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six ponies came single file out of the last stand of trees. The jingle of harness bells carried across the high meadow, bouncing off the rock ridges on either side. Behind the ponies a man in a long cloak whistled and called to keep the animals moving on the well-worn path through lupine and scrubby grass. Ansel Trager, Lakpa Tsering, and the trek cook followed at a distance.


“This is last grass for ponies, this side,” Lakpa said. “Lunch is soon, and then ponies are go Janavar Gali, one stage to Lunwali, no stops.”


Trager stopped and looked at the country ahead. Patches of wet snow lay across the path, becoming wider and wider until the upper valley was one great snowfield. Above, the cirque culminated in the peaks Trager had seen from Kawapatri. He glanced at his watch and saw that it was almost noon.


“We’re not making very good time, are we?”


Lakpa squinted back at the forest. “Slow,” he agreed. “Hippie-sahib I think is argue with daughter.”


“I know,” said Trager. “And then there’s Harry.”


The cook spoke a few words to Lakpa and set off after the ponies. He was taller and thinner than the sirdar. Whereas Lakpa was neatly dressed in climbing knickers and ski sweater, the cook wore patched wool pants and carried an enormous old rucksack festooned with dangling stoves, pots, and fuel bottles. From the back he looked like a pack with legs.

“Sonam Gyaltso say, he is finding lunch place now,” Lakpa told Trager.

“Sonam was still washing dishes when we left camp. He starts after we do but always gets in first.”


“He is cook,” Lakpa said, as if that explained everything.


Leslie Macintosh walked into the meadow. She did not pause to take in the view, but strode quickly toward Trager and Lakpa. In her European stretch knickers, the sun sparkling in her red curls, her face accented by mirrored sunglasses, she looked young and fresh, almost attractive.


“I just go help Sonam,” Lakpa said.


“You're sure you don't want to hear what Leslie has to say?”


“You are leader,” the sirdar smiled, and followed in the ponies’ tracks.


“Harry's fooling with his cameras again,” Leslie announced when she reached Trager. “I couldn't stand waiting around, so I came up to walk with you,” Trager noted she was not even breathing heavily, even though the elevation was already over ten thousand feet.


“I think I'll wait for everyone to catch up,” he said. “We're stopping for lunch ahead a ways, and after that we'll want to keep the party together going over the pass.”


Leslie seemed to regard the mountains ahead for the first time. “Let me ask you this right now,” she said. “Do you think Harry’s going to make it?”


“Let's see how the pass goes,” Trager said. “I don't think we have any really tough days after that until we cross back into Kashmir. As late as next week, you guys could always turn back.”


“I'm not talking about ‘us guys.’ I'm talking about Harry.”


“Okay. But it's still a little early.”


“Whatever,” Leslie said. “See you at lunch.”


Pratima came next, wearing baggy pants and canvas boots that Lakpa had rented from a Kashmir Tourism Department youth program. She fluttered in the breeze that blew down from the pass.


“I'd like to hear your policy on drugs,” she said.


“Do I need to have one?”


“At least for my father. He’s smoking a chilom full of hashish right now. I think he bought it when he was here last week.”


“Well, he's an adult,” Trager said. “I can't really stop him.”


“What about if he falls off the mountain up there? Will you be able to stop him then?”


“I'll give it a try. Did you discuss it with him?”


“No. we're not talking very well today.”


“Hold it!" a voice called in the distance. “Hold it! Hold it!”


Harry Macintosh emerged from the trees, trying to walk and hold a camera to his face at the same time. Sundown wandered behind him, staying out of the picture. Pratima’s father wore the same clothes he had on at Kawapatri, with the addition of some cleated canvas shoes like Pratima's. Harry was dressed in the same climbing clothes as Leslie, but in his case the trim knickers accented his flabby physique. He carried two cameras and various accessories in padded cases around his waist.


“I wanted to get you kids together,” Harry said as he came up. “These wildflowers are fantastic. This is it—India. Right here.”


Trager looked at Harry Macintosh carefully. Both the Macintoshes were a mystery to him. He could not imagine why they had come on this trek together. Leslie looked like the outdoorsy one, but Harry seemed to enjoy the trek more than she did. Trager supposed his photography had the secondary function of allowing him to stop frequently. But he never really rested. He fiddled endlessly with his equipment, his face beaming. Trager wanted him to make it.


