Storm Over Everest

Roundtable: The Ethics of Climbing

In this e-mail exchange, four climbers, each with a unique perspective on the risks inherent in climbing above 26,000 feet, explore the rules, code of conduct and misperceptions in high-altitude mountaineering.

The Panelists

Peter Hackett, M.D.
Dr. Hackett has performed extensive research on altitude sickness and has published more than 100 articles in medical journals on the causes and debilitating effects of the illness. He is director of the Denali Medical Research Project and affiliate associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington School of Medicine and the University of Alaska School of Health Sciences. He founded the Himalayan Rescue Association in Kathmandu.

Lincoln Hall
Hall is an Australian climber who was left for dead near the top of Everest in 2006, after a successful summit from the Tibet side of the mountain. Unconscious after being struck by high-altitude cerebral edema, Hall was left behind at 8,700 meters (above 28,000 feet). The following day, a team making a summit attempt came upon Hall sitting up in the snow and brought him down to safety. He is the author of Dead Lucky, the story of his 2006 climb, and a speaker and lecturer on the risk and reward of high-altitude mountaineering.

James H. Moss, J.D.
Moss is an attorney and the editor of the Outdoor Recreation and Fitness Law Review, an online legal resource for the outdoor recreation and fitness industry. He also maintains a blog to discuss legal issues for outdoor recreation; is an instructor for Colorado Mountain College; and is the author or co-author of six books, including Legal Liability and Risk Management in Adventure Tourism.

Jim Williams
Williams has been guiding expeditions for three decades on all seven continents. He was leading an expedition on Everest in 1996 and was at Camp Three when the storm hit. Over the course of his career, Jim has led major expeditions to Chile, Peru, Africa, Bhutan, China, India, Nepal and Tibet, guiding on Mount Everest, Nupste, Lhotse, Mount McKinley, Ama Dablam, Carstensz Pyramid, Elbrus and Aconcagua. With his 2000 Everest summit, he became the first person to successfully guide all "Seven Summits," the highest point on each of the seven continents, in less than one year.

What are the biggest misperceptions about high-altitude climbing?

photo of Lincoln Hall

Lincoln Hall: Into Thin Air is a great book, which from the get-go was to be about commercial mountaineering. I know many mountaineers who won't read it, because they believe it misrepresents the nature of mountaineering. The book has led to a worldwide belief that Everest is climbed by people who are guided to the summit; that guiding is the only way to climb Everest. Hard-core climbers feel that the book has belittled the sacred realm of climbing by creating the perception that Everest is open to everyone.

Guided climbing can make someone's impossible dream of climbing Everest become a reality -- and that is a great gift -- because the guide has the deep, heartfelt knowledge of the mountains and what happens to people on mountains. The guide has the judgment and self-reliance to steer that someone to the summit.

It is like ballroom dancing: The dance teacher leads you through the steps and you learn the routine, and after a few sessions you complete the dance without interruption. But when you attempt the dance without your teacher, there are missteps and stumbles. You get great joy from dancing with your teacher, and elation from reaching the summit with your guide. But you don't have the other part of the equation -- the joy of determining a route, of making the right judgments in dangerous situations. You don't connect with the mountains through your understanding of weather, snow conditions. You don't develop the intuition that comes from putting all that together over the years. …


photo of Dr. Peter Hackett

Dr. Peter Hackett:
Probably the biggest misconception about guided high-altitude climbing is that risk is much more manageable or diminished because it is a guided trip. True, some risk is certainly diminished. Having professionals put in anchors, tie knots, etc., may be comforting to those without these particular skills. But the large risks of unpredictable weather and problems with acclimatization and altitude illness may not be impacted much by guides. I think that the death rates for guided versus unguided high-altitude climbs are similar.

Everest 1996 was a good example. Maybe paying a huge amount of money to climb Everest means that you get to die next to a famous guide. A client cannot expect any guarantee of safety, nor can a client expect any guarantee of summiting. Even with a summit, most of the deaths nowadays are on descent from the summit.


photo of Jim Williams

Jim Williams:
As I have always been a guide in high-altitude climbing, it is hard to say what the biggest misperception might be among clients. Most of this comes from the clients themselves. It is not the result of promotional material put out by the more reputable guiding concerns.

