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Athletes

Aug 09, 2017

Gavin McClurg’s Inside Perspective on the Red Bull X-Alps

Gavin McClurg may be the only person ever to learn to paraglide while living on a boat—spending a year sailing around the world.

WRITTEN BY

Gavin McClurg

After finishing again just last month at the Red Bull X-Alps 2017, with other athletes like Tom de Dorlodot, this is an exerpt from the book he was writing on his experience as a 2015 rookie in the “Toughest Adventure Race on Earth”.

“Those who overcome great challenges will be changed, and often in unexpected ways. For our struggles enter our lives as unwelcome guests, but they bring valuable gifts. And once the pain subsides, the gifts remain. These gifts are life’s true treasures, bought at great price, but cannot be acquired in any other way.” ― Steve Goodier

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

It is billed as the toughest adventure race on Earth. 32 athletes race over one thousand kilometers via a series of turn points from Salzburg to Monaco across the spine of the Alps. The race gets longer and more complicated and difficult with each edition, which takes place every two years, and first began in 2003. Progress is allowed only by air (by means of flying a paraglider) or by foot; athletes must carry their wing, harness, helmet, instruments and a handful of other mandatory equipment (safety flares, tracking device, etc.) across frozen glaciers, along congested motorways, suffer through blistering heat, snow and rain storms, and oxygen-starved frigid alpine environments. Depending on the weather some athletes will cover over 100 kilometers on the ground each day and will typically climb the height of Everest 4 times during the race. Every 48 hours whoever is in last place is eliminated and typically several athletes drop out of the race due to exhaustion, severe blisters or other injury. There are very few rules. Other than hitting the mandatory turn points athletes are allowed total freedom in how they navigate the course. Movement is allowed between 0530 and 2230 every day, with the exception of one “night pass” which every athlete can elect to use at any time during the race, which eliminates the mandatory rest period. Each athlete is allowed one official supporter, who can provide technical advice, and mental and nutritional support. In the history of the race only 11% of the field has finished.  The combination of physical torture, lack of sleep, and dangerous flying conditions that only the most bold pilots in the world are willing to tackle certainly puts the race in a special category. But is it the “toughest adventure race on Earth”?

Lets take a look.

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Adventure racing isn’t new. Humans have been devising creative ways of inducing severe physical and mental punishment for time immortal, but the birth of the modern adventure race is often credited to the two-day Karrimor International Mountain Marathon, an unsupported two-person double marathon through mountainous terrain, first held in 1968. Today there are ultrathons (100+ mile races) all over the world. From racing in 120F degree heat in the Badwater ultra marathon in Death Valley to the Marathon De Sables in the Sahara desert- both of which claim to be the hardest foot race on Earth; to the 146 mile bug-infested Jungle Ultra in Peru; to racing across the frozen wilderness of Alaska with no navigation aids in the Alaska Mountain Wilderness challenge, there is no shortage of proper sufferfests. Each of these races might take 3 or 4 days and while unremitting and certainly dangerous clearly don’t compare to the kind of distance, time, punishment and danger of flying and hiking across the Alps.

Longer, more demanding and dangerous races include the Iditarod Invitational, a 1,000 mile solo race by bike, foot or skis following the legendary Iditarod trail from Willow to Nome, Alaska. Long, cold and rugged, it is billed as the “world’s longest winter ultra marathon” and its lack of rules is similar to the X-Alps in that the athletes must make a myriad of decisions and live with the consequences. The fastest time it has been completed was 10 days, and in one year no one finished. A race with probably the lowest completion rate is the 6633 ultra, a self-supported 350 mile race along the arctic circle where participants tow a gear sled by foot. Athletes have to deal with temps that hover 25 degrees below zero, ferocious winds, and ruthless terrain. Runners are allowed 8 days to complete the event and only 11 participants have done so in the race’s seven year history.

