What I learned from a towering wall of Alpine ice

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Descending beneath an ice wall on the Parrotspitze.

Mountaineer Joe Simpson called it ‘the beckoning silence of high places’ – the lure that pulls people to the mountains, often to their most dangerous spots.

I’ve been to few places higher, or more silent, than the icy glacier that sits atop the Monte Rosa massif, the mountain chain which borders Switzerland and Italy, a sea of ice flowing down a frozen valley beneath the peaks Dufourspitze, Zumsteinspitze and Parrotspitze.

Six years ago this week I traversed the massif, climbing eight peaks in five days and pushing myself to limits I wasn’t even aware of.

Over the course of the week I came dangerously close to losing a glove in high winds on the Zumsteinspitze, assisted in bringing a fellow climber down after he was struck with altitude sickness, and – the payoff for repeated endurance tests – witnessed a series of incredible summit vistas.

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

Summit of Castor (4,228m)

I also took not-insignificant risks, one of which is pictured above. The picture was snapped as I descended from the Signalkuppe (4,554m), travelling by a hanging serac wall under the Parrotspitze (4,432m).

At the time the huge mass of ice above barely registered, despite it being mid-afternoon and a dangerous time for avalanches. I’d been climbing for 12 hours. Like the other members of the small group I was with, I just wanted to get down – and the route under the Parrotspitze was the most direct way.

In fact, given my tiredness, light supplies and the hour of the day it was the only option.

Perhaps that’s why the danger never registered at the time – when you’ve a single route forward and no way back it’s pointless to dwell on a concept like risk (or tiredness, or freezing feet, or an unquenchable thirst but a very finite amount of water in your flask).

Afterwards – if there’s an afterwards – you applaud yourself for your bravery, or dig up your photograph and write about it all.

I’m reluctant to draw life lessons from trips to the mountains, but when the Monte Rosa picture popped up on a social media feed this week it occurred to me that risk is a phenomenon that takes up as much space as you allow it to.

If you’re on a single path, to a single destination, it becomes – as it was under the Parrotspitze – simply part of the landscape.

Under the mountain - Parrotspitze, 2010

Under the mountain – Parrotspitze, 2010

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Running into the City of the Roses

The Willamette River

The Willamette River, August 2016

After 8,000 kilometers, a number of farewell parties and all the work that’s involved in packing two lives into two dozen cardboard crates, I arrived in Portland this week in dire need of a mind cleanse.

When I’m jetlagged or feeling the strain of a heavy schedule one thing works for me – running. It doesn’t have to be a long distance or a great pace, or even a particularly enjoyable session. I just need to get out the door and start pounding it out.

My wife and I woke at 6am last Wednesday morning to a crystal clear sky over the City of the Roses. This was it, the first day of the Next Step, and the next step was getting outdoors.

We are staying in The Pearl district, close to the waterfront along the Willamette River – a circuit of which provides a spectacular dawn run. I had done this loop, around two of the 12 bridges which span the waterway, when we visited the city last December.

On the waterfront. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

On the waterfront. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Back then the weather was cold, with a freezing breeze off the river which blew away any jetlag cobwebs. This week it was warm, 19c at 7am, but a gentle late summer wind was just enough to ensure a comfortable run.

And so I started the next stage of my life much as I’d finished the last one, jogging along an expanse water as the day dawned. When much else is changing there’s comfort in maintaining some routines.

In busy and stressful times, periods of bereavement, heavy workloads, on days when it’s all gone right and others when I’ve hit a speedbump, up to this most recent move, to a new country, running has been a staple. At times it’s been easy, the 10k flying by; other times, every kilometer has been hard fought.

But every time the end result is the same. I walk back in the door in a better frame of  body and mind than when I stepped out.

Last Wednesday I entered our rented apartment, sweating and thirsty, tired and happy, dropped my keys and hat and told my wife something we already knew, “this is a great place”.

It is, and it’s best seen at 7am on a summer morning, crossing the Hawthorne Bridge with the sun on your face, the wind to your back, and the road rising to meet you.