In one instance, I had a client who never thought that I might become ill and not be able to climb with him on summit day. Although an assistant guide and Sherpas took him safely to the summit and back, he was still upset, and, as a result, acted poorly to his summit team -- unfortunate for all. All my paperwork clearly states that the guide may not be able to climb with an individual, and that it is up to the client to decide if he wants to continue with qualified staff. …

Anyone who believes there is ever a guarantee to reach the summit is either delusional or simply kidding themselves. Anyone who promotes such a guarantee is being dishonest. The role of the guide and the guide service, in my opinion, is to provide the best opportunity for the client to perform at their best and return safely. The summit may be part of this process, but may not. If the client has been allowed to operate at the best level they can at the time, they should not blame anyone but themselves if they do not summit.

Clients who have no prior high-altitude experience are likely to take whatever experience they do have and try to extrapolate it to higher and higher altitudes. This often leads those with preconceived ideas of what they can do at new altitudes only to become surprised and disappointed when they do not perform as they have in the past at much lower altitudes. It is the guide's job to prepare the clients new to this high altitude for the experience.


photo of James Moss

James Moss:
The biggest misconception on 8,000-meter peaks is that the guide is going to be able to save you. Above 20,000 feet a guide is someone to show you the way and assist you in making decisions. Not much else is available from any human, no matter how experienced or how well paid. Any guarantee to get anyone to the top of any mountain is a desperate or misguided guide attempting to get a check. Just like the used car you are getting ready to buy that was only driven by a little old lady to church each Sunday, it is just BS. …

Physiological issues are becoming a very real and dangerous issue in guiding. In the past, the ability to pay for a trip meant the capacity to deal with the issues that appear on every mountaineering trip. That no longer holds true. Everest has become a checkbox someplace between the yacht and the bigger house, a keeping-up-with-the-other-millionaires. The risks of a larger house are quite different from the risks of an 8,000-meter peak. The Coast Guard is there for yacht owners. That expectation of immediate rescue and first aid that exists everywhere in the U.S. is carried to the mountains and it does not exist.


Is there an accepted "code of conduct" for high-altitude climbing? In particular, is there a written, or unwritten, climbing code of conduct for Everest?


photo of Dr. Peter Hackett

Dr. Peter Hackett:
There is really no "standard code of conduct" for climbers and guides on Everest, certainly nothing in writing. The traditional ethic of always helping out others in trouble seems to have eroded over the years. In general, climbers are still willing to help others in trouble, but we have seen examples that seem to contradict this well-established notion.

On the very high mountains, this issue is complicated by being in "the death zone." One's primary responsibility is to take care of one's self and own group, and at extreme altitude that is often all that a climber can handle. In addition, a basic principle of triage in rescue situation is to not bother with people that are dead, but rather spend all energies on rescuing those who are likely to survive. (The decision by the Sherpas to take Makalu Gau down instead of Scott Fischer is a good example.)

In the [case of a] climber suffering from hypothermia, exposure and hypoxia (lack of oxygen), it is sometimes difficult to assess how close to death a climber is or if they truly have a chance of surviving. Add to that the somewhat addled brain of those who are doing well, the incredible motivation to summit and the pressure to not turn around in order to help someone, and the result may be to decide not to assist someone else.

Of course, there are outstanding examples of selfless service to others high in the mountain as well. The epic story of Charles Houston and his team on K2 in 1953 is often mentioned as the ultimate "standard" for looking after each other on a big mountain. The entire team risked death rather than abandon their sick comrade. And the entire team almost died. There is no doubt that this group would have done the same thing even if the injured climber was from another team. Clearly, all climbers do not adhere to this standard today, and for many reasons. Charlie's "Brotherhood of the Rope" is hard to duplicate on a commercial expedition where the climbers do not know each other beforehand and have not chosen each other based on mutual values.


photo of Lincoln Hall

Lincoln Hall:
Is there an accepted code of conduct for a person sleeping on the street in winter with nowhere to go? Some people will offer help; others will pretend not to see, or simply can't relate to that person on the street. On the mountain, you are aware of the great dangers you face (if you're not, you shouldn't be there), and because you know your own vulnerability, you are more ready to help those in need. The catch is that sometimes you have no power to help because you, too, are close to the edge.

