Yosemite/Camp 4 article in the LA Times

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Chris McNamara

SuperTopo staff member
Topic Author's Original Post - Jul 19, 2005 - 12:38pm PT
July 19, 2005

Edged out

They love the granite but hate the rules. Yosemite's climbers are locked in a contest of wills with park rangers charged with keeping order.

By Daniel Duane, Special to The Times

Hanging around El Capitan Meadow on a recent summer afternoon, while the Merced River ran clear and the hot breeze ruffled the tall green grass, you might not have realized you were in the company of legends.

The Yosemite rock-climbers' underground — that loosely knit crowd killing time down by the bridge, skinny-dipping and watching the cliffs — looks much the way it has for generations, like a filthy, shabby, scraggly haired and infectiously happy tribe of insanely fit young people.

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You'd probably have to have been an aficionado to have recognized the demigods in the crowd. The blue-eyed beauty standing in the shade was Lynn Hill, perhaps the most famous woman rock climber of all time. Talking to her was a huge raven-haired specimen named Dean Potter, the reigning prince of American rock, and with him was his wife, Steph Davis, who would top anyone's short list of the world's great female alpinists. Ron Kauk was also there — movie-star handsome and responsible for some of the most audacious climbs in Yosemite history.

Drifting closer, and listening, you would have heard the old talk about a limit somebody intended to push or an unbreakable record somebody had just broken. Since the 1950s, Yosemite has been the international crucible of big-wall climbing, the proving ground for new techniques that later get applied at peaks including the Alps and the Himalayas.

In fact, just then, the leading big-wall hotshots of the current generation, Ivo Ninov and Ammon McNeely, were up on El Capitan, drawing the attention of the crowd below. There was plenty of talk about how they were trying to set a new speed record by climbing straight through the night without a bivouac on a dangerous route called Zenyatta Mondatta. And McNeely's sister, Amanda, who stood aside from the crowd, was concerned. The two had been high on El Capitan the night before, visible only as two pinpricks of light, and she had seen one of them take a long fall.

"I'm sure it wasn't Ammon," a friend tried to comfort her. "You really shouldn't worry about it."

"But I just know it was him," Amanda said, fighting back tears.

The drama of Ninov and McNeely's climb aside, if you'd lingered in the meadow, among the underground, you would also have heard a very different topic competing for time: the sad and angry feeling that Yosemite climbing culture may be dying and that the Valley's law enforcement rangers and vested commercial interests are engineering its death.

If you'd asked for evidence, you'd have been pointed down the road about a mile or so to Camp 4, an unremarkable collection of dirt campsites, picnic tables and barbecue pits under the limbs of tall evergreens.

If Yosemite is this sport's mecca, its international pilgrimage destination, then Camp 4 is the spiritual center of its climbing community. One of the most famous campgrounds on Earth, and steeped in history and lore, Camp 4 is also, in the view of many local climbers, under serious attack and at risk of becoming an artifact of the past.

"Camp 4's dead," pronounces 19-year-old Aaron Young, a wiry, dark-haired kid sitting below the burnished rock wall of the massive El Capitan. Scrawled on the outside of his backpack is a coarse expletive directed at the park rangers, instantly signaling his point of view.

Climbers, Young continues, "are a target for simply being in the park, no more, no less. Just criminals because we're here. That's what it works down to. You can't be in Camp 4 without being harassed: 'What's your name? Where you going? How long you been here?' I've heard it's new management, and they're trying to get rid of the climbers."

*

Week's stay, max

The perspective of the National Park Service, needless to say, is quite different.

Law enforcement ranger Keith Lober, himself a longtime climber, is the manager of Yosemite's elite search-and-rescue team. Parking his gleaming white National Park Service SUV in front of the kiosk at the entrance to Camp 4, he surveys the long line of young people, hoping for vacancies, that has formed in front. Those who hold the first few spots in line have clearly spent the night there in the dirt and are still tucked into their sleeping bags as they await their turn.

Lober is a rail-thin, focused man with salt-and-pepper hair and a pressed uniform. Nodding at those in line, he walks into the campground — past a bulletin board bristling with handwritten notes asking for climbing partners and advertising gear for sale. In the shade of the big trees, laundry hangs drying on makeshift lines, expedition tents crowd together in the dust, and climbing gear lies strewn across picnic tables. Slack lines are tied between various trees for balance practice, and odd ladder-like devices turn various tree limbs into an open air climbers' gymnasium.

