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Athletes

Feb 15, 2017

#StandUp4Rhinos: First SUP Descent of the Zambezi River

Last November, eight of the world’s strongest whitewater paddlers undertook a mission to make the first stand-up paddle board descent of Africa’s Zambezi River.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

 But they weren’t just paddling for themselves; they were paddling to raise awareness about rhino poaching.

“No crocodiles.” Such was the precondition upon which the American stand-up paddle boarder (SUP) Brittany Parker agreed to join a first descent expedition to Africa’s Zambezi River. There would be enough danger without having to worry about a croc coming up while she was in the middle of a rapid, Parker reasoned. Reassured by expedition team member Paul Teasdale that there wouldn’t be any crocodiles on the river, she signed up, and two weeks later was on a plane to join a team of eight paddlers with the ambitious goal of SUPing the Zambezi river below Victoria Falls.

And they would do so all in the name of an unlikely cause: saving rhinoceroses.  

Photo © Chantelle Melzer
Photo © Chantelle Melzer

Stand-up paddle boarding is a comparatively new sport on the world stage. Taking a SUP down rapid-riddled rivers is even newer. While whitewater kayaking is more dangerous than SUP, the latter is arguably more difficult. With SUP, the goal is to “clean” each rapid, which means remaining upright on the board from the beginning of the difficulties until the end.

South African whitewater kayaker Bertrand van der Berg has been paddling for nearly 18 years. Over the past three he has become a pioneer in whitewater SUP, completing first descents like the Ash River in South Africa.

At a whitewater festival in early 2016 with his friend and fellow South African paddler Shane Raw, Van der Berg made a joke about doing the mighty Zambezi on a SUP. Raw knew the Zambezi well, and quickly turned the joke around: Why couldn’t they SUP the Zambezi? he wondered.

The two knocked around the idea for a few months, texting back and forth, and finally decided to go for it. “The more we realized it would be possible for us to do,” Van der Berg says, “the more we got worried and paranoid that someone else would do it before us.”

Raw and Van der Berg quickly assembled an experienced team. They decided eight was the magic number; eight people on the river would help to make things as safe as possible and allow them to get high quality video and photos.

In addition to Raw and Van der Berg, the final roster included two American women—Nadia Almuti and Brittany Parker—and four more South African men—Philip Claassens, Leon Pieters, Andrew Kellett and Paul Teasdale.

And with that line-up, the expedition team was set.

Photo © Chantelle Melzer
The Standup4Rhinos team taking a break for the camera. Photo © Chantelle Melzer

There are three Northern White Rhinos left in the world, the Vietnamese Rhino went extinct in 2011 and most other species of rhino face similarly grave futures. Roughly one to two rhinos and one hundred elephants are killed everyday by poachers. With the prices for rhino horns and the ivory in elephant tusks often eclipsing that of gold, poachers will stop at nothing to get them, even killing guards tasked with protecting orphaned animals at rhino and elephant sanctuaries.

Shane Raw and Bertrand Van der Berg recognized how lucky they were to be able to do what they love and undertake expeditions like the one they were planning for Zambezi, and so they made the decision to use the trip as an opportunity to raise awareness and funds for a worthy cause. When they learned the dire situation facing the prehistoric-looking rhinos, they knew they had found it.

They discovered a charity called Care for Wild which operates the largest orphan rhino sanctuary on the planet. Using the visibility of their expedition, they would seek to raise at least $10,000 for Care for Wild.

Expedition member Andrew Kellet says, “As daunting as the challenge of SUPing the Zambezi was, it was clear that the fight against rhino poaching was that much bigger. […] The reality is that at the current levels of poaching in Africa, our children’s generation will never see a live rhino in their lifetimes.”

With a team of eight assembled, a mission and a cause to motivate them, and an ambitious goal on the river itself, there was only one thing left: a name.

Photo © Chantelle Melzer
Andrew Kellet walking down to rapid number one. Photo © Chantelle Melzer

The first time that the entire Stand-up 4 Rhinos team gathered in the same place was at the start of the expedition in Zimbabwe in early-November 2016. Paul Teasdale’s house served as base camp. With only two weeks to scout 24 rapids and mount a full attempt on the river, there was no time to waste.