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Taking away some of that Bull Island zen

Dawn over Bull Island

Dawn over Howth Head, August 2016

My physiotherapist better look away now. Because this is a post about something that I really shouldn’t be doing much of but, despite all advice to the contrary, can’t give up.

It’s running. Or jogging, or slogging, or the next best word that describes my morning efforts around Bull Island.

On the mornings I can run that is. A burgeoning case of hallux limitus, a fairly common arthritic disorder that’s struck the big toe of my left foot.

A year ago I wrote about how the condition could eventually end my running altogether. Twelve months on and a canny regime of ice/walking/bicycling/rest has ensured that I can still get out for 5k twice a week. If I’m feeling utterly reckless I’ll stretch that to 10 – and pay for it afterwards.

But stopping is not an option. Most runners know the empty, distracted feeling when they miss a planned outing. Those who are injured know that they will do anything – make whatever time sacrifice, take whatever supplement, stretch whatever muscle – to get back out again.

Why? It’s not to get a physical workout – there are less painful ways to do that. It’s mental – or it certainly is in my case. When I’m off the track I miss the calming, clearing effect of a good run.

Running man

Running man

Over the years I’ve tried many things to quiet my mind. But nothing even comes close to the effect of 25 minutes running in the outdoors.

In recent weeks I’ve needed this more than ever. Planning, packing and preparing to leave Ireland has been exciting – but the flipside of the excitement, the anticipation and the bittersweet series of goodbyes has been my mind’s switch is jammed to ‘on’.

And so I’ve turned – despite the pain, which is manageable – back to jogging. Not just any jogging either, but a workout on Bull Island and Dollymount Strand, the sandspit that sits to the north of Dublin city centre.

This has been my gym in recent years, and it’s one I’ll miss. When my running ban was in effect I’d walk there, in any season and any weather.

But the best time to run in the area is on an August morning, shortly after a 6am sunrise. If you’re lucky you’ll catch dawn breaking over Howth Head, on one side, and over the city of a million slowly waking souls on the other. Most likely you’ll be alone, blank before the heavens, while your thoughts will have the decency not to intrude.

I’ve no idea where I’ll be running next month but – physios be damned – I will be. Whatever the location I do know one thing – I’ll take some of the Bull Island zen with me.

Dublin from Dollymount Strand

Dublin from Dollymount Strand, August 2016

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My Dublin is dozens of towns

Wooden Bridge at Bull Island

Wooden Bridge at Bull Island

Dublin made me.

There’s no doubt about it. It made wake up and grow up. It made me responsible, angry, happy, disillusioned, excited and proud – sometimes all at once.

I first came to the city at 17, as a student. My first night was spent (where else?) in a bar, Hartigan’s on Leeson Street, where I drank pints of Guinness with fellow first year students at Trinity College.

Back then, in an era before a proliferation of coffee shops, restaurants and gyms, the pub still reigned supreme as Dublin’s social hub. Over the years that would change, and so would I.

As I prepare to leave (not for the first time but likely for the longest) a spate of memories occur to me daily – of events, places and people.

I can’t pass Trinity College without thinking of the May evenings, which seemed endless then, spent outside the Ussher Library on breaks while studying for final exams.

James Street, Dublin

James Street, Dublin

Or the Phoenix Park without recalling the view over Kilmainham and along the Liffey, back to the city, that I’d encounter on mornings and afternoons when I’d jog around the Fifteen Acres and the Magazine Fort.

Or Talbot Street without remembering the 6am winter starts at the Evening Herald, where we worked furiously to get the first edition out by 9am.

Or, more recently, the long promenade running from The Sheds in Clontarf along the seafront to St Anne’s Park, as the sun shone over a high tide, across to Bull Island and the hill of Howth beyond.

More than 20 years after I first landed in Donagh MacDonagh’s “Dublin of old statutes, this arrogant city”, I’m departing. When I come back the city will have changed and I’ll be a stranger.