Gavin McClurg, St.Moritz, Switzerland on July 11th 2015. Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Weather is clearly a major factor in all of the hardest races, and the X-Alps is no exception, so the “toughest” in one year may not be the toughest in another year. The only race that may be on par from a danger level with the X-Alps is the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Challenge where a combination of fatigue, terrain and weather conspired to kill a highly skilled athlete in 2015 while attempting to fjord a river. Flying a paraglider is dangerous in the best of times, but during the X-Alps athletes become mentally exhausted and reaction times to potentially lethal situations in the air are compromised. All of these difficult and long adventure races are a matter of endurance and being able to withstand extreme physical hardship. The X-Alps has these elements in spades, but it is also a game of finesse and skill and tactics. You can’t muscle your way through the X-Alps, you have to think your way through, and this may be where the X-Alps stands alone. The fastest endurance trail runner in the world would have no chance in the X-Alps. You have to be fast on the ground, but you also have to be a fearless magician in the air. You can’t just put your head down and grunt it out. You have to think. Training for an endurance event that also encompasses the nuances and art of flying a piece of unmotorized plastic hundreds of miles across a mountain range must include training in conditions that can be expected in the race. These are conditions that even the best (and crazy) pilots in the world would not be willing to take on.

In the end, each of these races is a deeply personal experience lived, felt, agonized, triumphed or defeated by the athlete and the athlete alone. There is only one way to get to “that place.” The X-Alps is a one-way elevator that will take you there.

Day 1, Out in Front

The big day finally arrived.  Months and months of training and preparation and doubts and fears and excitement was now officially in the past. It was GO time. And it was excruciatingly hot. Thirty-two athletes were bunched under the huge Red Bull tent in downtown Salzburg hiding from a vicious sun. I drank a few more bottles of water and sank into a beanbag and shut my eyes, instantly falling asleep. I’d dreamt of this moment for so long it felt totally surreal to finally be here. I was unreasonably calm, I could feel my heart ticking away like it was just another day. I had been adding sleeping pills to my nightly routine all week in an effort to add some much-needed nocturnal rest, but they hadn’t worked.

I’d heard stories from some of the pilots who had competed in the race previously that they actually caught themselves dozing in flight. Others talked about hallucinations. Paragliding is intense even in calm conditions, I really hoped I didn’t get so sleep deprived that taking catnaps in the sky became necessary!

My internal clock gave me a shake a few minutes before the start and then we were off, running through the cobbled streets of Salzburg with throngs of people cheering us on towards the first turn point, the Gaisberg.  

As the ascent steepened the pace slowed and I checked my heart rate. I was using the Garmin Fenix watch (Garmin was a major sponsor of the race) and heart rate monitor instead of my trusty Suunto and hoped I had a setting or something wrong when it said my heart rate was 188! That was well above my maximum and totally untenable for any length of time. I felt great and couldn’t understand why it was beating so hard. Was it heat? Adrenaline? I knew I wasn’t going any harder than I had in training. But it didn’t drop. About six kilometers into the race I met up with one of my supporters, Ben, as planned, who had walked down from the launch with extra water and a few packets of Gu. I told Ben about my heart rate, which at that point had been above 180 for over 30 minutes. I was afraid I was going to bonk or just pass out, even though I felt fine. “What the hell is going on?”  I asked.

“How do you feel?”  Ben questioned.

“I feel great man, awesome. I’m worried my heart is going to explode, but it feels fine.”

“You’re fine then, you know your body and you know your heart rate better than any monitor does. Trust your training.”

This would be the first of literally hundreds of times Ben’s confidence would put my mind at ease. We rallied the rest of the way to launch, arriving in eighth place amongst a sea of screaming fans.

Gavin Mcclurg and his support team during the Red Bull X-Alps in Annecy, France on 13th July 2015. Photo courtesy of Red Bull

My team was ready with a big lunch, extra water and all the non-mandatory gear that I would take with me into the air. Crampons and via-ferrata harness for the Dachstein in case we had to hike to the 2nd turnpoint over the glacier instead of flying to it, extra clothing, a dry shirt, gloves, sun block and electrolytes. In this heat, water and electrolytes were critical and our biggest fear behind bombing out (landing prematurely) was bonking. Bruce (my tactician and air-strategist) refreshed me with the airspace regulations in the area. The airspace all the way to the Dachstein and then towards turnpoint 3 at Aschau is really tricky. Violating airspace meant at best a 24 hour penalty, and at worst a disqualification. Screw it up and the race is over.