"One of the paranoias of the climbers," Lober says, "is that the rangers hate the climber. It couldn't be further from the truth. The law enforcement ranger can't tell a climber from the average citizen. So what he's looking for is someone who's up to no good. And there are a lot of 'dirtbags' who come here, and you start to look at certain ways people dress, their hygiene, and, of course, that becomes a conflict."

Lober pauses and starts to explain the challenges that Camp 4 presents to rangers. Three million people a year visit Yosemite Valley, and on summer evenings the population pushes 30,000. As the numbers have grown over the years, the number of available campsites has actually shrunk, and new park rules permit no more than seven nights in the Valley floor between May 1 and Sept. 15.

"When the sun sets," Lober says, "the proliferation of people walking over carrying sleeping bags" — to sleep illegally in Camp 4 — "begins, and it goes on until late into the night."

The reasons are simple: Seven nights are barely enough for climbers to get their bearings in Yosemite, much less to climb the big routes that draw them here in the first place. Although climbing conditions can be good in April and in the early fall, the weather is less predictable than in the summer; witness the deaths of two climbers — and the rescue of five others — on El Capitan last October. So playing by the seven-night rule is a little like an Olympic athlete agreeing to experiment with his chosen event only seven times a year. So nobody does, which makes things difficult for the rangers.

"We'll have people who come and stay the entire season," Lober says. "We will often see cars here, and we'll track them for months on end. And they don't have legal residences anywhere, so you do the math. Where are they? What are they doing?"

The ranger's complaint is complicated by the other users in the park, whose pastimes he considers just as valid as the climbers'. "Everyone wants their cut of the pie," he continues. "Other users have just as much legitimacy, whether you're a golfer, or you play badminton, or you surf, or you climb. They're all just sports. It puts us in the school monitor role, which is very uncomfortable."

Aaron Young, of course, disagrees. He struggles to articulate what many climbers feel: that their user group is not like others, that climbers have a special relationship to Yosemite and should receive special consideration.

"We're trying to say we should be grandfathered in," Young says. "We've been here this many years; we should be allowed to stay all summer. Even people in the Ahwahnee Hotel have a one-week limit, but what is a tourist going to do for more than a week? There's only so many waterfalls, so many stores to go in, but climbers have a 7-mile stretch on either side of just solid rock."

*

Antagonism not new

Climbing, unlike other park activities, has long doubled as a tourist attraction for non-climbing visitors. The weeks-long first ascent of El Capitan, in 1958, caused such a commotion that traffic became badly clogged. Today's tour guides routinely point out climbers on the walls, and the gift shops offer climbing-themed T-shirts and paraphernalia.

But Lincoln Else, a ranger who is also a climber, and who has been charged with mediating between the two communities, says the problem has little to do with climbing itself, and a lot to do with the fact that "climbers, stereotypically, are a young rebellious counterculture. They are here to climb, but have the same problems of anyone in terms of staying too long, and obeying the rules."

With their lives utterly given over to their almost Dadaist lifestyle, as they pour all their imagination and energy into ever more audacious ascents — and with very little money in their pockets — climbers have always provoked a certain amount of antagonism.

Stories are still told about the early days, when pioneering climbers, who were busily inventing now-standard equipment such as modern pitons, sky hooks and the porta-ledges that permit bivouacs on vertical terrain, often washed their clothes in Lodge bathrooms, acquired keys to Lodge showers from sympathetic employees and slept in the then-heated Camp 4 bathrooms. When food ran low, climbers were even known to scarf leftovers from soiled cafeteria plates.

More recent antics include using campground bear lockers as storage units, poaching electricity with surreptitious extension cords and a tendency to drink beer and do the odd bong hit — an excellent way to make rangers, charged with enforcing laws, wish this headache would disappear.

For years, in fact, the Park Service insisted on calling Camp 4 "Sunnyside Walk-In Campground," despite the fact that most Park employees used the historic moniker. And in 1998, when a flood wiped out hotel rooms and employee dormitories in the Valley, the Park Service decided to rebuild right on top of Camp 4. The plan was discovered when a curious climber asked about survey stakes along Camp 4's boundaries. The international climbing community rallied together, hired attorneys, and — with the eventual cooperation of certain rangers, who had the open-mindedness to see both sides — they saved Camp 4, winning its inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places.