Or just more of a stranger, because the Dublin that I know is part 2016, part the emerging boomtown of 1995, part the battered crashtown of 2010 – and dozens of other towns in between.

I was never – and am still not –  quite sure which Dublin I lived in, which one lifted me and knocked me and lifted me again. The city has always been an amalgam, of the here-and now and the conversations I had over the years, the work I did, the people I met.

I don’t know Dublin and I don’t know anyone who can claim they do. But I know this town made me.
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A Route 66 of my own

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

Williams, Arizona, August 1999

It’s 31 years since Route 66 – the blacktop mythologized by John Steinbeck as ‘the mother road’ – was decommissioned.

The highway disappeared from maps but not, of course, from popular culture. The likes of John Steinbeck – who put his fictional Joad family on the road in The Grapes of Wrath – and Nat King Cole – whose (Get Your Kicks On) Route 66 became a rhythm and blues standard – took care of that, long before the last road sign was taken down in 1985.

The highway, established in 1926, ran almost 4,000km west from Chicago to Los Angeles. What started as a route for trucks became a path to a 20th century manifest destiny – the road to a place in the sun, in the golden groves of California.

It entered the American consciousness during the Dust Bowl migrations of the 1930s, when thousands of families from Oklahoma and Texas drove or hiked west seeking work. Route 66’s mythology was sealed in those years – a byword for migration, freedom, escape and the loneliness of a vast country.

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

Family with broken down car, CA, 1937. Pic: Dorothea Lange/LIbrary of Congress

During the Second World War it became a key route for transporting munitions to the ports of the west coast. The road fell to leisure use in the 1950s – a convenient route to California that ran close to the Grand Canyon and across the vast southwestern desert.

By the time I came upon Route 66 – almost 20 years ago – it had ceased to exist.

I encountered it by accident. Driving across the US in 1999 my travelling companions and I stopped in Williams, Arizona, a small town on I-40, the interstate which replaced Route 66. We only discovered when we parked up that we were doing so on side of the famed highway itself.

Steinbeck’s “long concrete path across the country…the road of flight” was quiet that day, hosting the sporadic lunchtime traffic of a small southwestern town. The ghost of Tom Joad had long since moved on.

As all of us do. Next month I will set out on a Route 66 of my own, departing Ireland for the Pacific North West. While packing possessions this week I came across a photo I took in Williams on that day in August 1999. A fitting sign, as I step back onto the Mother Road.

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

Route 66, Gillespie, IL. Pic: Goodsamaritan1

 

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Boxes, tape and a dread responsibility

Towering classics

Towering classics

This isn’t an easy post to write. Every aspect of it goes against my better nature – and my worst nature too.

It concerns an action that I’m not proud of, one that I will never repeat, a deed which has left me sick to the stomach, questioning my core values and reassessing my life’s direction.

I’ve purged my library.

It was my own decision, taken in a sober frame of mind and without coercion. And it was cold-blooded.

Over the years family and the odd (very odd – who suggest someone throw out books?) friend had advised me to do this. I ignored them of course. And the books continued to pile up.

Shelves had long since overflowed. Piles of paperbacks filled the bottoms of wardrobes and sprouted from the corners of bedrooms. When tripping over them became too much a simple solution presented itself: stuff the lot into empty suitcases. Which was fine, until it came time for a trip.

No part of me wishes I lived in a large mansion. In fact I’ve never lived in a house big enough to accommodate a library or even a small study. But sometimes it’s occurred to me that the only upshot of Jay Gatsby’s quiet desperation was the spare room at the West Egg mansion where he could ditch his unread books.

Empty shelves. 'Man Read at Lamplight', George Friedrich Kersting (1814)

Empty shelves. ‘Man Reading at Lamplight’, George Friedrich Kersting (1814)

After years of procrastinating, dodging requests from my better half, and generally burying my head in the sand (or in a newly acquired Penguin Classic) circumstances conspired to force me to face the inevitable.

And so, armed with a pile of cardboard boxes, tape and a sense of dread responsibility I started into the task – onerous but now unavoidable – of separating the ‘must keeps’ from the ‘must keep but this is cold reality’.