“I'd like to get some of those pictures from you after this is over,” Trager said.


“No problem,” said Harry. “No-oo problem,” Trager waited for Sundown to come up. Pratima caught his eye for a moment, and then followed Harry.


“Listen, Sundown,” Trager said. “Pratima’s a little concerned about your turning on right here. She's probably right. We've got some climbing ahead of us. I'm not going to police everyone, but you ought to save the dope for camp.”


“Hey, don't worry, Ans. I do my best work on the weed.”


“Sundown, your work is different from this trip.”


“Oh, yeah,” he nodded. “A different trip. Totally.” He kept his eyes on the approaching ridgeline, letting his feet find the trail, one gangly step at a time.


Immediately below the headwall was a small tarn. The ponies, still burdened with their blue duffel bags, grazed on an exposed patch of grass by the north shore. Sonam served tea and biscuits on a red tarpaulin spread on the damp ground. Above the lake the snowfields swept up from the water’s edge past bands of rock toward the pass. A zigzag line of dirty snow showed the route of earlier pack trains.


“How long is this going to take?” Harry said as he scanned the slope with a telephoto lens.


“This is a hell of a time to worry about how you're going to do, Harry,” Leslie said. “You should have thought about that back in L.A.”


Trager turned to the sirdar, “What do you think?”


“I think, too much camera, too much woman,” Lakpa muttered.


“A few hours,” Trager told Harry.


He got up from the tarp and walked behind a rock to change out of hiking shorts into his wool climbing pants. Despite his efforts to dry them, they smelled moldy. The mountain sun will do us both good, Trager thought. When he came hack, he helped Lakpa chase down a baggage pony with a burlap bundle lashed atop its load. They dumped out seven ice axes, and Trager went to stuff the burlap sack under the lashing ropes. The pony driver, who had crouched, watching, from the edge at the grass, suddenly sprang to his feet, grabbed the bag from Trager, and tucked in in himself.


“I guess the airlines don’t let you unload own baggage either,” Trager said as he and Sonam walked hack to the tarp.




“Nothing,” Trager said. “Do we have an extra ice axe for the horse packer?”


“No need,” Lakpa said. “Ponies go easy way, zigzag. You climb straight, much faster—go ahead of ponies to Lunwali. Sonam and I stay with pony-wallah,” He paused. “This Kashmiri, he is sometime strike, sometime ask more money. But when money is go first, Kashmiri is following.”


Trager and Lakpa carried the axes over to the tarpaulin.


“I think what we'll do is take off ahead of the ponies as soon as we're done with lunch. That'll give us time for a quick ice axe lesson before we start up the hill.”


“Harry and I already did that,” Leslie said, as Trager handed her one of the tools. “They showed us how in Austria.”


“Good,” Trager said. “Then you can help the others.”


Leaving Lakpa and Sonam to pack up the lunch, Trager led the trekkers toward the base of the headwall. Leslie lecturing behind him as he walked.


“You have to keep your weight over your feet. Don't lean into the slope. And you hold the ice axe like this, with the pick sticking out. Harry! Don't you remember? The other way.”


As long as she gets it right, Trager thought. He felt the balance and weight of the axe he had selected. The tools were all the same length: Pratima's axe came to her waist like a cane, while Sundown's swung like a hatchet from his hand.

Trager found the shaft longer than he liked, and he noted that the picks were an obsolete design unsuited to steep ice climbing. But they came from a good manufacturer, and someone had taken pains to keep the points honed and the webbing wrist tethers in good repair. He thought of his own finely balanced axe, sitting wasted in some unknown baggage locker.

Trager had the clients wait at the base of the first steep snow. He kicked steps fifty feed up the slope, anchored the shaft of his axe, and turned to look down. The four clients were watching him intently. Beyond them he could see the green boulders that lined the bottom of the glass-clear tarn. Lakpa and Sonam were folding the red tarp while the pony driver chased one of his animals across the grass. During the two-day walk up through the Kawapatri forest, the Ladakhis had picked the trail, the lunch spots, the campsites. They set up the tents and cooked the meals. They washed the dishes while the clients went to bed, awakened the trekkers in the morning with coffee. It was luxurious, but Trager had begun to feel as if he were just another mouth to feed. He had been looking forward to the moment when he could finally serve as the climber Freya had asked him to be.