For a while, this détente produced a new spirit of hope. Plans began circulating for a Yosemite Climbing Museum, which is still in the works, and the American Alpine Club is looking into building an additional "climbers ranch" campground outside the park boundary, to alleviate overcrowding. The Park Service has also created the new law enforcement title of Yosemite Climbing Ranger, currently held by Else, who hosts regular Sunday morning "climber coffees" in Camp 4.

In fact, according to Steve Shackleton, Yosemite's current chief law enforcement ranger, more than a few rangers have started out as climbers.

"I'm kind of a duffer now," he says, "but I used to spend a lot of time climbing." For that reason, Shackleton considers good relations with climbers to be an extremely high priority. But he admits that it is once again becoming a thorny issue.

"Rangers have an enforcement job to do," he says, "and rock climbers are not awfully constrained by rules and are free spirits, and have a little bit of the gypsy blood, sort of vagabonds, and there's often fertile grounds for some sort of clash."

*

Walking the line

"Usually I start in March or April," says Dean "Bullwinkle" Fidelman, drinking coffee in the Yosemite cafeteria and describing his climbing year. "And I'll climb straight through to November. I have no house, no home, nothing like that."

A 30-year Valley climbing regular, Fidelman is a slender man with a narrow, weathered face and intense eyes. He says he winters on a friend's sailboat in Monterey Bay, and he prefers not to discuss where he sleeps while visiting Yosemite.

Suffice it to say, he shows up at the cafeteria most mornings, sitting at the usual climbers tables in the far right corner of the room. Joining him today are Sanam Pejuhesh, a 19-year-old climber, and Cedar Wright, a sponsored North Face athlete who regularly appears in climbing magazines and videos and has numerous El Capitan speed records to his credit.

After finishing breakfast, they amble through a wet meadow to a secret, illegal slack line and spend several hours working on their balance. Half Dome looms overhead, the constant stream of cars are, for once, hidden, and the Valley seems a quiet paradise as the climbers take turns walking the line.

Balancing on one foot, and refining their ability to focus and to control fear, they swing side to side and even jump up and down. After a lunch break, they hike up the far side of the Valley, following no existing trail, to reach a good practice boulder conveniently located next to a secret sleeping spot. Working on their finger and arm strength, they climb up and down and up again.

The majority of rock climbers are weekend warriors, unthreatened by the seven-day camping limit and happy to drive up on weekends and sleep in authorized camp sites. But for those who constantly push the limits of the possible, that kind of constraint is simply unacceptable.

As a result, few of them dispute the rangers' basic charges against them, admitting that many serious climbers risk steep fines by overstaying the seven-day limit, or sleeping in unauthorized places. And they also feel that this shouldn't bother the rangers.

"We call the rangers 'the tool,' " says Dean Potter, a Patagonia-sponsored climber with a near-mystical reputation for ropeless ascents. "They're just kind of a tool of the government machine. They don't use their own mind."

Despite his language, Potter is trying to articulate what climbers feel to be missing in the dialogue: a sense that what they do has a special place here and is at its heart rather innocent.

"Instead of seeing us as people enjoying this place, pushing the boundaries of mind and body on the rocks, [the rangers] say, 'That guy's been here more than a week. That guy slept under a tree. That guy rode a bike at night without a headlight.' They press the rules to the max," Potter says.

Fidelman, for his part, takes a more conciliatory approach, believing that everyone should get a fair piece of the pie. The Park Service is already making value decisions, he says, by offering hundreds of hotel rooms on the valley floor, maintaining campgrounds large enough for RVs and allowing the unrestrained use of private vehicles on all Valley roads, which turns the entire Valley into a vast parking lot on busy weekends.

His solution — to ban private vehicles in the Valley — is actually one of the few points of agreement between climbers and rangers.

The Yosemite General Management Plan, adopted by the Park Service in 1980, calls for construction of large satellite parking areas outside the Valley, regular shuttle service in and out and an end to the use of private cars in the park.

Twenty-five years later, however, this still hasn't happened, and it's unclear if it ever will.