I took stock of my surroundings. Throngs of screaming fans, the Red Bull filming helicopter buzzing loudly overhead, all the athletes laying out their gliders and preparing to fly. I was so excited and pumped up I felt like screaming, but I tried to keep a calm outer demeanor.

“Be cool Gavin, be cool!” I kept repeating to myself.

Then Nick Neynans (New Zealand) launched into the air, followed quickly by Aaron Durogati (Italy) and then the Eagle himself, Chrigel Maurer (Swiss 1). They were climbing easily. Time to go. I pulled my wing into the gentle breeze blowing up the hill, gave my team a nod and turned and lifted off the ground. Flight number one of the 2015 X-Alps! The plan was simple: Fly conservatively; stay in the air; don’t do anything stupid.

No less than twenty gliders climbed up to within a few hundred meters of prohibited air space and went on glide towards turnpoint 2, the stunning Dachstein, the highest mountain in Austria, 50 kilometers down course line. I counted maybe sixteen wings in front of me as I too went on glide, but chose a more direct line out front and began to quickly pick them off. I looked up at my wing and smiled. “Let’s go baby!”

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Twenty kilometers into the flight I’d pulled into 3rd place, behind Pascal Purin (Austria 4) and Maurer.  Maurer was leading the charge as expected on a deep line but he was getting held up, so I stayed wide out front, linking onto a long spine that leads directly onto the Dachstein. We were in the big mountains now. The climbs were strong and the wind was light. A perfect flying day to start the race and the only real stress was staying below airspace. Nearly all of the pilots chose the deeper line behind Chrigel, and they were all higher than I was so I figured I must be OK. I liked my line better out front and in no time was coming in high over the glacier and the turn point, flying fast. I was in 4th place! What an amazing start!

The lead gaggle then broke up, nearly all the pilots headed southwest towards our planned route towards the town of Bischofshofen, where we could glide onto the impressive walls beneath the Hochkonig, which then lead to a very well-traveled glider “highway” that leads off in a northwest direction toward Turnpoint 3 in Germany. It was a route I’d flown twice during our scouting missions that spring and was the sensible way to go, but the conditions were so good I felt a more direct line was possible, shaving the corner and diving behind the Hochkonig. I set off on glide and was suddenly totally alone, right up in first place!

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

Even though I was in the lead I was starting to get nervous about my call to take the deeper line. But then I got jumped by Stephen Gruber (Austria 3), who was not only an amazing pilot but more importantly lived near here and knew this area probably better than anyone else in the field. Lead on! Then a wing I recognized was suddenly right next to me. Chrigel! He’d crawled up from way back in the pack after getting stuck before the Dachstein and was skillfully picking off pilots one by one. He looked up and while I couldn’t see his face I knew he was smiling and then he seemed to find another gear and accelerated past me like I was standing still. You son of a bitch!!! But knowing Chrigel was taking the same line gave me a huge boost in confidence and I set off, trying to reel him in. The Red Bull helicopter swept in to film the lead three pilots as we found our next climb. You couldn’t have wiped the smile off my face with a cheese grater. The Aschau turn point was only 70 kilometers away and I was in the top three! If we could stay in the air we could cover 15% of the course on the first day! We were high, the flying was magnificent, the scenery mind-blowing and I thought that it was doubtful anyone on Earth was having more fun than I was at that moment.

At 1900 hours Bruce called with a strategy update.

“Gavin you need to slow down now, stay high, stay in the air. Change gears, stop racing, STAY IN THE FUCKING AIR, I don’t want you to land until 9 pm!”  

The race rules allowed us to move between 05:30 and 22:30 hours, but we could only fly between 06:00 and 21:00.

I limped onto a shaded hill above a lake and thought my day was over but as I ground around to the west still-sunny side found an agonizingly slow climb. I worked ever-so-slowly higher and just as I got to where I could have some breathing room Paul Guschlbauer (Austria 1) flew right over my head and lead the way.