“OK, watch,” he said. He jerked his ice axe free, and threw himself down the slope.


He gathered speed, sliding head first on his back, curled in a fetal position with his knees tucked so that his heels cleared the snow. He gripped the ice axe across his chest. Halfway down, Trager stabbed the pick of the ice axe into the snow at his waist and kicked his legs out to the side. A roostertail of crystals spurted into the air as the metal cut into the slushy surface. Trager’s upper body, slowed by the axe, twisted uphill as his legs swung below him. He rolled his hips so that he was sliding on his chest, now feet-first, his toes gouging deep furrows, his shoulder levering the pick deeper into the snow. He stopped in a wave of slush that spattered the legs of the five clients.


“That,” Traer said as he hopped to his feet, “is all you need to know.


“That was stupid,” said Pratima. “You could have been hurt.”


“Right,” said Trager, “But I wasn't. That's the important part.”-


“Harry and I already did this,” Leslie said.


Trager was irritated at whatever Teuton had drilled such confidence into Leslie. “Great,” he said. “All you have to do is show me that you remember. The rest of you are about to get the world's fastest mountain climbing lesson. I’m just going to show you one thing, how to arrest a fall with your ice axe. But if you can do this, you can travel safely on almost any snow slope.”


He had them sit in the snow to practice. “If you find yourself falling, roll onto the head of the axe. Toward the head! Toward the pick! And bridge with your body. Dig your toes in! Try it again. Roll! Bridge! Dig your toes in!”


They drilled for twenty minutes. Sundown handled his ice axe the same way he walked, as if the signals from his brain paused a moment at each joint before moving along. Trager watched him closely, wondering how much the hashish was affecting him. He was relaxed and always rolled to the correct side, but Trager was not sure he would respond quickly enough in an actual fall.


Pratima climbed up Trager’s demonstration track. Instead of sitting in the snow, she flopped backwards as Trager had done. She rolled smoothly over, but to the wrong side. The spike of the axe jammed in the snow and jerked the shaft out of her hands.


Trager scrambled to intercept her, but the girl hung onto the head of the axe, grabbed the shaft again, and slid to a stop at Trager’s feet.


“I just wanted to see what would happen if I rolled the other way,” she said as she got up.


“You could have asked.”


Harry froze up on the first slide, and Trager and Sundown had to spot him to a safe landing. He tried it again successfully, and then sat down on a rock to rest.


“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Leslie said. She climbed up a few feet and did a perfect arrest.


“Good,” said Trager. “But you were hardly moving. Try it again with some more speed. It'll be steeper on the other side of the pass.”


“How much steeper?” Harry asked.


Trager hesitated. Freya had not mentioned anything in particular about the northeast face of the Janavar Gall, so Trager assumed it was nothing to worry about. At the same time, he wanted to make sure that his lesson was taken seriously.


“Steep enough that you have be able to stop a fall. Let's see it one more time.”


The party climbed on, straight up the fall line to a gully that cut through the cliff bands. Avalanches had scoured out the middle of the chute, and Trager hugged one wall to minimize the danger. They had to stop after only a few hundred feet to strip off clothing. The walls of the gully formed a reflector, and the heat was intense. Below, Trager could see the ponies traversing out of sight around a ridge, taking advantage of a natural bench. The pony-wallah walked behind, bracing himself on a makeshift staff he had picked up in the forest.

Trager led upward again, trying to set an even rhythm: Plant the ice axe, kick, step; plant the axe, kick, step. The snow was turning slushy in the heat, and it took more than an hour to pass the last at the cliffs. Trager estimated they had climbed a thousand feet. His pulse hammered in his head, and he had to breathe twice for every step. His eyes, even shielded in glacier glasses, ached from the glare, and he could feel that his sunscreen had failed to keep his cheeks and nose from burning. Trager suspected the clients were in worse condition than he was.

He called a halt on top of a rock outcrop. They settled without speaking on the sun-warmed shale. Trager picked a spot at the edge of the bluff, and let his feet dangle as he looked at the view. The valley they had come up had a geometric u-shape, and Trager recognized it as an old glacial trough. West, beyond the end of the meadows, beyond the timbered ridges dropping into Kashmir, the Pir Panjal range rose like a white island in a hazy sea.