In the meantime, Fidelman argues that even the most marginal aspect of the climbing culture has its value. In climbing vernacular, he points out, "dirtbag" has become a proud buzzword for life lived on the edge, in pursuit only of the personal growth made possible by engagement with the natural world.

"Dirtbagging is the white man's equivalent of blues," Fidelman says. "That [climbing] bum is the soul. And a lot of climbers with good jobs and wives and kids, deep down they want to be that guy. And I think the community is aware of that core. It's going away, and when it's gone, it's gone."

*

The real deal

Later in the afternoon, Ninov and McNeely emerge from the trees below El Cap. They carry enormous packs full of equipment. They are positively filthy; their skin is sunburnt, and their hair is foul. And they radiate the exuberant well-being that comes only from authentic physical adventure.

McNeely's sister is so happy he's alive that she bursts into tears. Then a long-haired climber produces a bottle of booze. Putting the bottle to his lips, Ninov takes a draw and then shudders.

"Whoa!" he says. "That's pirate rum!"

And then, he and McNeely immediately start telling the story of their latest adventure, making it abundantly clear that the soul of dirtbag culture isn't gone yet.

*

Daniel Duane is the author of "El Capitan: Historical Feats and Radical Routes." His father, attorney Richard Duane, successfully represented a coalition of climbers in their 1998 lawsuit against the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service to save Camp 4.
Anal C#nt

Boulder climber
Bald Knob, AR
Jul 19, 2005 - 03:44pm PT
It's also a copyright violation. The LA Times paid Daniel Duane to write this piece; in exchange they received the right to control its distribution (according to the law, within the USA, yada yada). If you published a (not previously free) SuperTopo of Chris' for the convenience of J. Random Websurfer (because otherwise they might have to pay for it, and Chris might earn a living! horrors!), I suspect he might object.

Excerpting the article for review or critical purposes is fine; it's called fair use. Republishing the entire article is a willful violation of copyright law unless the Los Angeles Times gave Chris permission to do so. He might want to reconsider posting the article otherwise.

(I am not a lawyer, I simply request their advice on these matters; the above is not legal advice nor should it be construed as such. It is my personal opinion and nothing more.)
Gabe

climber
San Clemente, CA
Jul 19, 2005 - 05:36pm PT
The only unbelievable part of the story is that Ivo shuddered when he drank the pirate rum. heh heh!
Fluoride

Trad climber
on a rock or mountain out west
Jul 19, 2005 - 05:58pm PT
Don't think so anal c*nt, it's a published article that's on the web for all to see. I see no issue with Chris reprinting it, legal or otherwise.

I read it this morning in the paper. The photo on the front page of Lober is HYSTERICAL....he has this frustrated "I can't believe Yogi and BooBoo stole another pick-a-nick basket!!!" look with a hand over his head.

But THIS quote....this is about as big a lie as I've seen printed in the paper outside of Bush administration shenanigans:

"One of the paranoias of the climbers," Lober says, "is that the rangers hate the climber. It couldn't be further from the truth. The law enforcement ranger can't tell a climber from the average citizen. So what he's looking for is someone who's up to no good. And there are a lot of 'dirtbags' who come here, and you start to look at certain ways people dress, their hygiene, and, of course, that becomes a conflict."

What a load. We're all paranoid guys, they don't hate us!!! They just hate people that LOOK like us!!!

maculated

Trad climber
San Luis Obispo, CA
Jul 19, 2005 - 06:19pm PT
Gabe,

I think it's kinda mean that you guys make your poor sister cry instead of getting her into the McNeely dynasty of climbing! Pshaw.

And Floride, what's it going to take to prove to you that the rangers really aren't out to get you, but have to do something because that's their job?

If anyone can think of viable answers instead of dramatic finger pointing at "the man", I think everyone'd like to hear them.

Edited to add "guys" so Fluoride can stop sucking down the laughing gas from the stress it caused him.
Fluoride

Trad climber
on a rock or mountain out west
Jul 19, 2005 - 08:49pm PT
Kristin, read the actual article. AMMON made his sister cry, not Gabe. Geez. At least get the little stuff right whydontcha.

