in waiting rooms, on subways, or while I waited in the car with Wunderking and Schnickelfritz while Natalie ran into the market. Now that I drive (I in Lancaster, PA now sans-subway,) my work is a little more all-encompassing, and the kids are older and less likely to leave me to sit quietly by their side to read a few pages. I think evenings and an occasional weekend morning might be my best steady time slots.

Third, and lastly, I have restructured some of my overall priorities. I have asked after my responsibilities as dad and a housing nonprofit leader, what is the best use of my time? Well, I’ve narrowed it down to nutrition and fitness for overall health followed by my hobbies, and climbing literature is at the top of my list. I grow miserable without my hobbies, and I decline in energy and health if don’t focus on nutrition and fitness. So I will be reading more and training four days a week to be a V6 boulderer that isn’t sloppy or scrappy, rather I want to climb with deliberate movements, and transfer that to some walls.

So here goes with inquisitiveness, shrewdness, and resourcefulness. I am going to share some of the book lists I used to inform my list of classics-plus. I have interests that also extend into Alaska, Western Canada, Baffin Island, Patagonia, and New England and the Adirondacks. And there are also newer books, like Barry Blanchard’s The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains that could be called a modern classic. But we’ll see.

Of course, it’s also ironic that I am thinking of reading and rats. Unless we’re talking about Templeton from Charlotte’s Web, rats don’t read. Of course, Templeton may have only recognized words. Would Templeton have found me a scrap of Climbing Magazine had I asked him, “Mountains, Templeton, mountains!”

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Two Unexpected Turns in 2019

Road trip. (All rights reserved)

It’s a foggy morning here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Christmas was snowless and warm and now the moist air is merging into the drier air. With everyone still asleep, instead of working on fundraising or project planning, like I have been lately, I wanted to share with you two changes before 2019 came to a close.

It’s been more than a year as the executive director at a large nonprofit in south central Pennsylvania with a team of about 20 and hundreds of volunteers. As always, my work has been split between work, family, and balancing those things through diet, fitness, reading, and maybe some writing. The time has been more crunched than ever as my vision for the organizations is taking shape. By contrast to previous Christmases, this was the first Natalie decided to skip involving me in the Christmas card process; she said I was noticeably busy and it was just easier. It’s saddened me to think it was easier to avoid my involvement as we always had, but she was right; I couldn’t take much more.

Over a year ago I started working out almost daily to make sure I was staying in shape and help relieve some stress from juggling whether I was taking time between staff, board members, donors, volunteers, public officials, or my wife or children. Having three events at the same time to commit to attending is a terrible thing, and playing king of the hill with one of them is always about picking winners and losers. Still, I like to consider the options, make my decision and let everyone know as quickly as possible, which could take a day or so.

I started dropping into the climbing gym by my home every couple of weeks. I tended to work out harder at home if I had a boulder problem I was focusing my energy toward training. And when I was bouldering, I wasn’t thinking about anything other than what was under my toes and fingertips, so it has always been a huge physical and mental break from the ordinary.

In November, Natalie and I decided to take a step further and for me to join the gym and go at least weekly if not more often. I’d never joined any gym before, even a nonclimbing one. I’ve set myself a reasonable goal, though not yet with a timetable, to boulder V6. This has definitely cut into some of my mornings and evenings, but I think I have been more enthusiastic about, well, everything.

The biggest change I had been attempting to make all year, but a prolonged illness, did what my willpower couldn’t do. Over the years, as a policy analyst and advocate in Washington, DC I had worked my way up to being a caffeine abuser. I’d tease about decaf by a sly “what’s the point?” quip. But I would read and summarize policy papers and make PowerPoint Presentations with gusto. As I started working out more, and eating more fruits and vegetables over the last year, I knew I was drinking too much. Six cups a day, often more, was too much. And yet, at the time, I thought, “Oh, coffee doesn’t affect me much.”

Before Thanksgiving I came down with a cough, which developed into a cold, and became a sinus infection that lasted over three weeks and took two antibiotics and Prednisone to shake. I drank a cup of coffee in the morning and that was it for the day; my throat just wasn’t having it.

By the end of the whole experience, I decided to use this as an opportunity and stop drinking coffee at one-and-a-half cups or two cups in the morning before I left the house. The results have surprised me: I was more alert throughout the day, and I wasn’t dry and anxious by the end of it. I used to attribute the anxious feeling to the stress of my jobs. On some days the feeling was so intense I would crave a beer or a glass of wine to relax. Since I cut back on the caffeine, I didn’t have the same interest in beer or wine; I think I just wanted a depressant to bring me down from the caffeinated high. Until then, I had no idea what a grip caffeine held on me. Everything has been brighter, easier, and more enjoyable ever since. Perhaps you don’t need your cup of coffee as much as you think you do?

I did read 17 books this year, which I think was the most I have read in 12 months in the recent couple of years. Most of them were not about climbing. I read all of Alpinist Magazine’s long-form essays and stories, which should be considered a collective book in and of itself.