Trager felt a warm body brush against him, and he turned to find Leslie crouched behind him. “I don't think Harry can make it,” she whispered. “He should wait for the ponies and go back. He’ll be happy as a clam in Srinagar. He can shoot enough pictures of houseboats and rug merchants to keep Kodak in business for a year,” There was something cruel about discussing her husband’s condition behind his back. At the same time, he could tell by Harry’s breathing that the man was in distress.


He got up and faced the group. “How's everyone doing?” he asked. “We're probably less than a thousand feet from the top. Maybe another hour, hour and a half. Is altitude getting to anyone? Any headaches or stomach trouble?”


Sundown and Pratima shook their heads.


“I got stomach trouble,” Harry said. “It's too damn big.”


“It'll be smaller by the time you finish this trek,” Trager said. “Just pace yourself,” Leslie got up, and Trager could she was about to whisper something else. “We'll see,” he said, cutting her off.


Pratima suddenly stood up. “Are we still trying to keep ahead of the ponies?” she asked.


“I'd like to,” said Trager. “Why?”


“They've passed us.”


She was right. The pack train was traversing the slope above them. The driver was walking with the lead animal, struggling to keep the pack saddle balanced. Lakpa and Sonam were bringing up the rear. Lakpa saw the trekkers on the rock. When Trager waved, the sirdar held up both hands and motioned, down, down.


“Be quiet,” Trager said. “I think Lakpa wants our pony driver to think we're still in the lead,”- Trager said. “He's afraid the guy will try to strike for more money if he knows I'm available to pay him off.”


“That's the pits,” said Sundown. “What’re we paying him?”


“Fifteen rupees a day for each pony, plus fifteen for the driver.”


“Yeah, I'd strike too,” said Sundown. “That's about twelve bucks a day.”


“This isn't California,” Pratima said. “That's probably the standard rate for this work in Kashmir.”


“That's right,” said Leslie. “And it’s probably too high. We had the same problem in Nepal. We would pay the porters, and then they would strike. You just can't trust these people over here.”


“Which of us over here are you referring to?” Pratima asked.

“The ponies are going over the crest,” said Trager. “Let's roll,” In fact, the pack string was still in sight, but Trager guessed that an argument with his packer would not be any worse than one between his clients.


Sundown stood up slowly. “You know how to keep things under control up here, don't you,” he said under his breath. “I mean, this is where you know all the answers.”


“No,” said Trager. “I just like being in the mountains.”


“Same thing.”

The upper part of the slope flattened, and in another hour the climbers reached a wide, almost level col. The edges of this plateau hid the view in front and behind so that the snowy field seemed to float in the sky, tethered only to the peaks on either side. The only marker in the otherwise featureless snow was a six-toot cairn of neatly piled rock festooned with carved stones, animal horns, and, on some ledges, tiny wooden and plastic effigies. Long willow wands with bleached muslin pennants sprouted from every crevice. Winds careened around the gap in all directions, making the streamers flutter and twirl as if alive. Trager stopped in their flickering shadows to put on his parka.

“What a picture!” Harry said. “Great! Fantastic! This is it—India! This is worth the trip.”


“What is all this crap?" Leslie asked.


“What did you call this?” Pratima cried. “This is a religious shrine. The flags and carving are Buddhist, the images are Hindu. The Muslims don’t believe in images, but they will stop here to say a prayer.”


“Maybe Ansel should have issued us each a plastic Jesus,” Leslie said. “Which of all those things do you believe in?” she asked Pratima.

“It doesn't matter,” the girl snapped. “I believe in the people who left them here.”

The wind veered and snapped the prayers over the heads of the women. Sundown looked closely at one of the carved stones. Harry buried his face in a viewfinder. Trager shrugged his pack back on and started to walk away around the right side of the cairn.


“For good luck you have to keep the stones on your right,” Pratima called. Trager changed course. He felt a need for luck.


As they approached the northeast edge of the col, the ground began to drop, gently at first, then more steeply. The tops of snowy mountains appeared, then walls and buttresses hung with glaciers. The massif rose directly from the deep canyon below the pass. A brown river, green terraced fields, dark forests, grassy alps, moraines, glaciers, rock ridges—the entire relief of the range was represented in one sweeping ascent too great to take in at a single glance.