Fluoride

Trad climber
on a rock or mountain out west
Jul 19, 2005 - 09:00pm PT
On a lighter note, does Sana know there's a big picture of her on the cover of the Outdoors section? That's pretty rad for her, I'm sure she'd love a copy of the actual paper article. If anyone's run into her out there on the rock let her know.
Larry

Trad climber
Reno NV
Jul 19, 2005 - 11:51pm PT
it's a published article that's on the web for all to see.

That doesn't mean that they cede their intellectual property rights.

http://www.tmsreprints.com/faq/index.html
Mig

Trad climber
Coimbra, Portugal
Jul 20, 2005 - 07:33am PT
One day I dreamed with the Valley…

My name is Miguel and I’m a Portuguese climber. For those who don’t know where is Portugal, its a little country in Southwest of Europe squeezed between the cold waters of Atlantic sea and the border or Spain.

14 years ago when I started climbing, I was 15’s and soon I read and heard about the legend story of Yosemite climbing history.

I soon understand that I will never become a “complete” climber if I will never live one summer of my life in this dream land. Soon these stories became a dream and this dream became an end.

Luckily (and working hard) in the summer of 2000 I land in the “sacred” territory of Yosemite Valley.
During four weeks I lived a dirt bag life (like usually…) in Camp 4, climbing around and enjoying this unique landscape.

I push my body and mind though El Cap walls and sweat and cry in the perfect cracks of the valley like I had dream all my life.

I met wonderful people and I feel the freedom and abrasive touch of this golden granite.

But unfortunate I saw some “bad” things. I saw the rangers pressure… thousands of cars… millions of people…but I saw how the valley resist with own magnificence and splendour superiority. I hope it continues… and doesn’t die under the pressure… like the free spirit of camp 4 climbers!

I doesn’t like plan and luckily I can’t predict my future and probably I will never achieve climbing in my dream mountains like Patagonia, Himalaya or Baffin, but one thing I’m sure. One day I will be back to Yosemite Valley even if it is the last place I visit.

And you probably ask, WHY?

Because the valley remaining as part of my dream ability!






Ammon

Big Wall climber
Lake Arrowhead
Jul 20, 2005 - 09:31pm PT


Too Funny!!

Ok, like every good story this one has some embellishments. My sister never cried and IFshe did it was because she wasn’t going up El Cap this time on her vacation (plans fell through). I did take a good whip up there (flake broke) and took a 40 footer. Amanda did see it and was worried about me….. who knows maybe she did cry, haa haa haa.

So, we get down and were pretty thirsty. We come strolling over to El Cap Bridge it seems that everyone was either holding a beer or a very large camera. Jake, (bigwalling – aka: bringmedeath) hands Ivo what appeared to be water. Ivo chugs it down thinking it was water but was actually rum. I thought he was going to puke but he just shuddered and said, “That’s not water, that’s pirate’s juice”.

We had a pretty good laugh at that one. Haa haa haa

deuce4

Big Wall climber
the Southwest
Jul 20, 2005 - 09:51pm PT
I remember after doing the Sheep Ranch with Xaver when we got back to the meadow there was a guy who ran up to us (he had been watching us the whole time with a Celestron)and exclaimed, "you're the guy who took the 200 foot fall way up there!!"

It may have been around 60 or 70 feet (on the A4 pitch where the Ranch connects with the Sea, we were in a hurry to make the Cyclops ledge that night and I hooked a big flake without testing, which pulled, then ripped two rivets and fell slightly below the belay. Luckily a third rivet held me or it would have been head first onto a small ledge sticking out).

I guess it looks worse from the ground...
poop_tube

Trad climber
Irvine, CA
Jul 28, 2005 - 05:41pm PT
It's strange how climbers are treated in The Valley. Almost daily there are some pretty amazing feats and courageous acts that climbers do. Often times epic battles for survival and selfless acts of rescue. Most of the time these stories are forgotten. On top of all this we come down only to get harassed by rangers.

Some of the things that go on up there are the kinds of things you may see in movies or read about in fictional writings. Truly heroic actions. Yet the climbers that have gone through it have little or no recognition. For many, the satisfaction of what they did is more than enough and they don't need any glory. But it's hard when rangers don't have any understanding for what we climbers have been through and treat us like dirt.

