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Old 17.07.2011, 23:52
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On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

This is one of the never ending debates in hiking/climbing circles, almost like the barefoot hippies vs. high tech shoe junkies debates

Well, here's a balanced view on the subject by UIAA, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation. The consensus statement is (full report attached; I can highly recommend reading it in full):

Use of adjustable sticks as a hiking aid, especially for downhill walking, is advantageous and recommended in the following situations:
• advanced age, excess body weight
• when suffering from diseases of the joints or the spine
• when carrying heavy backpacks*
Hiking sticks are not necessary for other hiking situation and should not - mainly for reason of safety - be used all the time.

The advantages and disadvantages must be weighed up in each individual case.


In general, I think this goes against conventional wisdom. Received wisdom is to err on the safer side, but it is erroneous (e.g. wear sturdy mountain boots where a light weight trainer or barefoot suffices and screw your joints, carry 3 litres of water where 1 l of water suffices, end up hiking so slowly that you actually need to consume 3 litres etc.)

* The article does not specify what is heavy; I would consider anything over 20% of your body weight as heavy; 10-20% is moderate, and under 10% is light.
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Old 18.07.2011, 01:24
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

I would carry a stick if each time we went hiking we hadn't forgotten them on the train

It's good for me. I have depth perception damage, so the stick actually keeps me balanced, letting me know how far the ground is from me, it's easier to hike up on wobbly terrain. One can easily test the stability of the surface, before putting on full weight on it. I think sticks are clever. Make my arms work out, too.
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Old 18.07.2011, 08:36
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

Seriously, there's a limited amount of money to go around for medical research and this is what we choose to spend it studying?
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Old 18.07.2011, 09:05
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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I would carry a stick if each time we went hiking we hadn't forgotten them on the train
Unless you do your whole hike above treeline, a costless, efficient and environmentally responsible way is to find a stout stick lying around, use it on sections you need it for and discard it back to nature when you are done, instead of carrying a metal pole weighing half a kilo throughout your hike/travel.

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Seriously, there's a limited amount of money to go around for medical research and this is what we choose to spend it studying?
I think you have very little idea how large the hiking stick industry is; my guess is it is 100 times bigger than the money required for this kind of research. Moreover some of these are fundamental research, the findings of which are primarily used to better understand the human body rather than for narrow application such as the use of hiking sticks. To each their own; move on if this didn't interest you I personally found the article extremely well-written and well-argued.
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Old 18.07.2011, 09:12
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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This is one of the never ending debates in hiking/climbing circles, almost like the barefoot hippies vs. high tech shoe junkies debates

Well, here's a balanced view on the subject by UIAA, the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation. The consensus statement is (full report attached; I can highly recommend reading it in full):

Use of adjustable sticks as a hiking aid, especially for downhill walking, is advantageous and recommended in the following situations:
• advanced age, excess body weight
• when suffering from diseases of the joints or the spine
• when carrying heavy backpacks*
Hiking sticks are not necessary for other hiking situation and should not - mainly for reason of safety - be used all the time.

The advantages and disadvantages must be weighed up in each individual case.
I think this is a troll, but go on I'll bite!

The document is pretty rubbish to be fair. There are no references to support the disadvantages of using sticks and some of them are tentative to say the least. To say a stick will decrease your sense of balance when you are already walking on ground that already challenges your balance is a bit soft. Where is the reference to support this? Walking on uneven ground in itself may cause some people to loose balance, for these people a stick may actually allow them to improve their balance and with time who knows maybe they won't need the sticks!!!

Reduced physiological protection!!! Again we are talking about being in an environment which by it's nature causes physiological strain. In certain situations not using sticks causes too much damage so to say that using sticks totally stops any physiological adaptation is just plain stupid.

How is increased heart rate a disadvantage (providing we are not talking about cardiac patients) if the rate of perceived exertion is actually lower. The increase in HR is just from using upper body muscles which are actually at this point aiding in locomotion.