Photo courtesy of Red Bull

We squeaked over a treed col to the east of a small town called Unterwossen and landed near a small airstrip just after 8 pm, just a few kilometers short of turnpoint 3 at Aschau in Germany. 170 kilometers of the 1100 kilometer course had just been covered in the air. As soon as I landed I started ripping off my gear and throwing it around instead of neatly piling it as I’d practiced so many times. Bruce called and I impatiently tried to give him directions to where I was, but he had no cell data and couldn’t pull up Google Maps and I just said “goddammit, I’m on the airstrip, come find me!” and hung up. I packed up my wing, lost my bluetooth earpiece in the grass and ran off in the wrong direction. A woman ran out from her house and offered me some food and asked where I was going, and handed me a glove that I’d dropped. I’d been running towards the turn point but hadn’t noticed a large river blocking my path because I hadn’t taken the time to check my maps. The woman said I either had to wade across or backtrack a kilometer to the main road. I thanked her for the food, grabbed my glove and ran back the way I’d come cursing myself for being so hasty and unorganized. I was making a rookie mistake that we’d been warned not to do.

Our beautiful van, easily recognizable with the huge Patagonia stickers pulled up and Bruce and Ben hopped out wearing big smiles. I was handed an energy shake and we briefly discussed strategy. I was in 4th place. I knew there was a hotel at the turnpoint and Ben and I raced off thinking there was something to be gained by hauling ass. There wasn’t. It was our team’s first big lesson of the race. SLOW DOWN. In our rush we forgot spare batteries and chargers; my mouthguard which I can’t sleep without; money for the hotel or dinner; and appropriate clothing for the storm that was on its way, which we knew nothing about.

That night as the wind howled and the rain thundered down relentlessly and sleep stayed out of reach I replayed the events of the day in my mind and imagined the days ahead. I didn’t know it of course at the time, but I would finish in a respectable 8th place and be the first American to reach Monaco in the race’s history. In ten days I would cover 498 kilometers on the ground (12+ marathons), climb and absurd 52,000 vertical meters (Everest 5 times) and fly 1560 kilometers across one of the most iconic and stunning mountain ranges in the world.

I would have some of the most memorable flights of my career. Some beautiful, some terrifying. But that night, even though the race had barely begun it was already was more adventure, more fun, more difficult and more terrifying than anything I’d ever done. In the days ahead I would learn you had to give it everything you had. You had to risk it all. You had to think with an exhausted mind and you had to move fast with an exhausted body. You had to ignore pain.

You had to have an awesome team who could stay optimistic and solve the plethora of problems that came up on the fly. All the logistics and strategy and being there for me whenever I needed them, at any time of the day or night; anticipating my every move; figuring out routes; keeping me fed; working out weather forecasts; keeping my instruments charged; and making sure I didn’t forget anything.

That night I should have dreamt of Monaco but instead I worried about the inevitable. At some point the race would end. At some point the magic that we were experiencing would come to an abrupt halt. We had poured our lives into this race for the better part of a year and in one moment it would be over. We had 865 kilometers to go, the most difficult and dangerous part of the course was ahead but that wasn’t what was on my mind that night. What was on my mind made me sad because I knew that when this craziness ended I would no longer have the precious gift that the race had given me. The gift of being right here, right now. Kung Fu Panda said it best: “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That’s why it is called a Present.”

 

Did Gavin inspire you to go take a hike! (Or a climb)? Head to The Outdoor Voyage to make your own story.

This article was a feature in Issue 10 of The Outdoor Journal print magazine and can be seen on Gavin’s website, Cloudbase Mayhem.

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Athletes & Explorers

Oct 19, 2018

Outdoor Moms: Hilaree Nelson – Mother of Two, Mountaineering Hero to All

2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir, ski descent of Papsura, first woman to summit two 8,000m peaks in 24 hours… mother of two.

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WRITTEN BY

Brooke Hess

‘Outdoor Moms’ is a new series, profiling mothers pursuing their sport, all while taking care of family. You can read the first article on world-famous kayaker, Emily Lussin, here.

“You know just when you have that skin crawl on the back of your neck. Like, we are not in a good place. We need to move.”

One week ago, Hilaree Nelson was in Nepal completing one of the biggest expeditions of her 20 year ski mountaineering career. Today, she is sitting at home in Telluride, Colorado, just having finished the hectic morning routine of packing lunches and getting her two kids to school on time.