Someone mentioned on this forum before that one of the reasons tourists come is to see the climbers up there. Perhaps if there were no climbers to watch there would be less tourits. This would mean less business in the park and less of a need for rangers. Let's also not leave out just how much climbers come to The Valley and spend money there. Probably a lot. So I believe that climbers indirectly help the rangers keep their jobs.

Some of the best people I have ever met were climbers. Many (though not all) of us are some of the most respectful people towards the environment. It would be selfish of me to say that climbers deserve "special" treatment, but it would be nice if the rangers would just be more understanding to the kinds of things that we go through. There is no reason for them to be so friggin inconsiderate and flat out a$$holes to climbers alone. If anything, we are helping them keep their jobs in the first place.
Degaine

climber
Jul 28, 2005 - 05:54pm PT
poop_tube,

Nice post, and I agree with you for the most part. However, with regard to revenue generation, that's pushing it a little. I mean, I know I have seen a few of those t-shirts "Go Climb a Rock," and surely without climbers concessions would never have been able to sell them - but how much revenue could those shirts have generated?

Kidding aside, I agree that climbers and climbing are part of the tourist experience as well as the draw of the park. The rock walls of the Valley are awe inspiring by themselves, but knowing climbers are up there also helps to situate the geologic immensity on a human scale.
poop_tube

Trad climber
Irvine, CA
Jul 28, 2005 - 05:59pm PT
Ya Degaine. Also I heard that Camp 4 brings out more revenue for the park than any of the other camps.
Degaine

climber
Jul 28, 2005 - 06:02pm PT
If that's the case with Camp 4, then I certainly underestimated the amount of revenue climbers generate.
poop_tube

Trad climber
Irvine, CA
Jul 28, 2005 - 06:07pm PT
Ya, thats what I thought. But then when I thought about it, I realized that the average tourist comes once a every few years for a few days spending a couple hundres bucks. But a climber comes for a few weeks every year and spends a bit more than a couple hundred bucks. I know I spend more than that on food and groceries alone there.
Rhodo-Router

Trad climber
Otto, NC
Jul 28, 2005 - 11:05pm PT
Climbers may occasionally perform heroic actions, which I would define as putting oneself in harm's way in order to help another, but most of the time we're on the ground, not climbing, and I think that's where the conflict lies.

To say that climbers deserve special treatment simply for climbing indicates perhaps an inflated sense of self-importance. Amazing feats and courageous acts are great, but when they occur in the context of a purely self-centered pastime, I'm not convinced they should earn us any kind of special points.

All that aside, the 7-day limit is outrageous, I hate that the place is crowded to the extent that such rules are even considered, and I've had my share of less-than-optimal encounters with the LEO's. I just don't think we should overstate our significance here.
climbera5

Trad climber
Sacramento
Jul 29, 2005 - 04:45pm PT
I disagree. Right or wrong I believe climbers are special because on a physical, mental, and emotional level (add spiritual if you like) we are pushing current day levels of human ability. We stand on the shoulders of adventure giants before us in our fight and need to express our abilities. The challenges expand ourselves and help us become better people. Call me an idealist, but climbing sure changed my life for the better, helped give me confidence and sense of self, and express a need and ability that has encouraged others. I don't see it as solely a hedonistic pastime, but a shinning example of what's possible.

Better this than relegated to couch potato consumerism run amok. This issue is symptamatic of what's wrong in our culture and why we need to fight to keep our climbing areas open.
WBraun

climber
Jul 29, 2005 - 04:50pm PT
"we are pushing current day levels of human ability

What a crock ........ we are actually going backwards and actually becoming weaker.
climbera5

Trad climber
Sacramento
Jul 29, 2005 - 05:34pm PT
Werner, by 'we' I assume you are talking about society as a whole and not climbers. If so, then re-read the sentence. If not, and you believe that climbers are becoming weaker as a whole, then I believe the hassle factor of climbing in the Valley and elsewhere is a contributing factor. We had the good fortune of climbing in a era of anonymity and greater freedoms, with significant ease and access to the stone. Not true today.

But I don't want to debate the cynical or bitter perspective. The question is, how do we promote climbing without constantly defending the stereotype of dirtbags and derelicts? We've become our own worst enemy in our effort to protect that which we love. Articles like this reinforces the stereotype for as much as I love climbing, I am not secretly a 'bullwinkle' wannabe.
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