They spent the first day on rapids 18 to 24—the easiest section of the river. “This was just to get used to the boards on a big volume river like the Zambezi,” Van der Berg explains. And it was a bit of a shock to the system: “This was only the small stuff, and it was already quite big,” he says.  

Andrew Kellett arrived a day late and missed that first day of paddling, but says that when he got there, “The stories made it clear that this was no ordinary challenge.”

The Stand-up 4 Rhinos team spent the following two days on the same section of river, dialing in the easier section of rapids 18 to 24. Each paddler had to figure out how to adjust to the size of the river, as none of them had ever run anything so massive on a SUP.

Even though it was still a long-shot, Bertrand says the consensus after those first runs was, “‘It might actually be possible…’”

Photo © Chantelle Melzer
Shane Raw ferrying out from a sticky spot. Photo © Chantelle Melzer

Once the waters of the wide and steady Upper Zambezi River thunder over Victoria Falls, they would wind their way through the much narrower Batoka Gorge, turning into a turbulent superhighway.

“It’s an iconic river for whitewater kayakers and rafters,” Kellett says.

“Early in my kayaking career I found myself tackling its mighty rapids with names like ‘Overland Truck Eater’ and ‘Devil’s Toilet Bowl.’”

“Nothing can compare to the Zambezi Gorge and its huge rock walls,” Nadia Almuti says.

The team’s hike in and out of the steep gorge each day was punishing. Each person came away with memories of near-fainting episodes or borderline heatstroke. But even in 40 degree heat, the natural novelties that the Americans and even the South Africans encountered in Zimbabwe were always a joy. One night, for example, the team had some unexpected visitors. “There were baboons jumping all over Paul’s house,” Almuti says. “We had to close all the windows and doors. We could hear them tromping around on the roof.”

“It’s all just so wild,” Brittany Parker says. “Elephants were walking around, there were holes in concrete walls from where they walked through them, and sometimes traffic would be stopped because elephants were crossing the street. It’s a crazy place, but I loved it so, so much,” she says.

Photo © Chantelle Melzer
Philip Claassens in the hole. Photo © Chantelle Melzer

After a rest day, Van der Berg says, “We decided to step it up. Went to the hard sections. The first and middle part are much more serious than the last easier part.” In these sections of the river there are “definitely some Grade 5 rapids.” While not necessarily as technical as some other Grade 5 rivers, the Zambezi “just has so much volume and is so strong,” he says.

Even before they started working on these upper sections of the river, everyone knew there were a few rapids that they were going to bypass. “We knew we weren’t going to attempt number nine on our SUPs this trip,” Van der Berg says. “Too dangerous and hard. One day, someone might do it on a SUP, but not for a while probably.” They also opted to skip rapids seven and eleven after scouting them further. Those rapids are difficult and risky even in kayaks, Van der Berg notes; there’s a reason that number nine is known as “Commercial Suicide” and number seven as “Room of Doom.”

But just because they skipped the most dangerous rapids didn’t mean they weren’t taking on substantial risk. Parker remembers one particularly hairy moment on rapid fourteen. “Nadia was going straight for this massive pourover [a steep drop-off],” she says, “and Paul threw a rope, but she couldn’t see it. So she went right into it. My heart stopped. It’s the kind of pourover that could recirculate you, trapping you under the waters after you go over it. It was super scary. Eventually she got spit out. I was so scared, though. I walked around the rapid after that.”

Finally, on their last last day of the trip, having practiced all of the different sections of the river as much as time allowed, they set out to paddle the whole thing in one go. “We did a full run from number one to 24,” Van der Berg says. And between all the team members, at least one person cleaned each rapid.

The Zambezi, for all intents and purposes, had seen its first SUP descent.

Photo © Chantelle Melzer
Philip Claassens picking the best entry line. Photo © Chantelle Melzer

It turns out Paul Teasdale lied to Brittany Parker: There were indeed crocodiles on the Zambezi.  “It was crazy getting over my fear of the crocs,” she says. “But I’m glad Paul lied to get me there.”

Parker and her teammates saw elephants, baboons, crocodiles and all sorts of other wildlife on their Zambezi expedition. But though they light up talking about all these amazing creatures and their adventures on the water, they are more concerned with the animal they didn’t see. Though the SUP aspect of the expedition is over, the team is still focused on raising awareness of the plight of rhinoceroses.