For Christmas, our friends in London sent me The Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond

“>The AlpsThe Alps: A Human History from Hannibal to Heidi and Beyond

“> by Stephen O’Shea (2017). The back cover reads, “For centuries the Alps have been witness to the march of armies, the flow of pilgrims and Crusaders, the feats of mountaineers, and the dreams of engineers… Journeying through their 500-mile arc across France, Italy, and Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Germany, Austria, and Slovenia, [O’Shea] explores the reality behind historic events and reveals how the Alps have profoundly influenced culture and society.” It sounds like my kind of nonfiction. They told me that they’ll give me a pop quiz when they see me next. I’m okay with that and accept their challenge!

Click to buy your copy now and support TSM:

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PS… While I would never stop reading about climbing, writing about climbing and its literature and history isn’t free, so my posts contain affiliate links. Every purchase you make through those links supports The Suburban Mountaineer. So if the book or gear interested you, click the link and get it for yourself.

Dieter Braun’s Mountains of the World

Natalie gave me this book as a Christmas present last year. Her interest went beyond just giving me a beautiful book, but she hoped it would serve as an impetus for me share my love of the mountains with our young Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz that goes beyond our pilgrimages to the peaks themselves. It was. At the beginning of the New Year we finished our reading session before bedtime by reading 5-10 pages Mountains of the World by Dieter Braun (2018) over several nights, and always discussing some aspect of nature, weather, and people among the mountains.

Braun takes his audience on a tour, or a survey course, on the subject of mountains. He starts with the origins of mountains, considers whether we’re measuring mountains greatness properly, what lives among mountains, legends like the Yeti, and even covers spelunking and the fragile qualities of the mountain environment. And yes, he actually considers whether we are measuring mountains greatness and relief properly in a book primarily intended for children book, and his illustrations are sometimes better than words alone. My kids grasped the idea and their eyes were wide and were clearly in wonder. Braun’s mantra is clearly show then tell.

Dieter Braun is an illustrator and children’s book author from Hamburg, Germany. He gotten up close with wildlife, visited great destinations, and captured their essence, or what he felt was their essence, in his books formatted for children. I say formatted for children, because they are made by the publisher for children, but they are enriching even for this guy; I’m just blessed to share it with two kiddos.

And yet, there were some oddities of choice that Braun included. I enjoyed the page on Iceland and the aurora borealis, but was not sure that it was germane, though I thought his inclusion of “Mountains of Sand: The Desert” was a thought-provoking portion.

Braun devotes several pages to mountain climbing, skiing, and mountain biking recreation among the mountains. He features Sir Edmund Hillary, Tenzing Norgay, and Reinhold Messner, which I enjoyed talking to the kids about and even had an excuse to raise Jerzy Kukuczka, Messner’s rival whom I admire, with Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz. However, Braun appears to have had to make some editorial decisions about how to simplify the list of “Types of Climbing,” which he limits to bouldering, free climbing, ice climbing, and urban climbing. All four were quite beneficial to talk about, and I agree breaking climbing into sport climbing, trad, aid, big wall, and so forth would dull my kids wonder, but did Braun feel alpine climbing was adequately covered through Hillary, Norgay, Messner? I think alpine climbing needed a little more attention through definition.

Wunderkind and Schnickelfritz had their horizon’s lifted through this book and our subsequent discussions. Even just listening to them about their new interest in finding a way to start at the Pacific seafloor and “climb” all the way up Mauna Kea. Or their excitement to learn to ski in the next season or two.

Dieter Braun’s Mountains of the World is a book to own and share. You won’t regret it.

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David Smart Shares the Pure Fire of Paul Preuss

Knowing that loved ones’ worries about his climbing impeded his attempts to free solo, Paul Preuss allowed his friends to move on to another route without him. If his friends had known that they would watch what would be the most difficult climb in the world, they might have stayed be witnesses. It was July 24, 1911 at the base of the the West Face of the Totenkirchl. Preuss carried a rope, but it remained in his pack only for rappels, and his only technical gear he would employ were his Kletterschuhe or rock climbing shoe with rope soles.

He climbed hundreds of meters, unroped, and without placed protection. He followed a route established by a party lead by Tita Piaz in 1908 until, near the top of the wall, he continued the line along an unclimbed fissure extending the route higher. At a hut, he logged in his climb publicly and added, unnecessarily but intentionally, “allein” or alone, and thus started a stir of wonder and controversy that set climbing on a new path.

This was just the beginning of the bold disruptions to climbing made by Paul Preuss as told in David Smart’s latest book Paul Preuss: Lord of the Abyss: Life and Death at the Birth of Free-Climbing. Until this book, the most I could find — in English — about the great climber and free soloist were in entries in 1913 and 1914 editions of the Alpine Journal and some translations of his essays. No stories. No context. No explanation.