“Oh, man, where are we?” Sundown asked.


“That's the main range of the Himalaya,” Trager said. “On the other side is Ladakh, where Lakpa and Sonam come from. Beyond that is Tibet,” He recited the description Freya had given him, not for the others so much as for himself. He snapped a picture with his little camera, self conscious as Harry deployed his own arsenal of equipment.


“This is it—India,” Harry said, clicking away. Trager watched him at work with satisfaction. He had been right to believe that Harry could make the climb. At the same time, he noted the angle of snow below them, the depth of the valley, and the cold shadows that were climbing out of the gorge as the sun lowered. This also is India, Trager thought, and he hoped that by the end of the day Harry Macintosh still thought it was fantastic, great, and worth the trip.


“He'll never make it,” a familiar whisper murmured behind Trager.


“It’s all downhill from here. Leslie,” Trager: said.


“And then?”


“And then, since he seems okay so far, he'll probably he with us for the rest of the trek. What are you worried about?”


“You,” she said. “I'm just trying to make your job easier. But you can handle it any way you want. It looks like we have to catch the animals anyway, so let's get out of here,” She started down in the tracks of the ponies.


As the slope steepened below the pass, the trail turned to the southeast to traverse on a gentler angle. Trager stopped at the turn. It would be useful to be on the trail if darkness caught them before camp; on the other hand, climbers could descend a much steeper angle than horses. Trager knew from the reconnaissance report that camp was northwest of them, up the valley. They could not miss recrossing the pony tracks if they just walked straight downhill.


“Okay, stop for a minute,” Trager called. “Watch.”


He turned off the pony track and held his ice axe out of the snow. “All you have to do is walk down on your heels. He strode thirty yards down the slope, plunging his heels into the snow on every step. He skidded to a stop, and called back. “Don't worry if a step breaks out—just take another. Keep your feet flat and dig your heels in. Hold your ice axe like I showed you, and you can always go into arrest if you start to slip.”


The women came first. After a couple of false starts, they took their ice axes out of the snow and walked down to Trager. Harry had trouble. Every time he moved his axe, he leaned into the hill, sat down, and started to slide. He pushed in his axe to stop, got to his feet, and did it again. It took him several minutes to descend thirty yards.


“Stand up, dammit!' Leslie shouted. “He told you to just walk down!”


“Jeez, lady, give him a break,” said Sundown.


“I don't need your help,” Leslie said.


“Okay!” Trager snapped. “This is no big deal. Harry, take your time. Sundown, you can just come down in your own track if you want.”


Sundown nodded, but stayed behind Harry, stepping slowly and methodically. Trager plunge-stepped down another hundred yards. He saw with satisfaction that the fields below were visibly closer. He could see the dry ground below him already. The snow ended abruptly at the edge of a pasture sprinkled with white stones.


The stones moved.


“Wait” Trager shouted. “Wait! Wait!”


Pratima ran into him from behind. “Why didn't you tell me you were going to stop?” she stepped around him to see what he was looking at.


What he had thought were white stones at the base of the snowfield were animals—sheep or goats. And they were not at the edge of the snow, but several hundred feet below it. The snow ended in a cliff. There was a climbing rope in one of the pony loads, and Trager swore at himself for not taking it out. At the same time, he knew it was unlikely he could engineer a safe rappel over an unknown drop with a single rope, no anchoring equipment, and a group of inexperienced climbers. They would have to climb back to the trail.


Trager looked up to tell the others. As he did so, he sensed movement behind him. He turned around in time to see Pratima slide away from him on her seat, pushing herself along with her ice axe.


“Arrest!” Trager yelled.


“I can do it,” the girl called over her shoulder.


“No!" Trager yelled. “Roll! Arrest!”


Pratima was still sliding, gathering speed. She dropped her heels into the snow, but they had no effect. Trager bounded after the girl. He took three giant steps. On the last, he kicked both feet in the air and came down on his back in the track Pratima left in the snow.


By sliding in the girl's track, Trager quickly gained on her. His legs went on either side of her torso, and he let go of his ice axe shaft to grab for her rucksack. He had never tried a one-armed arrest. He could not even imagine how it could work, but his brain had stamped out his imagination for the moment. He missed the rucksack, but the hood of the baggy parka had unfurled, and Trager grabbed it. Pratima's head slammed back on the snow as Trager stabbed the pick of the ice axe into the snow and twisted his legs, turning Pratima onto her side.