She is telling me the story of when her crew got stuck in a storm between Camp 1 and Camp 2. Instead of pushing on through the whiteout, they decided to set up an interim camp and wait it out. “We were all huddled in this little single-wall, three-person tent. It was storming out pretty good and we started hearing avalanches coming down… One avalanche was a little too loud and a little too close, so we left the tent standing and we got out and started trying to navigate in the whiteout.” Once the weather cleared, the team safely made their way to Camp 2. Two days later, Nelson and her climbing partner, Jim Morrison, returned to the interim camp to gather the gear they had left behind. What they found was the remains of a massive avalanche that had ripped across the camp, scattering gear everywhere and throwing it into crevasses. “It was a little crazy. We were kinda like, ‘oh wow I am really glad we didn’t stay there’.”

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

Less than two weeks later, Nelson and Morrison found themselves atop the summit of Mt. Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world. Four hours after that, they both arrived back at Camp 2, having just completed the first ever ski descent of the Lhotse Couloir.

Skiing a 50 degree slope for 7,000 feet would be an impossible task for some of the most dedicated skiers out there. Add in the fact that they did it at 8,000 meters elevation after spending the previous 14 hours on a summit push, and the feat becomes unimaginable.

Read about Hilaree’s Lhotse Expedition here.

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

For Nelson, who has previously skied both Cho Oyu in Tibet and Papsura in India, this achievement is one of the highlights of her career.
But her career as a ski mountaineer is only half of her life.

Nelson’s two sons, Graydon and Quinn, are the other half.

Summit of Wilson Peak, Telluride, CO. Graydon and Quinn’s second 14’er.

“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night, and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time”

“I have two boys. They are 9 and 11. Graydon is the younger one and Quinn is the older one. They are crazy little boys… They are really into skiing, they are both alpine racing, they are currently in mountain biking camp after school, they go to climbing club after school, and they are really obsessed with lacrosse. And they both really like math too!” Between expeditions, working as The North Face team captain, and being a mother of two, it is a wonder Hilaree is able to juggle it all. And from what it sounds like, both her kids are on a path towards being just as busy as she is!

Instead of letting the busy schedules stress her out, Nelson embraces it.
“I got home (from Nepal) Sunday night, and Monday morning I was freaking out making kids’ lunches and trying to get the kids to school on time. It just doesn’t miss a beat… It’s fun to be a mother.”

As Nelson talks about motherhood, her face lights up with pride. “I like how unpredictable it is. I’ve always been a bit terrified of every day being the same, and kids are a sure-fire way to make every day different and an unknown adventure.” Nelson describes the unpredictability of her children as one of her favorite parts of being a mom. As she recounts the chaos of motherhood, I can’t help but think how this mirrors the other half of life. Weather forecasts, snowpack predictions, snowpack stability, and even personal mental and physical strength are all factors that can be unpredictable during a ski mountaineering expedition, much like children can be unpredictable during motherhood.

Nelson climbs Skyline Arete with younger son, Graydon.

“It is not that I put being a mother away, but I do have to compartmentalize it a little bit”

Taking on two very different roles as both mother and mountain athlete requires a unique mindset that Nelson has adapted over the past 11 years. “The emotional roller coaster I ride is sometimes very difficult on my kids. I am so stressed to leave them before I go on a trip, and then I turn into that climber person. It is not that I put being a mother away, but I do have to compartmentalize it a little bit so I can focus on what I am climbing. Then when I come home, it is really hard to switch back into mother. You know, I am full mother when I am home. I am in the classroom, I am picking them up from sports, I am taking them to ski races, cooking them dinner, making them lunch. I am just mom, like what moms do. It is almost like I am two different people living in one body.”

Nelson’s somewhat double identity life is what defines her. But it didn’t come easy. She describes her comeback from childbirth as the single most difficult challenge she has had to overcome. “Getting back to being an athlete after having babies was about the hardest thing I have ever done. In fact, it was so difficult that it almost makes climbing and expeditions look easy.” Her first son was born via a relatively “easy” c-section. Her second… not so easy. Hours of surgery for both mother and son, combined with blood loss and blood poisoning resulted in Nelson taking an entire year off from athletics.