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In general, I think this goes against conventional wisdom. Received wisdom is to err on the safer side, but it is erroneous (e.g. wear sturdy mountain boots where a light weight trainer or barefoot suffices and screw your joints, carry 3 litres of water where 1 l of water suffices, end up hiking so slowly that you actually need to consume 3 litres etc.)

* The article does not specify what is heavy; I would consider anything over 20% of your body weight as heavy; 10-20% is moderate, and under 10% is light.
Maybe you can get away with 1l of water. But to say everyone should only take 1l on a day tour is nonsense. There have been reports of people calling in helicopter rescue just because they didn't bring enough water. High altitude causes you do dehydrate quicker due to hyperventilation and people often underestimate how long they will be on a route. Water is essential. Bring more rather than less.
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Old 18.07.2011, 09:23
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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I personally found the article extremely well-written and well-argued.
Looks like it is three years old though so they have probably changed their minds twice since then. Seriously, I've linked this thread into the first post in the Hiking in Switzerland thread so that anyone really looking for basic info about hiking will see it.

Me, I nearly always take mine with me but only use them if it is a LOT downhill or much more uphill than I am used to. I prefer my hands free if it is rocky and steep uphill and having seen someone split her mouth open and break a tooth falling over?/onto? her stick coming down in a non-steep but rocky surface, I don't use them in such areas either. However, they can be very useful at times. A friend broke his fibula in the mountains (no Mobile reception) so he used one stick as a splint and the second to walk down to the nearest hut. REGA picked him up from there...

I like your definition of pack weight and using that as a guide, I am glad I am not very heavy.
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Old 18.07.2011, 09:27
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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I think this is a troll, but go on I'll bite!

The document is pretty rubbish to be fair. There are no references to support the disadvantages of using sticks and some of them are tentative to say the least. To say a stick will decrease your sense of balance when you are already walking on ground that already challenges your balance is a bit soft. Where is the reference to support this? Walking on uneven ground in itself may cause some people to loose balance, for these people a stick may actually allow them to improve their balance and with time who knows maybe they won't need the sticks!!!

Reduced physiological protection!!! Again we are talking about being in an environment which by it's nature causes physiological strain. In certain situations not using sticks causes too much damage so to say that using sticks totally stops any physiological adaptation is just plain stupid.

How is increased heart rate a disadvantage (providing we are not talking about cardiac patients) if the rate of perceived exertion is actually lower. The increase in HR is just from using upper body muscles which are actually at this point aiding in locomotion.

Maybe you can get away with 1l of water. But to say everyone should only take 1l on a day tour is nonsense. There have been reports of people calling in helicopter rescue just because they didn't bring enough water. High altitude causes you do dehydrate quicker due to hyperventilation and people often underestimate how long they will be on a route. Water is essential. Bring more rather than less.
Well, if you criticize something out of context you can poke holes in just about anything under the science.

I'll give it, you would have better skills in understanding the references cited in the document; it is also possible your judgment is superior to the consensus statement of UIAA. But some small clarifications: Of course you need to use common sense, if you are going on a hike close to your limits (typically T4 hikes which are on scree/steep ground but not yet grade 1-2 climbs where you need hands free for climbing, this is where you most need sticks for balance), you would carry sticks on such ground. The article says not to use sticks all the time; that makes intuitive sense to me, this is what some mountain guides advise too, but that is just their opinion. The key point is, you should know whether you are on a training hike well within your easy zone, or on a serious hike for you.

The water example was just an example, obviously how much water to carry depends on the the terrain, distance, likelihood of streams/fountains, weather, your body weight etc. And of course, if you interpreted that I was saying everyone should carry 1 litre all the time, that is nonsense too
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Old 18.07.2011, 09:30
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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Walking on uneven ground in itself may cause some people to loose balance, for these people a stick may actually allow them to improve their balance and with time who knows maybe they won't need the sticks!!!
Uneven ground or not, me using a stick doesn't improve my balance, it just stops me falling over! I 'improve my balance' by working at it at home and use sticks when hiking to make sure that I don't fall when it makes a lot of difference if I do!