“Arrest,” Trager yelled. “Roll!” Pratima rolled, but onto the shaft of her axe, plunging it to the hilt so suddenly that it was torn from her hands. Trager passed over the head of the axe, and the long pick hooked in the crotch of his pants. For a sickening moment Trager thought he was disemboweled, but it was only the pressure of his climbing knickers stretching drum-tight before ripping away.


His rent trousers ballooned like a parachute around his waist, the snow packing his hips and crotch. His legs, especially his right leg, plunged deeper, until he felt that his boots were doing more to slow him down that his ice axe. In fact it was his right leg that brought him to a stop, pain shooting through his ankle. He looked down to find Pratima in perfect bridge position, levering his right boot into the snow as if it were the head of her abandoned ice axe. Ten feet below them, the slope vanished into an aerial view of a small village set in a patchwork of terraces above a whitewater rapid. Ravens rode the currents of the intervening air.


“Way to dig those toes in,” Trager said.


It took twenty minutes for Trager and Pratima to retrieve her ice axe and climb back to the others. The girl did not say a word during the ascent. The mountainside had fallen into the shade by the time they arrived. The trekkers had managed to kick platforms for themselves in the snow, and had put on jackets. Even so, Trager could tell from their stiff, hunched postures that they were cold.


“God, that was stupid,” Leslie said, as the girl reached the track. Trager stepped up between the girl and the woman. But the assault on Pratima came from the other side. Sundown's long arm reached out and plucked his daughter off her feet. His hoarse voice sawed through the clear air.


“Don't ever do that again! Ever! Ever!" Trager waited for the girl to shout back. But she just hung from her father's hands, staring into his eyes with steady defiance.




The men of Lunwali made up a song about Ansel Trager on the night he crossed the Janavar Gali. He arrived in the village an hour after dark behind the pony that carried Harry Macintosh. Lakpa and the pony-wallah had met them with the animal at last light in a grove of poplars where they had stopped to rest. Above the branches they could see the faint outline of the escarpment below the pass. If we had walked over it, Trager thought, we would have still come to rest in these trees.


They followed the sirdar down the black path through the grove, guided by a ribbon of stars above. The Sonjal Nala gurgled somewhere to the right, and the wind made a white noise in the branches. Suddenly they were in open land, walking through the manure smell of turned fields.


Sonam had built a fire in the middle of the four tents. Trager helped Harry dismount, and then put his own pack in his tent. Lakpa or Sonam had already rolled out his pad and unstuffed his sleeping bag. He was tempted to crawl in, but forced himself to get out and check on the others. They had disappeared. Sonam was walking from tent to tent, carrying plates of food. Around the fire strange men were singing and drumming on small skin drums. Lakpa appeared at his side.


“You want chang?" the sirdar asked.


“I don't know,” said Trager. “Do I?”


“Very good chang in this village,” Lakpa advised. “Like beer.”


Trager followed him to the fire. As they approached, the singing fell silent. The men eyed Trager with nervous smiles. “They make a song,” Lakpa said. “They say, the bara sahib is always ready. Walk over Janavar, pants already open, but no Lunwali girls come out. Too had.”


Trager looked down at his turn trousers, and the men began to laugh.


“Only joke, sahib,” Lakpa said. “And they are having too much chang.”


“In that case, I think they owe me a drink.”


“Achcha, sahib, good.” Lakpa called for the brass kettle that sat near the edge of the circle. The men began to drum harder than before. Lunwali chang turned out to be less than a metaphor for beer: a mealy, sour liquid floating with grains of mash. But Trager accepted a great mug. Lakpa seated him at a place of honor out of the smoke from the fire and Sonam brought him his food. The Ladakhis settled on either side, and one of the Lunwali men refilled all their cups.


Lakpa leaned over to Trager, the light shining on his smooth liquor-flushed face. “This is good work, sahib. Vasant is never find us now.”


And for the first time since clinging in the rain to the wall of the Kawapatri Hotel, Ansel Trager thought himself happy. This is good work, he thought.

Springtime in Kashmir ©Talbot Bielefeldt 2020.

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