While the paddlers were on the Zambezi, the direness of the situation facing rhinos was underscored for them once more. “We learned that while we were in Zimbabwe two poachers broke into [Care for Wild’s] facility to try to get at the rhinos,” Almuti says. Clearly there is still much work to be done.

So far Stand-up 4 Rhinos has raised approximately $3,500 out of a $10,000 goal. A documentary about the expedition and the charity initiative will be released later this year.

To do your own part in standing up for rhinos, please consider making a donation here and visit the team’s website at http://standup4rhinos.org.

Feature Image: Philip Claassens taking a knee before impact. Image © Chantelle Melzer

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Climbers

Aug 16, 2018

New Kids on the Bloc: Boulderers in India

Is this the bouldering revolution we’ve all been waiting for? The first generation of Indian climbing bums leads the charge. Here are a few of their stories.

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This story was originally published in print, in the Summer 2014 issue of The Outdoor Journal, you can subscribe here.

It was a mildly overcast evening on December 15th, 2013. A pleasant breeze blew across the ancient granite formations of India’s bouldering mecca, Hampi – perfect conditions to attempt The Diamond, a superb 8a sloper arête.

Indian climbers were pushing harder grades than the normally dominant European visitors.

Ajij Shaikh, a stick-thin, withdrawn young man was alone nearby, composing himself. He’d come excruciatingly close to completing it, but had repeatedly failed at the crux. He stood up to return to the problem. Taking off his shirt, he revealed shred upon shred of lean brown muscle. Ajij pulled on a pair of borrowed climbing shoes, took a few breaths and sat down to try again. I stood behind, ready to spot him should he fall.

“My dream was to become a doctor. But you have to study a lot; it was too difficult on us financially, so I had to give that up…”, Ajij Sheikh (pictured here) explains how his education got the axe. Here on an unknown 7c+ in Singhad Fort, bolted by Ranjit Shinde; Pune, Maharashtra. PHOTO: Sharad Chandra

This time he flowed through the traverse. A slightly different heel-hook and mantle pushed him through the crux. When Ajij topped out, he became the first Indian to send an 8a graded boulder problem. Within the next two months, Sandeep Kumar Maity and Vikas ‘Jerry’ Kumar would follow with more 8a sends.

The 2013-14 climbing season in Hampi, of which I was a part, was the first one ever where Indian climbers were pushing harder grades than the normally dominant European visitors. Here in India, with an extremely nascent mainstream climbing culture, this heralds the emergence of our first generation of climbing bums – individuals willing to forsake everything for the sole purpose of climbing hard and exploring their potential.

But where did this begin?

He comes back into town either for rations or to watch a cricket match

My starting point was Paul ‘Pil’ Lockey, a forty-five year old British juggler and climber from a trad background who’s established the largest volume of bouldering in two of India’s biggest areas – Hampi and Himachal Pradesh. Normally ‘Pillu’, as he’s known by Hampi’s locals, stays in caves while developing bouldering areas. He comes back into town either for rations or to watch a cricket match. Our conversations would happen during those windows.

When in the 7th grade at the Sant Tukaram Nagar Primary School, Ajij thought of dropping out – severe poverty had plunged him into a depression and made education seem pointless. Under a mentor, Vivek Sable, he started competing nationally and representing Maharashtra. His exposure to people and places outside his home (pictured here) in Pimprii, Pune kept him motivated. Photo: Sharad Chandra.

“I was looking down…and there was this wolf, just standing there!” he laughed, while telling me about his experience after topping out one of Hampi’s most revered problems, Kundalini Rising.  “It’s so hard to find a new three-star 7a problem in England…but here in India, there’s so much potential.” His Indian obsession began with a postcard of Hampi he received in 1992, from Jerry Moffat, Kurt Albert, Johnny Dawes and Bob Pritchard who were exploring its potential at the time. “It was just boulders…for miles…I couldn’t pass on this” he laughs, recalling how near-ridiculous Hampi’s unexplored potential seemed to him then.

In 1993, he visited for the first time with his then girlfriend. The first problem he opened was Cosmic Crimp (6b+), a near-30-foot highball. “I had to on-sight it, and there were no crashpads at the time” he recalls, explaining how bouldering developed into a real and separate discipline in climbing only in the late 90s. Since ‘93 he’s visited every year, staying months at a time.