In particular, is there a written or unwritten climbing code of conduct for Everest? Many codes for many people.


photo of Jim Williams

Jim Williams:
There really has never been a written "code of conduct," but rather there has always been a mutual understanding of the fragile nature of human life in this LARGER-than-life environment in the mountains of the world.

Clients and others are more governed by a "standard of care" that is very arbitrary and not at all defined. … This presents a problem when a person who has no real understanding of what they need or what standard of care they expect buys a program from some company on the Internet, only to arrive at Base Camp and find it is not would they have been led to believe. This can include the type of "guides" and support they will receive on the climb. When something goes terribly wrong, then it is this lack of understanding that gets brought up. And people try to compare one company to another even [when] they are not from the same country or [do not] offer the same standard of care.


In general, what are a person's responsibilities toward a fellow climber? Does it matter if the other person is a member of a different climbing team? What are a guide's responsibilities?


photo of Lincoln Hall

Lincoln Hall:
Climbing a mountain is a survival exercise, even when nothing goes wrong, and it hinges on people looking out for each other. When you face death together you develop a strong bond, and at the same time, you can accept death when it happens.

People who choose sheltered lives aren't as exposed to death and don't understand those who accept the dangers and pay the price. Life is important, and climbers know that, clearly. Climbers often save lives by helping a colleague down. I don't think it is regarded as a responsibility; it's more what [French alpinist] Gaston Rébuffat called "the fellowship of the rope."


photo of Jim Williams

Jim Williams:
Climbing is not much different than life itself. The commitment we all share towards the well-being of others spills over into the mountains. Guides, clients, climbers, Sherpa all have a shared responsibility to each other. In guided situations it is the guide in charge who needs to take the lead when called upon to assume responsibility for a person outside his group. One human life is not worth the summit for any number of climbers.

This being said, those with less experience [who] climb with the knowledge and expectation that guides and more experienced climbers will provide support and a safety net are putting an unfair burden on others.


What are the physical limitations on a climber who attempts to assist a faltering climber?


photo of Lincoln Hall

Lincoln Hall:
This is a very individual thing, but everyone feels weaker up there. Muscles have atrophied, and you're sleep-deprived, exhausted, dehydrated and on the edge of being disoriented. These combinations make life a lot harder and death a lot easier.


photo of James Moss

James Moss:
It is unrealistic to receive help from anyone above 20,000 feet. A guide is someone who shows you the way. Above 20,000 feet not much else can occur. When climbers start up a mountain, they examine their gear. They look at ounces or grams that they can shave. When you start worrying about an extra pound as a key to your summit or survival, the idea of carrying someone who weighs 200 pounds is absurd.


photo of Jim Williams

Jim Williams:
Altitude is a great equalizer. Many climbers do not take this into account and believe they are not limited by the altitude. They are. Some climbers are better equipped to handle crisis situations at high altitude than others. Guides usually are selected for their ability to manage crises in adverse situations. Being at altitude is a crisis in and of itself, so guides should be expected to perform above average, in my opinion. However, I know of several guides who are often stretched to their limits on summit attempts, and although they are usually not a liability, they are not prepared to handle a serious crisis should it arrive. At least one of these guides has multiple ascents of Everest and yet arrives back to the South Col totally spent after each ascent, often requiring assistance from the Sherpa on his team.


photo of Dr. Peter Hackett

Dr. Peter Hackett:
At extreme altitude, it may be all one can do to get themselves down safely, let alone help someone else. However, some climbers are in much better shape than others; that is, they have not suffered too badly from the altitude and cold. The ones who are using oxygen, and who are still in relatively good condition, should be able to help others. Anatoli Boukreev was an amazing example of someone who was doing well despite not having supplemental oxygen and was able to save lives through his heroic efforts. Most climbers above the South Col might be able to help someone out early in the day, but by the time they are descending, they usually have precious little left for anyone else.