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Old 18.07.2011, 09:32
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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Looks like it is three years old though so they have probably changed their minds twice since then. Seriously, I've linked this thread into the first post in the Hiking in Switzerland thread so that anyone really looking for basic info about hiking will see it.

Me, I nearly always take mine with me but only use them if it is a LOT downhill or much more uphill than I am used to. I prefer my hands free if it is rocky and steep uphill and having seen someone split her mouth open and break a tooth falling over?/onto? her stick coming down in a non-steep but rocky surface, I don't use them in such areas either. However, they can be very useful at times. A friend broke his fibula in the mountains (no Mobile reception) so he used one stick as a splint and the second to walk down to the nearest hut. REGA picked him up from there...

I like your definition of pack weight and using that as a guide, I am glad I am not very heavy.
OK, didn't see this post while I was posting the previous one. I would generally agree...if you have been using sticks for decades no one will advise you to go hands-free, no?

And if you go over the tree line, makes sense to carry a stick. But below the treeline I have rarely been on hikes where I have been unable to fashion a fine walking stick from mother nature for my wife (generally her limit will be easy hikes for me, so I allow her to use one, if only to placate her).

It is actually a nice topic, no one right or wrong answer. But if Eire calls the report rubbish, I would think he is trolling
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Old 18.07.2011, 09:37
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

Well I am useless at going down steep tracks that are stony particularly when wet and particularly with a backpack with a days worth of supplies for the children on my back ... but if I remember to bring my sticks, I can skip downhill with the best of them.

My backpack has attachments to hook the sticks on, so I do spend most of the day carrying them but at least they are tucked out of the way and not poking in other peoples' faces ... which to me seems a far more dangerous thing to be concerned about (try getting on the morning "walkers boat" on Lake Lucerne and you have to defend yourself from a forest of these upturned spikes ...)
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Old 18.07.2011, 10:42
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

I think that the article is basically sensible and logical.

I take my stick with me when hiking on uneven terrain or at altitude. I don't use them where the terrain is good. I use them due to advancing years and general health. There are times when I feel sure that I could easily have been injured by slipping or twisting an ankle if it were not for them.

I would not recommend relying on finding a suitable stick out on a hike. I feel that there is a danger of not finding anything suitable. Additionally, your average stick from the woods doesn't have the refinements of hiking sticks.

Modern hiking sticks can be very light. Mine are under 200g each.
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Old 18.07.2011, 11:23
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

On the subject of hiking poles, I often see northern European types going on what looks like a casual walk near the lake with hiking poles. Does anyone have any insight on what the philosophy behind that might be? I'm curious.

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I think that the article is basically sensible and logical.

I take my stick with me when hiking on uneven terrain or at altitude. I don't use them where the terrain is good. I use them due to advancing years and general health. There are times when I feel sure that I could easily have been injured by slipping or twisting an ankle if it were not for them.

I would not recommend relying on finding a suitable stick out on a hike. I feel that there is a danger of not finding anything suitable. Additionally, your average stick from the woods doesn't have the refinements of hiking sticks.

Modern hiking sticks can be very light. Mine are under 200g each.
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Old 18.07.2011, 11:28
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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On the subject of hiking poles, I often see northern European types going on what looks like a casual walk near the lake with hiking poles. Does anyone have any insight on what the philosophy behind that might be? I'm curious.
That sounds like Nordic Walking
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Old 18.07.2011, 11:29
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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On the subject of hiking poles, I often see northern European types going on what looks like a casual walk near the lake with hiking poles. Does anyone have any insight on what the philosophy behind that might be? I'm curious.
Sssssssshhhhh, it is called Nordic hiking, it is sacrilege to call it a casual walk by the lake



Edit: Ooops, DP has faster fingers.
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Old 18.07.2011, 11:36
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

I meant no offense, of course! I was careful to qualify with "what looks like." You know, to a barbarian auslanderin like me!