When in the 7th grade at the Sant Tukaram Nagar Primary School, Ajij thought of dropping out – severe poverty had plunged him into a depression and made education seem pointless. Under a mentor, Vivek Sable, he started competing nationally and representing Maharashtra. His exposure to people and places outside his home (pictured here) in Pimprii, Pune kept him motivated. Photo: Sharad Chandra.

“Did you come across any Indian climbers in Hampi, back in the 90s?” I asked Pil. “A few…mostly from Bangalore…but it wasn’t too crowded until 2004” he said, referring to the climbing tourism boom Hampi experienced after the release of Pilgrimage, a movie documenting Chris Sharma’s climbs in the area. Yet somehow Himachal’s star visits didn’t have quite the same effect. Fred Nicole and Bernd Zangerl, two of the most pivotal figures in bouldering history, visited and established classics such as “Nicole’s Problem”, a 7c+ overhanging arête in Solang, which I was working recently. This lack of interest perplexes Pil, who feels Himachal is superior to Hampi. “I first came there in 2002, from the Rocklands (South Africa), looking for something to climb during the summer…” he recalls. With other travelling climbers, Pil and Harry developed bouldering in Manali, Chhatru, Chota Dara and the boulder fields between Lahaul and Spiti.

Where were the Indians then? I turned to Mohit “Mo” Oberoi for answers. A veteran climber from Delhi and the founder of Adventure 18, one of the first outdoor gear stores in the country, Mo “was hanging around the crags of Delhi – Dhauj, DamDama, Old Rocks and PBG.” When he came down south in 1986 to climb Savandurga (a 1200-foot high monolith showcased in The Outdoor Journal Issue 01) he met Dinesh Kaigonhalli, another figure well known in Bangalore’s circles. Along with many other now-forgotten names, they put up big wall and sport routes across the country.

And Mo wasn’t at today’s warm up levels either – back in 1994, he was climbing E7 (7c+) trad routes. Neither was Indian bouldering stagnant – by the early 2000’s, areas like Turuhalli near Bangalore had plenty of classics, put up Indians who’re mostly in their 40s now. So what happened then? Why hasn’t anyone else heard of them, and why has the Indian climbing growth curve been so slow?

“Rocks, rocks, rocks!” yells Mo, who represents the old guard of English-speaking, public school educated climbing enthusiasts. He says that the younger generation of climbers got too wrapped up in competition climbing, spending little to no time on natural rock. Since my generation is finally working on outdoor projects again, grade progression is finally visible, he says.

But why was this generation ignoring natural rock in favour of competitions?

Sandeep dropped school because he saw no point in wasting his efforts or his parents’ scant resources. He started working as an outdoor instructor for Rs.250 a day. 90o Arete, a 7a problem in Hampi. Photo: Vinay Potdar.

It’s the economy, stupid.

Mo’s generation and the Himalayan Club lot came from a wildly different socio-economic strata than the post 90’s climbers. The later young guns came from socially conservative, poor backgrounds, unlike their predecessors. Their families often expected and required financial support from their children. Competitive climbing did not require the resources that outdoor climbing did, while offering the promise of returns via cash prizes of up to Rs. 20,000. It simply became the more viable option for those with climbing skills. As for the other upper-class kids from the 90s? Well, they just left the country to live and climb abroad.

I’m fairly sure climbing came to mean different things to the two generations – high slinging, adventurous pursuit to one, and escapism from grim class realities for the other. This is also reflected in this new generation’s interest in bouldering, literally the freest form of climbing – vs. expensive “trad” and alpine climbing.

India is the world’s third largest economy today, by purchasing power parity

Finally, the nail in the coffin was a total lack of climbing gear, media, support or indoor infrastructure. India doesn’t have the kind of gyms available across Europe and North America. When I started climbing, about four years ago, we were practicing bouldering on the lower panels of a lead wall. Campus boards, fingerboards, sling trainers and the general equipment and knowledge used for performance training aren’t largely available even today. But why?

Photo: Vinay Potdar

Sponsor me, please?