The keeper books needed no attention, they were going nowhere. But the others, each one assessed and re-assessed, maybe’d and if only’d, now stand in a series of small paper towers on the living room floor.

I can barely bring myself to look at them, including – as they do – books bought 30 years and a lifetime ago. Some were read and forgotten, some half read. others just held once every couple of years.

Adieu then to Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld, the second copy I’ve owned and lost, with the plaintive image of the Twin Towers on the cover.

Farewell to Nietzsche‘s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, half-read, the product of a brief dalliance with existentialism.

Goodbye to William Gibson’s The Difference Engine, read as I dipped a toe into the world of steampunk.

These, and dozens more, are about to go. A friend’s offered to re-home some but most will be donated. At least someone else will, hopefully, read them – after our poignant parting I’m not sure I ever will.

And if this wasn’t heartbreaking enough worse lies around the corner – the opposite corner of the same room to be exact, where hundreds of CDs sit taking up space, unused, awaiting the purge.

Adieu DeLillo.

Adieu DeLillo

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Ain’t no 8000 metre Himalayan peak high enough

Cho Oyu. Pic: Uwe Gille

Cho Oyu. Pic: Uwe Gille

Know any songs about mountaineering? Me neither.

There’s plenty about mountains, of course. Led Zeppelin don’t have much in common with Percy French but both wrote about the hills (although Misty Mountain Hop is a very different song to The Mountains of Mourne).

There are more (possibly the most famous, Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell’s Ain’t No Mountain High Enough, originated from a music label in Detroit – a city hardly known for its peaks) but they’re not that common. There’s a list of others here. Suffice to say that more music is inspired by cars and girls.

Until you come to the work of Geir Jenssen. Under the name Biosphere he’s released some of the most acclaimed ambient music of the past 30 years – not least the benchmark album Substrata.

Geir Jenssen. Pic: Mitja Podreka

Geir Jenssen. Pic: Mitja Podreka

But Jenssen is also a mountaineer. In 2001 he climbed Cho Oyu, at 8,201 metres the sixth highest mountain in the world, doing so without supplementary oxygen.

If this wasn’t achievement enough, Jenssen managed to document the ascent by recording sound samples including one, incredibly, on the summit itself.

Five years later he compiled the recordings, releasing them in an intriguing package which included a diary of the climb. He titled it, simply, Cho Oyu 8201m – Field Recordings from Tibet.

The 48-minute recording documents the elements, the voices of fellow climbers and locals, radio broadcasts and movement. The last five pieces are named for the camps on the mountain and, finally, the summit itself.

The ‘tracks’, such as they are, are a step beyond simple field recordings. There’s occasionally a percussive element, a natural sound repeating, that offers a rhythm. There’s a sense of pacing and atmosphere building. Despite this there’s little doubt that, as listening goes, the work will appeal first and foremost to mountaineers.

Committing the sound of a mountain environment to an album-length recording is difficult, if not impossible. Instead Jenssen’s Cho Oyu release goes some way to communicating the atmosphere of climbing a high mountain – the wind, the flapping of fabric, the slow trudge of crampons on snow, the wind again (although the climatic track, The Summit, is surprisingly calm).

Very few of us will climb an 8000-er but, in the right frame of mind, Geir Jenssen can put us on one. Could Marvin Gaye do that?

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The high wilderness of Lugnaquilla

Descending above Kelly's Lough, July 2016

Descending above Kelly’s Lough, July 2016

Lugnaquilla’s not a marquee mountain.

It lacks the height of Carrauntoohill, Ireland’s highest peak, or the spectacular ocean views of Brandon or Mweelrea. It’s not a pilgrim site, like Croagh Patrick, or close to a famed smuggler’s path, like Slieve Donard.

But what it lacks in pizzazz it makes up for by its wildness. It may be only an hour’s drive from Dublin but Lugnaquilla presides over a high, windswept wilderness, a landscape of moors and tarns and very few people.

For that reason it offers city dwellers short on time – or tourist hikers – a day hike do-able from the capital.