David Smart, the author of A Life Wasted Climbing (2015), among other titles, and the editorial director of Gripped Magazine, has intricately woven stories of Preuss’ life and accomplishments with vivid illustrations of the times and the rising middle class in the outdoors into a magnificent biography. The result has been a short-listed nominee for the Boardman Tasker Award for Mountain Literature and Banff Mountain Book Competition.

(And by the way, Smart is also being honored this year at the Banff Mountain Film & Book Festival with the Summit of Excellence Award. The annual award has recognized individuals — which reads like a “who’s who” list — that made significant contributions to mountain life in the Canadian Rockies and across Canada. Smart pioneered routes on the Niagara escarpment in Ontario and wrote its first guidebook in 1984. If you’re a regular reader on this blog, you won’t be surprised that Smart fell in love with publishing through climbing literature.)

I love reading climbing books. It’s my favorite genre. I read books about politics, nature, religion, baseball, and novels, but I always come back and never bore of the nonfiction found at 796.522 in my library. But this book sparked the same sense of discovering some lost and mesmerizing treasure when I started reading climbing literature in college. Not only did it make me want to climb, but also roll out maps of the Alps and Dolomites and find more information about the other characters in the story.

The influence of German and Austrian climbers in Canada was felt by Smart, and thereby the legacy of Preuss (pronounced “Proyce”) was known, though the German stories were usually shared orally. Writing a book about Preuss had been on Smart’s mind for about a decade, even before the public’s rise in interest in free soloing from Alex Honnold’s first free solo of El Capitan in 2017. Smart committed himself to the project, by starting the research phase, around 2014. If you page through the Acknowledgements and the Selected Bibliography, you’ll see that Paul Preuss was a monumental undertaking involving a great deal of translating from the original German and Italian and conversations and manuscript reviews by a who’s who list of climbing history and literature, including Reinhold Messner, Katie Ives, and several others.

Totenkirchl and the first solo ascent. (All rights reserved)

One the treasures in Lord of the Abyss, was how Smart seems to keep track, subtly, about how many occasions and various ways Preuss may have died. (There is no real scorecard in the book, for the record, but perhaps someone could make one.) Of course Preuss tallied the ascent on the Totenkirchl, and even more so on the smooth face of Campanile in the Dolomites or downclimbing the Ferhmann Dihedral, and the hundreds of solo ascents he did in secret while growing up. And counts the initial meeting with Tita Piaz, the Devil of the Dolomites, Preuss’ rival. The day they met, during a wine-filled evening, arguing that the other was the greater climber, Piaz disappears and soon returns with pistols and hands one to Preuss. Dueling was not completely uncommon, and Smart says Preuss had managed to steer clear of it during college in Vienna. Piaz and Preuss took their paces and assumed their positions. The nearly jolting sound of another popping cork shifted the mood and the argument was brushed aside. Preuss 300, Death 0.

In reading other books from the period, even earlier stories, like Scrambles Amongst the Alps by Edward Whymper, I never got the sense of the climbing community at home. Granted those stories were tales of the attempts and climbs, primarily. Smart however, in explaining how Preuss’ uncompromising and principled style of climbing came to be, illustrates what it was to be in the rising middle class in Austria and Germany in the late 1890s and early 1900s. At least from the descriptions of life around Vienna and Munich, I got the sense of life being very similar to how it was for Natalie and I living in Washington, DC for 15 years. We all made our living using our minds and writing, being culturally stimulated, pay a great deal for small apartments, and escaping to the countryside and the mountains frequently for everything from hunting, skiing, walking, and climbing.

The urban centers also housed alpine clubs, which varied in activity from simple presentations, to planning outings, providing trainings, and sometimes expedition funding. Smart shares a translation from the Bergland Alpine Club meeting minutes: After dinner and some members were blowing the cream filling out of the cream rolls, the club marched to an a neoclassical monument in town. Preuss climbed the monument’s walls when a Bavarian policeman was alarmed and wanted to catch the builderer. Preuss climbed to the other side, mixed with the passersby and then helped the policeman search for the culprit.

But the core of the story is Preuss’ life and the disruptions his beliefs brought to climbing. Smart provides we English readers a solid understanding of how Preuss came to climb so hard, why he became stalwart against artificial aides and principled in the purest form of climbing. And they’re still enchanting, especially when you consider Alex Honnold’s ascent of Free Rider, or Jim Reynolds ascent (and downclimb) of Fitz Roy. Read Preuss’ principles again and see how it made us consider what we do, even today.

When Preuss converted from Judaism to Christianity (a story unto itself), he read a commentary on the Ten Commandments and after each it added fürchten und lieben, which means fear and love, and continued to say trust in God above all things. The the exhortation fürchten und lieben stuck with him. It’s often that sublime quality that keeps drawing me back to the mountains. As for Preuss, as Smart wrote, “Paul’s passion for the mountains was fueled by fear — or falling short of his ideals and the judgments of others — and by love for the mountains.”

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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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