India is the world’s third largest economy today, by purchasing power parity. It’s a huge potential market for big outdoor gear companies… or isn’t it? While writing this article I emailed several outdoor brands in the US and Europe. Many just didn’t reply. Brooke Sandahl, VP of Metolius, did. “We sponsor a number of athletes who gain exposure for us. Many athletes are sponsored with our distributors on a country-by-country basis. In North America, we are partnering with many non-profit organizations that promote climbing” he said,  explaining how they support the climbing community. The problem, it appeared, was that international brands wanted to work with distributors in India, and local distributors weren’t (and still aren’t) willing to risk investing in a nascent sport or culture; and the little they do is a miniscule drop in the ocean.

So, why hasn’t there been any active interest in organizing big events like the Petzl Roc Trip or Kalymnos Climbing Festival? Such events bring a lot of attention to the sport, which is often a first step. “Many of our alpine athletes come to climb incredible peaks. India isn’t well known for other styles of climbing. Hampi for bouldering, I have seen some amazing sport climbing there but a country needs to be proactive if they want this type of event.”

While my peers are crushing hard, they’re still to learn how to use their achievements to promote themselves and the scene. Brooke explains how that’s crucial to obtain sponsorship through Metolius. “Currently, the level needed is mid 5.14 (8c/8c+) for rock and V12 (8a+) for boulder. People who don’t climb super hard but open lots of quality routes, help with national, regional or local access issues, coach a climbing team, write a well-read blog, gets his/her photo in the magazines (thus our products), take lots of good images or make films…can all enjoy some level of sponsorship…from a tee-shirt, to paying an athlete cash and everything in between!”

Sandeep dropped school because he saw no point in wasting his efforts or his parents’ scant resources. He started working as an outdoor instructor for Rs.250 a day. 90o Arete, a 7a problem in Hampi. Photo: Vinay Potdar.

That covers at least eight Indian climbers immediately. Bar one, Tuhin Satarkar (Red Bull), none of them are supported by any international brand. Here are three:

Sandeep Kumar Maity:

After nearly thirty unsuccessful attempts on Ayurveda (7c+), a crimp-to-crimp power sucker at Hampi, Sandeep seemed spent. He put on his shoes for a token ‘last try’, took an impatient breath and went for the take off. He grimaced through every move and finally stuck the last dyno with a violent right leg swing propelling him. When it was done, even he couldn’t figure out where that extra juice had come from. But Sandeep is no stranger to running on empty.

Sandeep was introduced to climbing in 2006 by his sports teacher, Mitra Ghosh, at his school in Delhi. His father was a supervisor at an offset printing press, and his mother a housewife. Five people – his parents, his sisters and him – share a small one-room house. Like many from that section of Indian society, travel was a unattainable dream. His earlier fantasies were more in cricket than an obscure sport like ‘climbing’.

In 2008, after his 10th class Board exams, Sandeep heard about a climbing wall at the Indian Mountaineering Federation (IMF) in South Delhi. With not much else to do, he started going, carrying lunch from home and sharing a pair of Converse sneakers with three others. He speaks gratefully about the people who mentored and even supported him financially – Amit Sharma, Naveen Arya, Norbu Bhutia, Sushil Bera, Nanda Kishore and Manjeet Singh. “I still remember borrowing a pair of La Sportiva Cobras, and winning gold at the 2008 zonals” he recalls.

Sandeep’s family does try to understand his pursuit. Before heading to Manali for the climbing season, I was at his home for three days. One afternoon, I watched Dosage 5, an old climbing flick, with his father who kept bursting into “What the…” reactions of amazement. “Is there a video of you too?” he asked Sandeep, who just smiled and continued watching.

A sign of his confidence was his trip to Europe in 2012, to compete in four bouldering world cup events. He took a loan of Rs. 70,000 rupees to make that happen. The events taught him route-reading, planning and controlling nerves. But he reflects more on his interactions outside, particularly in Millau, S. France. Back home in Delhi, he pulled out a poster and proudly showed it to me – “blue skies, my friend,” signed Dave Graham. That was his full-stop moment – having Dave shake hands and introduce himself.

Sandeep dropped school because he saw no point in wasting his efforts or his parents’ scant resources. He started working as an outdoor instructor for Rs.250 a day. 90o Arete, a 7a problem in Hampi. PHOTO: Vinay Potdar.