Did the 1996 events on Everest have any effect on the "code of conduct" for high-altitude climbing?


photo of James Moss

James Moss:
People who are willing to risk their lives -- and from this perspective their summit -- are still climbing mountains around the world. That has not and will not change. The percentage of climbers who understand the risks of giving aid seems to have fallen. But the issue of saving another's life is still present. The code has not changed; the number of people who are physically and mentally capable to living up to the code on Everest has changed.


photo of Jim Williams

Jim Williams:
I believe that the "code of conduct" comes from the folks climbing together. As only a few of us present in 1996 are still involved in guiding on Mount Everest, there is very little carryover from the experiences of 1996. It appears to me that the lessons that could have been learned by guides have not been part of any training for guides anywhere in the USA. There has been little effort to critique the events of 1996 and to develop any decision-making criteria from these lessons. Some very tangible lessons are:

1) The importance of having guides stay focused on their responsibility as guides and not letting decisions be made for reasons other than the safe return of all members of the expedition. Letting other business issues become part of the decision-making scenario is dangerous and can be quite destructive.

2) Setting up communication protocols so that people are able to talk with one another during the entire climb. This is very difficult, as it is dependent on good radios and a mindful group of guides. Guides are often used to working on their own and not accustom to calling in on a regular basis.

3) Remembering that no one is dead until warm and dead. The Beck Weathers story shows how misguided the assessment was by those lending assistance at the South Col. Beck appears to have simply been exhausted, and once he had regained strength he was able to walk on his own to camp and get help. The outcome would not have been different had they moved him earlier in Beck's case, but there is a slim possibility that had they moved the Japanese woman [Yasuko Namba] in early with the rest of the group that she might have survived. We will never know, but there is a lesson here to be explored.


photo of Lincoln Hall

Lincoln Hall:
My perception is that guiding companies tightened their safety parameters, and that is a moral decision, given that it's a business. Death is in the cards.


photo of Dr. Peter Hackett

Dr. Peter Hackett:
Apparently not. But I think those events did bring recognition of the realities of guided climbing on Everest.


Is there an unrealistic expectation placed on guides?


photo of Jim Williams

Jim Williams:
I am not aware of unrealistic expectations placed upon guides by clients, but the media has certainly applied some very unrealistic expectations on the guiding community. While on the mountain, guide-client relationships become pretty well defined, and the limits should be understood; however, the media is not present and often creates an expectation for the lay public that is quite unrealistic. This feeds into a very unhealthy atmosphere of discontent among family members of those lost on the mountain, as well as those who may not reach their own goals or expectations.


photo of Dr. Peter Hackett

Dr. Peter Hackett:
Who has the expectations? The clients, the clients' family, the media, the public? A properly prepared client should have realistic expectations, but he or she might not share those with their family.

The media has not a clue about life high on the mountain. The public and media seem to think that a rescue can be accomplished high on Everest just like in the Alps or the Rockies, which is not at all true. Yes, guides have to deal with unrealistic expectations from many quarters, but some guides bring it on themselves, by implying that the trip is safer than it really is and by implying the summit is a sure thing.


Are there aspects of the guide-client relationship that increase safety? Are there parts that could be seen as more dangerous?


photo of Jim Williams

Jim Williams:
As a guide I would say that climbing with a guide puts the client in the best position to do their best to reach their goal. The summit may be among those goals, but returning home alive and in good health should be the primary goal. It is often the guide who needs to stay focused on that objective and not lose sight of this primary goal.

It is very easy to think, as a guide, that you are superhuman and will not succumb to the grueling exertion that climbing a mountain such as Everest puts on you, mentally as well as physically. This unfortunately can get in the way of sound judgment and allow you to get caught up in the secondary goal that seems to be paramount at the time, and that is to reach the summit at all costs. This is a real danger and one a guide needs to be mindful of at all times, as difficult as it may be at the time.

In 1998, I was with several clients who were either not healthy or moving quite slowly. At the Hillary Step I looked at the clients and asked, "How do you feel? Can you go on and return safely?" The answer was, "I think so," so we continued and one-and-a-half hours later, at the top of the Hillary Step, I again asked, "How do you feel?" This time the answer was: "I don't think I can make it to the summit and return safely. I am exhausted." This was at 9:30 am on a beautiful morning. We waved to the folks on the summit and headed down. It took more than 10 hours to return to the South Col. This client returned in 2000 and was the first member of our team to summit that year. When questioned by the media before she left on the expedition, [a] reporter, after hearing the 1998 story, [told her,] "Go back and do it right this time," to which she replied "I did it right last time so I can go back this time!" The unrealistic expectation of what is to happen on a climb came not from the client but from the media, at least in this case.


photo of Dr. Peter Hackett

Dr. Peter Hackett:
A guide is likely to be more realistic, and maybe more conservative, about how well the client is doing, whether he should turn around, etc. The technical aspects of climbing are generally safer with a guide. Terrain evaluation, avalanche assessment and weather assessment should all be good quality with a professional guide.