Over the years it’s offered me – depending on the season – lunar-like landscapes of snow and ice, driving rain or hours of cold, high sun. And always the wind, blowing from the Atlantic across the flat Midlands and up the ramp of Camara Hill, or from the north over the whale’s back of Mullaghcleevaun.

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

Looking back to Glenmalure from the saddle

I can always get up there more often. Living in London in the 1790s, William Wordsworth would think of the mountains of the Lake District, writing “’mid the din,  Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet”.

I’m often struck by the same. And so, coming off a busy home schedule last week, I pulled out my boots, emailed friends and arranged a hike to the ‘Hollow of the Wood’.

Having tried many routes over the years the most favourable ascent, to my mind, is that from Glenamalure, a glacial valley to the mountain’s north, reportedly the longest of its kind in Ireland and Britain.

This was the remote place where Irish rebel Michael Dwyer hid out from the British at stages in the years after the 1798 rebellion. It’s easy to see why – the nearest sign of civilisation, the townland of Aghavannagh, is known to locals as “the last place God made”. Even at the 9am in the height of summer our group were the only ones setting out from Baravore ford at the head of the valley.

The route up is navigationally easy. A path leads past a youth hostel and up into the heart of the Fraughan Rock Glen, where the first of three steep pulls, alongside an unnamed river (surging in winter), brings you up  into a cwm below the summit itself.

This is where the isolation of Lugnaquilla becomes apparent. On the many occasions I’ve ascended this way I’ve rarely encountered other hikers in the huge, grassy, stream-streaked bowl.

Summit - 925m

Summit – 925m

On crossing the cwm the ground gets steeper, before levelling out at the foot of the final ascent, which brings you onto the saddle of the mountain.

This flat, barren landscape can present navigation problems. But a combination of timing and sheer luck last Saturday saw us reach it just as the clouds cleared, revealing the Glen of Imaal to the west and the Irish Sea to the south east.

However, with thundershowers forecast this was no place to linger. After a brief breather at the summit cairn (925m) we descended to the east, across to Clohernagh (800m), which hangs above Kelly’s Lough, one of the highest lakes in the Wicklow Mountains.

From there we descended to the cliffs at Bendoo, where we picked up the head of the ‘Zig Zags’, a trail which provides a knee-testing descent back down to Glenmalure.

We didn’t waste time, completing the 15.5km walk in four and a half hours – clocking up a 800m ascent in the process.

As for wildness, we had it in spades. We encountered no-one on the ascent, a couple of hikers on the summit and perhaps a dozen descending the Zig Zags.

For much of the hike we could have been walking hundreds of years earlier, alongside Michael Dwyer or Wordsworth, feeling – as the latter put it:

A sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky…
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FullSizeRender (1)

Always bring a map – in this case OS 56

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Half mist, half rain, and warm to the touch

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, Dublin

Sigur Ros, Kilmainham, June 2016

A confession – I don’t do music outdoors.

Hiking, running, walking – no problem. But not music and certainly not in Ireland. My home country’s weather is a perfect disruption to a decent outdoor gig.

First off, it’s likely to rain. If not for all of the show then certainly for part of it. Secondly, while the sun may shine and it may be July, the temperature will still be south of 10c and you’ll shiver your way through the evening.

The third factor is a hidden one, the element few think of as they hunt for their old wellington boots or under apply sunscreen. And it’s the worst.

It’s the wind. While it’s well known that you enjoy four seasons in a day in Ireland, it’s less publicised that every one of them will be windy. And if you’re standing in the middle of a field, side-on to an Atlantic westerly as your favourite act steps onto stage, you’ll notice it.

You’re likely to experience, as I have on many occasions, songs unwittingly deconstructed – the bass one minute, then a snippet of vocal, then what sounds like a cymbal but may be feedback. The song ends when the audience starts clapping, but I’ve even witnessed 50,000 cheering fans hoodwinked by a stiff June breeze, to the shock of a band launching into another verse.