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Old 18.07.2011, 11:41
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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I meant no offense, of course! I was careful to qualify with "what looks like." You know, to a barbarian auslanderin like me!
Here is an old thread on the pros and cons of Nordic Walking

Nordic Walkers - grrr!
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Old 18.07.2011, 11:41
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

The speed I descend there is not a hope in hell I could use sticks - as anyone who "hikes" (I mean runs) with me in the mountains can testify.

On the flipside my mother is infinitely more comfortable descending when she has the sticks with her.

In my view, common sense should rule when using the sticks - you see a lot of people using them when they don't need to - and a lot having them stuck in the side of their rucksacks when they should.
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Old 18.07.2011, 12:22
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

I spent many of my formative years hiking in the UK (where I do know that the summit heights are not as high as the Alps) and for years, never saw anyone using walking poles.
Eventually their use crept in but as far as I am aware, they are still viewed with a mixture of mild amusement and curiosity.
Research has shown the use of them to reduce impact loading on the joints (particularly the knees) when descending and this eventually spurred me to buying a pair, as I do suffer some discomfort in these cases.
Due to other medical conditions I have used them when ascending also but I would say that it`s purely down to personal choice.
I have found them benefitial in shock absorption but having said that - they should be used with care as (as previously posted) I often get the tips jammed between some rocks and have almost gone `arse over t*t` on many occasions.
Nowdays I normally take them but often never use them unless the need arises - I guess that they have become part of the standard kit, like first aid pack, map, compass, bivi bag etc, all of which I take with me summer or winter.
I would say that they are a good development and for sure, they can improve a sense of balance, which for some people can be very comforting.
Regarding the little aside about water - well I do agree with Niranjan, it all depends on the length and nature of the hike, plus the weather, facilities (i.e. mountain huts, which of course you DON`T get in the UK).
I often take as little as1 litre but then again, when we tackled the WATZMANN - we all took 3 litres and completely ran out - that was a one day trip!
The bottom line is - do your homework and be prepared.
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Old 18.07.2011, 12:56
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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Regarding the little aside about water - well I do agree with Niranjan, it all depends on the length and nature of the hike, plus the weather, facilities (i.e. mountain huts, which of course you DON`T get in the UK).
I often take as little as1 litre but then again, when we tackled the WATZMANN - we all took 3 litres and completely ran out - that was a one day trip!
The bottom line is - do your homework and be prepared.
Spot on there! I was not trolling or anything, but just sharing some thoughts based on my new experiences in the mountains, sometimes with non-climbing partners of varying levels.

Contrary to what Dr. Eire says, 1 litre is the norm in big day tours in summer (just google any mountain guiding service for Matterhorn or comparable mountains which involve 8-10 hours of activity and 1000 m ascents, and they recommend carrying no more than 1-1.5 litre of fluids (one tip I can offer is carry 1 l of hot tea in a flask, then when you drink, mix it with clean snow if you can, then you effectively have 1.5 l of warm fluid instead of 1 l of scalding hot fluid).

What arm-chair experts often overestimate is the amount of fluids you can drink when in the cold high mountains (ask any gentleman how difficult it is to pee when you are dressed in heavy layers and wearing harness and are in technical terrain, and don't bother asking ladies, it is EPIC); if you stop often, you get cold and need to pee even more, and camelbacks can freeze. Eire is right, however, when pointing about hyper-ventilation and the need for more water. So what mountaineers/high altitude hikers normally do is, spend the previous few days acclimating and drinking lots of water in the hut (if not, you shouldn't be there doing that), but not on the big days. The weekend before last, I did a 4200m peak rated PD+, 8 hours out and back according to guidebook, and I had about 300 ml still left in my 1 litre thermos. An emergency 500 ml juice remained upopened.