To the extent that a client abrogates his own responsibility for his own safety to the guide, it could be dangerous. For example, thinking that because it is a guided trip he does not have to know knots and anchors, or how to adjust and care for crampons and other equipment, the client might be less prepared than he would be if he were on his own. A real problem with guided expeditions is that some clients without adequate experience are signing on; they would never do such a trip by themselves.


Two of the leaders of the 1996 expeditions, Rob Hall and Scott Fischer, died on Everest. The two had very different guiding styles: Rob kept his team on a tight rein throughout the expedition, while Scott allowed his team to move more independently. Do you think this difference in leadership styles played a role in the outcome of the tragedy, or was it just coincidence that of the five who died, four were from Rob Hall's team, while only Scott Fischer died from his team?


photo of Jim Williams

Jim Williams:
Personally, in my opinion, the reason the 1996 guiding season resulted in so many deaths was not due to guiding styles but rather a real loss of focus on the part of both leaders of the teams involved. It should be noted that there were several other guided expeditions that did not suffer in the same way. Some were even at the South Col at the same time as the unfortunate two teams.

In my opinion, the guiding focus was clouded by competition and potential for future monetary gain. The decisions made by the various guides involved reflect a real lack of focus on the ultimate goal of returning safely. Media commitments, personal commitments, future financial windfalls as well as personal goals seem to have become more important than the true guiding commitment that each team leader had supposedly made to the clients to attempt to climb Mount Everest and return home safely.

The difference pointed out in the question, however, did not apply to the summit attempts. Rob was not climbing with his team as a close-knit group. ... To the best of my knowledge, at least one of the clients with previous experience on Everest did not feel comfortable with the situation on summit day and returned to the South Col, abandoning his third, and last, summit attempt.

Rob, having caught up with some of his group, then appeared to have turned his attention to a client with whom he may have made a personal commitment to summit at all costs. … This focus on individual success in the end cost several folks their lives.

Scott Fischer, on the other hand, appears to have been motivated by his own desire to once again reach the summit of Mount Everest. Reports of Scott's mental state and possible illness may have interfered with his decision-making process. The fact that he passed his entire team in an approaching afternoon storm after they had been to the summit to summit himself suggests he was not focused on the well-being of the group but rather on his own success. He may have been motivated by the idea that "A client summits once, … a guide more than once." Scott was not able to catch up with his team before he appeared to have succumbed to the illness that was slowly making it impossible for him to finish the climb.


photo of James Moss

James Moss:
My view of this may be quite different. In guided whitewater rafting trips, the old adage states the guide stays with the boat. If one or more people fall out of your boat, the guide still stays with the majority of the people. The guide must work to keep the most people alive, which in turn increases the chances of rescuing the people who are no longer in the boat. It may appear the guide is abandoning the people at risk, but the chances of the people in the water are increased if the guide stays with the boat.

When Rob Hall made the decision to stay high with a dying client, he was no longer available to assist in the leadership or assistance of his other clients. Granted, there may be little or nothing he could have done to change the outcome. However, that decision to stay possibly increased the risk to the other clients.


photo of Dr. Peter Hackett

Dr. Peter Hackett:
I don't think the difference in styles had much to do with the end results. If Boukreev had not rescued the other climbers on Fischer's team, the death toll would have been about the same for the two teams. However, some "instructions" from a domineering guide can be taken too seriously, like Beck Weathers not moving down the mountain sooner because Rob Hall had told him to stay put.


In 2006, a team of climbers rescued Lincoln Hall after he spent a night on Everest alone at 28,000 feet. The climbers had abandoned their summit attempt in order to help save Hall's life. Ten days earlier, however, a number of different teams continued to the summit instead of helping another climber in distress, David Sharp, who ultimately died on the mountain. What made the difference in these two situations? What was the reaction in the climbing community?


photo of Lincoln Hall

Lincoln Hall:
David Sharp deliberately chose the purer path, the kind of style you might find on a mountain that wasn't Everest or Cho Oyu. He was a loner, and I can identify with the pleasures of that, and it was a deliberate choice. He had no backup, and that also was a deliberate choice. It is very easy up there to drift off into the welcoming comfort of sleep only to be there for eternity. I was very aware of that pathway to death, and I did everything I could to avoid it.