This amounts to sort of improvised performance – just one improvised by an Atlantic depression and not the E Street Band.

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

Jónsi Birgisson. Pic: Jose Goulao

And so, when I woke last Sunday and reached to check the weather (a routine as common for today’s Irish as the Angelus at noon was for our grandparents), my heart sank. Rain tapering away to dull, depressing mistiness, with a breeze (of course). And we had tickets to Sigur Ros, outdoors, that evening.

While shaking our fist at the weather gods is a national pastime for the Irish so is optimism – a blind faith that flies in the face of all common sense (and underpins most of our international soccer wins).

It was with equal parts dread and optimism then that we headed to Dublin city centre to meet friends for the show. Under grey skies our group drove on to the Royal Hospital in Kilmainham, where the Icelandic act had set out their stall.

And then, as I walked onto the sodden grass at the venue/field, the weather didn’t matter. Instead it struck me that, in my late 30s now, I attend so few outdoor shows that just hearing music without a roof is a novelty. Who cares if it rains, if the Irish summer dumps its contents down on the city for the evening, if…hold on, is that the sun?

Optimism rewarded, the audience looked over their shoulders to see the light breaking through the clouds beyond the Phoenix Park. At last – a show in the setting sun! Primavera and Coachella be damned!

And then – you guessed it – it started to rain.

Just before Jónsi Birgisson struck the first note we received a gentle drenching  – half mist, half rain and warm to the touch – followed by an arching, shimmering rainbow, which framed the stage, the audience and the Royal Hospital itself. Beauty amidst the gloom – just as Sigur Ros began to play.

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The kick that changed Ireland’s outlook

Wes Hoolahan's cross

The cross

The greatest moment of one of Ireland’s greatest soccer performances wasn’t Robbie Brady’s goal, or the thousands of fans singing and crying in the Stade Pierre-Mauroy, or the sight of Irish president Michael D Higgins dancing for joy.

No. What mattered in Lille last Wednesday night took place seconds before Brady’s header hit the Italian net – a goal which settled a 26-year debt and put the Republic of Ireland through to the last 16 of the European Championship.

It was, instead, the millimetre-perfect cross delivered by Wes Hoolahan, a player who – seconds earlier – appeared to have scuffed a clear goal chance and, with it, a country’s hopes.

Running through with only the Italian ‘keeper to beat and all of Ireland on its feet, roaring him on, the 34-year-old misconnected with the ball, his timid effort coming off Salvatore Sirigu’s legs.

The horror of Hoolahan’s miss extended beyond the match, or even the tournament. This fluffed shot would haunt him down his years, an albatross around his neck of Ireland’s best player, his surname to be forever followed by the word ‘miss’. Even in the moment, it was hard not to feel sorry for him.

As Ireland collapsed to its knees the script appeared written. When it came to the big day the Irish had once more bottled it and, as soon as the final whistle sounded, we’d begin years of self-recrimination and rumination. Because the only thing that raises Irish blood more than a great victory is a sound defeat, a resounding fall.

Wes Hoolahan

Wes Hoolahan

Not this time. What happened next was a break from tradition, courtesy of the man who missed a minute before.

As the country, still open-mouthed, looked on Wes Hoolahan threw himself back into the game.

Extrapolating shifts in national consciousness from split-second events on a football pitch is an unsound practice. But given the once-in-an-era feel of the game, the way the Irish underdog triumphed, the feeling that history had – for once – turned in our favour, this time it’s forgivable.

In picking himself up after his miss, running forward, lifting his head for a pass, taking the ball and delivering to Brady, Hoolahan stepped out of the predictable narrative.

A commentator later remarked that the Irish team had “balls”, which accounted for their win. Courage was part of it, as was commitment and skill – and it was all summed up in the two minutes between Hoolahan’s miss and his cross.

Gone were the ‘what ifs’, the ‘not quite good enoughs’ and the ‘moral victories’. Getting knocked meant one thing – you had to get back up, nothing else.

This was the Irish spirit in Lille last Wednesday. Maybe it’s a new one.
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