Again, we come back to common sense. Anyone who goes high enough for these issues (hyper-ventilation, lack of streams/huts etc.) to be relevant should already be an experienced hiker and know these intricacies.

But then again, last weekend I did a long rock route (18 pitches, all day) with a climbing partner who weighs 50% more than me and is twice as strong/fit as me. He led all the hardest pitches while I struggled to follow wearing a 3 kilo pack. Then we reached the top and he opened ... hold your breath.... a stove and made fresh coffee, and showed me the 4 lites of water he was carrying. I was impressed, shocked, and humbled at the same time. To each their own; I would keel over if I carried his pack, let alone climb.
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Old 18.07.2011, 13:56
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Re: On the use of hiking sticks in the mountains

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Spot on there! I was not trolling or anything, but just sharing some thoughts based on my new experiences in the mountains, sometimes with non-climbing partners of varying levels.

Contrary to what Dr. Eire says, 1 litre is the norm in big day tours in summer (just google any mountain guiding service for Matterhorn or comparable mountains which involve 8-10 hours of activity and 1000 m ascents, and they recommend carrying no more than 1-1.5 litre of fluids (one tip I can offer is carry 1 l of hot tea in a flask, then when you drink, mix it with clean snow if you can, then you effectively have 1.5 l of warm fluid instead of 1 l of scalding hot fluid).

What arm-chair experts often overestimate is the amount of fluids you can drink when in the cold high mountains (ask any gentleman how difficult it is to pee when you are dressed in heavy layers and wearing harness and are in technical terrain, and don't bother asking ladies, it is EPIC); if you stop often, you get cold and need to pee even more, and camelbacks can freeze. Eire is right, however, when pointing about hyper-ventilation and the need for more water. So what mountaineers/high altitude hikers normally do is, spend the previous few days acclimating and drinking lots of water in the hut (if not, you shouldn't be there doing that), but not on the big days. The weekend before last, I did a 4200m peak rated PD+, 8 hours out and back according to guidebook, and I had about 300 ml still left in my 1 litre thermos. An emergency 500 ml juice remained upopened.

Again, we come back to common sense. Anyone who goes high enough for these issues (hyper-ventilation, lack of streams/huts etc.) to be relevant should already be an experienced hiker and know these intricacies.

But then again, last weekend I did a long rock route (18 pitches, all day) with a climbing partner who weighs 50% more than me and is twice as strong/fit as me. He led all the hardest pitches while I struggled to follow wearing a 3 kilo pack. Then we reached the top and he opened ... hold your breath.... a stove and made fresh coffee, and showed me the 4 lites of water he was carrying. I was impressed, shocked, and humbled at the same time. To each their own; I would keel over if I carried his pack, let alone climb.
The problem isn't the experienced people who generally know how much water they need for themselves. It's the people who don't go into the mountains that much and are not acclimated. Tell them they only need a litre and they will be getting uncomfortable quite quickly on a hot day or above about 2200m. Many people do not realise the effect altitude has on their bodies until they experience it themselves and it is better to err on the side of caution and have a little too much water than too little. Especially if a trip can end up taking longer than expected. Realistically we're not really talking about life or death, but I've heard of a number of cases where poorly prepared people have gone into the back country and ended up calling in helicopters purely because they were under prepared.

On my trip last Saturday I took two litres with me and pulled the last sip out of my drink pack with about 30mins to the end of the day. Most other people in the group I was leading did the same. We did have the option of getting top ups along the way if necessary, but even in Switzerland there are a few areas where top ups are not always possible.

My questioning the OP was not for experienced people as they should know their own bodies and skills better than any consensus statement can account for, but the thousands of less experienced people who go into the mountains regularly. For these people saying 1L of water is enough and leave the poles at home may not be the best advice. That is the point I'm trying to get across. People who are regularly in the mountains will know what works for them and what doesn't.

As someone pointed out the best thing is to be well prepared.
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