After reaching the summit, I had been helped down to 28,000 feet by four Sherpas, who then had to leave me before nightfall. The next morning, after being resuscitated by Dan Mazur, Jangbu Sherpa, Myles Osborne and Andrew Brash, and with the help of a delivery of fresh oxygen, I was able walk down the mountain. David Sharp was unable to walk. My night out was warmer, with May 14 being especially cold, and with my climb to the summit May 25 being at the "warm" end of the month.

Much of the climbing community knew better than to take the press at face value. However, one reaction was from a climber who had been to 20,000 feet and vowed on the Web that he would never leave someone to die. But there's a quantum leap of difference at 28,000 feet. The world just isn't the same. It's a very close line between life and death up there.

As a member of the climbing community, I was very unhappy about not getting down the mountain unassisted. The first rule of mountaineering is that you get down under your own steam, and I failed to do that. In the process I put others at risk, because every one is at risk up there.


photo of Jim Williams

Jim Williams:
I was not on Mount Everest in 2006. … As far as what I know of Lincoln Hall's "rescue," it seems that the guide and client team who abandoned their summit attempt did so because they both understood the value of human life at that moment. They were in a place to help, and they did so. The guide … has been in the mountains for many years and is a mountaineer at heart, so when faced with this dilemma, he saw no other choice than to direct his resources towards the "rescue." I do not know if his client later was unhappy with the decision, but one would hope that he can be satisfied in knowing that he is directly responsible for saving another person's life. …

The David Sharp incident is a bit more complex, as far as I have been able to learn. First, he was on his own, having set off to climb Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen. This means that he may not have had his own mask and regulator with him to use in the event he need assistance from others -- something he probably did not plan on needing. He did not have a great deal of support and appears to have been dependent on the goodwill and experience of others to support his summit attempt. He had made these decisions at a much lower altitude, and it should be assumed that they were made without the cloud of altitude and with full understanding of the risks he was undertaking.

… I understand at least one of the largest and most experienced teams on the mountain did what they could to lend assistance to David Sharp, but were unable to save him in the end. In my opinion, he died in a way he had chosen to die, despite the efforts of others. To blame others for the decision he made in advance is not fair to anyone, and especially to those who did lend a hand regardless of the outcome. …

I am not really aware of much reaction within the climbing/guiding community, but the media has jumped on this story in a very unfortunate way. They have chosen to put a gray cloud over the summit of Mount Everest with little or no understanding of what it is like to make decisions -- difficult ones at best -- on the top of the world. They are also, in my opinion, not willing to allow a person to make decisions that ultimately end up being the end of their life.

David was willing to take that risk and had set off on a quest that could well have ended as it did with full knowledge of the consequence. He paid the ultimate price, and no one is to blame, not even David himself. In my opinion, the media is to blame for casting a lack of dignity on the choices made by an individual on a quest of a lifetime. I may not choose to climb/guide with this risk so close at hand, but I do respect another mountaineer's right to do so.


photo of James Moss

James Moss:
There are thousands of issues you just evaluate when deciding to help someone in trouble on a mountain:

Can I help? Do I have the ability, the strength, the energy, the ability, the tools, the equipment and the mental toughness to help?

If I help, will my efforts put me at greater risk for death or injury?

If I help, will my efforts pay off? Am I assisting a person down the mountain or am I moving a corpse someplace?

How far must we go? How high are we, and how low must we go to get the ill climber?

If I am a guide, my first responsibility is to my clients -- not that they summit, but that they live. Will any assistance from my team put my clients at risk? Will assistance from me put my clients at risk?

Are there other people who can assist?

These are some of the major but not all of the issues a guide must look at before helping others.

Remember, we are reviewing these questions in our living rooms or offices. The questions posed have answers that are difficult to put in perspective when you are warm and secure. We are examining the decisions of people who are cold, exhausted and having a hard time breathing, maybe close to failure themselves. It is not fair for us to judge the decisions those climbers and guides make.

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posted may 13, 2008

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