By the time she returned to training and to the mountains, her mental strength had taken a huge hit. “I pushed hard to get back in it, but it was really difficult. It was really challenging on my confidence.”

All challenges aside, getting back into it was worth it. Having just completed one of the most iconic ski descents in history, Nelson was eager to show her boys some media from the Lhotse expedition. Nelson’s recount of their response made me giggle. “They looked at some video stuff of it yesterday and some photos… I mean, they are hard to impress, my kids.” With notable ski descents around the world, as well as being the first woman to climb two 8,000 meter peaks in 24 hours (Everest and Lhotse), and being named a 2018 National Geographic Adventurer of the Year, I am actually not surprised her sons are so hard to impress. She has set the bar pretty high!

Nelson says the boys are finally at an age where they are starting to become aware of what her career means. One of the most challenging aspects of it – long stretches away from home. Recently having gone through a difficult divorce, the challenge of leaving her kids for long periods of time becomes even more apparent. When she is in Nepal, the kids stay with their father. With the recent addition of 3G internet access to Everest Base Camp, it has been easier for her to stay in touch with her kids. However, a month is still a month, and time spent away isn’t easy. Nelson says she used to feel guilt when she left her kids, but now she has learned to view her career as a positive influence in their lives. “It has taken a long time for me to realize that having my job and being a mother has been beneficial to my kids for them to see me be a person, individually, and trust in that. It was a struggle for me for a long time that I was hurting my kids by continuing my profession. But I see now their joy and their support for what I do, and we can have rational conversations about it. I see that they are proud of me. I see that they appreciate what I do, and see me as a person. So I think it has all been worth it, but it wasn’t without a lot of tears and a lot of difficult times.”

“I don’t think they fully appreciate the dangers of it, but I also think they understand that it is dangerous”

Another challenge of her career – the danger. Ski mountaineering is one of the most risky sports any mountain athlete can partake in. At ages 9 and 11, Nelson’s kids are just beginning to understand the danger associated with it. “Skiing and mountain climbing to them, it has always just been a part of their lives as long as they can remember. I don’t think they fully appreciate the dangers of it, but I also think they understand that it is dangerous. I don’t know if they are okay with it, but it’s just what I do, and they love what I do.”

The first time Graydon and Quinn skied in the rain. “Being from Washington State, I grew up skiing in the rain and it was fun to see my kids reaction to the adverse weather. Of course, they thought we were crazy…”

“Then they want to come to the Himalayas.”

Danger and challenges aside, Graydon and Quinn look up to their mom with the utmost admiration. The boys support her career, and are proud of her accomplishments. Between their mom’s career, as well as their own personal experiences, the boys have started viewing mountain sports less as hobbies, and instead, a way of life. “Both my boys consider skiing not even a sport for them. They learned it as soon as they learned how to walk. It’s just a way of life. It’s how they play.” Nelson says she isn’t going to push the boys into climbing and mountaineering. However, despite her lack of effort, both boys have already made a list of the mountains they hope to summit. “First they are going to climb Mt. Baker, and then Rainier, and then they want to climb Denali. Then they want to come to the Himalayas.”

Both boys have already been to Makalu base camp, as well as summited several 14,000ft peaks in Colorado. When they were ages four and six, they made it most of the way up Kilimanjaro, but in Nelson’s words, they were “a little bit little” to make it to the top.

Family time on Telluride Via Ferrata.

As much as the boys idolize her, Nelson is reminded every day that they are still kids. They go to school, they play tag at recess, they wrestle, fight, cry, laugh, and most of the time are completely unconcerned with Nelson’s career as a world-renowned ski mountaineer.

“The best thing in the world is going on these expeditions that mean so much to me, but then coming home and having kids that in some ways are oblivious to what I do and are just kids… It’s awesome. It’s just a great thing to have in my life.”

Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

Cover Photo by Nick Kalisz Courtesy of The North Face

 

Read about Hilaree Nelson’s ascent and ski descent of Papsura, The Peak of Evil here.

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