Vikas ‘Jerry’ Kumar:

On the day that Vikas sent The Diamond’s sit-start, four others, including me, sent the less difficult stand-start variant (7b). I had fallen off three times after nearly topping out. Vikas told me to use the edge of my palm to push off the last hold, not pinch it. “That’ll make the conversion really easy…” he said. Next attempt, I nailed it.

If Sandeep drains himself, Vikas just doesn’t care enough. He climbs hard, but it’s all play. In many ways, he’s perhaps the ‘purest’ climber of the bunch – never climbed on plastic, never ‘trained’, never competed and literally has no clue about the bureaucratic aspects of the sport.

After Vikas’ family unexpectedly lost a small business in Bangalore, they moved to Hampi. He was forced to quit school and start selling chai. Soon he met Koushik and after a few scrapes they were selling knick-knacks together. Their constant bickering got them nicknamed Tom & Jerry. Their experiment is the Tom & Jerry Climbing Shop in Viruppapur Gaddi, better known as Hampi Island. It rents out crashpads, climbing shoes, rope and other gear. The small shop runs largely on donated material and used shoes from gyms in Europe. “We make about Rs.30,000 ($500) each for the whole season. We save, travel, and then return to open for business” Vikas explains.

Like most of his Indian peers Vikas suffered the 8a mind-block. “That started opening up after I sent Goan Corner (Chris Sharma’s brilliant 7c arête problem)…” he recalls. “Initially, I didn’t think it was possible to send The Diamond; Sandeep and the others were trying it and I just tagged along…when I had a few good attempts and fell off at the last mantle, I knew it was possible.” On the cloudy evening of February 19th, we heard Vikas scream from the boulder. It had happened.

Ajij Shaikh:

Over 35 feet high and without a rope, Ajij was contemplating the next move on Mental Mantle, a hard, scary Hampi boulder problem. “Allez Shaikh…” voices encouraged him from below. He reached for a crimp, stepped up and pulled through. When he topped out the 45 foot behemoth, there was cheering with heaves of relief.

Ajij’s appearance doesn’t always reek of fortitude – stick thin and somewhat withdrawn. But once his shirt comes off for a climb, you see nothing but muscle. We first met at the 2011 national championships in Delhi – I was asked to MC the event – one year after the surprise victory that marked his arrival. Since then he’s become national lead champion three more times.

I was spotting him when he became the first Indian to send The Diamond. The only Indian World Para-Climbing Champion and our good friend, Manikandan Kumar, was capturing his attempt on video. Between tries, he’d walk off, calm himself and rehearse the final move. When it finally came together, there was a delayed elation. “Haath dikhare upar (Let’s see your hands up high!)” Manikandan had to actually ask him to celebrate. Sixteen days later on December 31st, 2013, he sent Sharma’s classic, The Middle Way. You could see the effect yoga had on his climbing – controlled breathing, tremendous body tension and absolute calm during progress.

Over the years, his own success alongside climbing flicks fuelled hope of a ‘climber’s life’ – travelling continuously, sending projects and getting featured in movies while being sponsored. “If I get a sponsor, I’d love to compete regularly on the world cup circuit” he adds. For that, Ajij has much work ahead. He admits that he lacks the knowledge and communication skills to push for sponsorship. He’s now getting offers to work as a senior climbing instructor, but he must learn the skills necessary to push his career ahead.

Looking ahead:

Healthy fights for FAs, collaborative efforts on projects and high levels of psyche to explore new areas are not exclusive to this wave. But we’re perhaps the first bunch willing to do anything to continue climbing – another career or ‘stability’ simply isn’t an option. From living in people’s shops, to living rent-free, to selling off personal belongings to stay on the road – we’ve known poverty, and we don’t care. Some compete, some don’t. This wave is simply a natural evolution on the work of our predecessors.

Maybe our efforts will lead to increased climbing tourism. Maybe this will create decent livelihoods through guiding, guesthouses, rental shops, resoling services and more. Maybe more people will climb, and maybe the (always ineffectual) Indian state departments will help. Maybe that’ll attract big outdoor brands to invest something, anything, in our climbing scene. We’re all hoping. But in the meantime, we’ll keep climbing.

 

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