Snowstorm at Brass Monkey Biv – Part I


Snowstorm at Brass Monkey Biv – Part I

Lewis Pass 2010

It’s been two years since my last foray into Lewis Pass during winter.  What do I hate about the region?  The difficult challenges it provides in the midst of winter.  What do I love about the region?  The difficult challenges it provides in the midst of winter.  Previous trips have involved sleeping out on the snow due to the difficulty of navigating the rugged terrain, being caught in heavy storms and being pinned by flooding side-streams and rivers.  It is often in the situations most dire to the tramper that the scenery is at its most dramatically beautiful.  For all the discomfort that is sure to be endured this is why I continually return to this region.

This year’s trip involves several renewed quests, to reach Brass Monkey Biv and to go over the Waiau Pass into the Nelson Lakes National Park.  Essentially the plan is to walk from Lewis Pass to Lake Rotoroa over about ten days.  Being able to negotiate the 1,900 metre Waiau Pass in winter is the crux of the walk and something that I haven’t properly thought through.  On the other hand perhaps I should just dive headlong in and see how it goes.  Too much contemplation can lead to paralysis.

As it is I suspect the best way to tackle this route really is from north to south.  This is how I originally plan to go, even sending off the route to my PLB support crew.  A last minute change of heart sees me reversing the route, mainly to provide more walking time on the first day on what is already guaranteed to be a night time walk into Nina Hut.  Having booked the 2pm West Coast bus I need to do the rounds quickly, purchasing supplies.  Pleasingly, Backcountry dried food have come up with some new dishes and I stock up on these and some old favourites.

A review of my gear reveals that I have forgotten my ice axe and my pack cover.  As long as I get ten fine days in a row and the snow around the Waiau Pass has melted away none of this should be a problem.  Given the likelihood of this is zero I need to make some decisions.  Hiring an ice axe is out of the question as it is too expensive so I resolve to make do with my walking poles and the old credo of when walking on hard ice; don’t slip.  I need to purchase a new walking pole as one of my old ones was retired on my last trip.  In the end I buy two as there is a two for one deal at the Kathmandu store.  Instead of buying yet another pack cover I compromise and get something just as essential, a pack liner.  I decide that I’ll be able to use this as a make do pack cover if need be.  It is fuzzy headed thinking.

One smart piece of purchasing is opting for a second gas canister.  I tend to do this as a matter of course, even if I did manage to leave both canisters at the end of the road on my last summer trip.  For a winter trip, when time in the hut is extended by the restricted hours of light, boiling the billy for a cup of hot chocolate or soup is one of the much enjoyed rituals.  This very much turns out to be the case for this trip and on my third day in an alpine hut during a snow storm I’m forced to replace the first canister.  It has lasted a record short period of five days.  As I’ve been heating snow in order to get water it isn’t surprising that it needs to be replaced so quickly.  By the time I empty out the second canister is has no more than two day’s supply left.

The only item I don’t put to good use during the trip is my crampons which are made redundant by heavy duty snow shoes.  I thought they might offer more flexibility in navigating through Waiau Pass and it is possible that they may be a better option on narrow ridges where there is a lot of rock.  Snow shoes are extremely useful in conditions of soft snow but they do add a rod to the back when walking long stages on the flats.  Pack weight was certainly the least enjoyable aspect of the trip though I’ve at least learned a lesson from the previous year’s trip through the Australian Alps.  Then I secured my snow shoes to the pack with a ten metre rope and the tying and untying could take five minutes.  This time I’ve got two straps to secure the shoes and another to tie them to the pack.  Best of all they are attached tightly between the main pack and the day pack that piggybacks on the outside.  This pack is a great addition, allowing me to have excess gear or outer layers readily available.  Adding a pack cover might have been quite difficult had I remembered to bring one.

My time in Christchurch is rounded off with a visit to my favourite Korean restaurant where I order Kimchi Bibimbap and flick through the latest edition of Wilderness.  One more item I’ve forgotten is a water bottle which means I’ve got to make a last minute dash to a convenience store where I buy a one litre sports drink bottle and thirteen identical postcards.  I’m relatively early to the pick up point near the Base backpackers.  Talking to the bus driver requires to perseverance to establish where exactly I want to be dropped.  He has never heard of Palmer’s Lodge but we finally establish common ground when he mentions the Deerstalker’s Lodge.  Yes, that’s where I want to go!

The bus is already mobile when I recall there is one more item I intended to buy, new batteries for my headlight.  I’m alarmed as I don’t have a backup source of light and I’ve been using the headlight for late night cycling.  It’s quite conceivable that these batteries will not last two weeks, particularly if I’m doing some night walking.  When the bus pulls over to collect a small group of passengers I’m anguished about the opportunity to dash to the nearby store to buy batteries.  As the negotiations continue outside I can stand it no longer, rushing to the store, asking where the batteries are, frantically following the young Indian lass as she makes her way to the cash register and practically throwing her the money before making my escape outside.  The passengers are still clustered about and I can rest easy that I won’t be left in the dark.  This had happened on my last winter trip and it had meant a long evening in a dark, dank hut.  Ironically, despite the light continuing to fade throughout the trip I never have to replace the batteries despite some long hours spent threading my way through the dark.  Having the spare batteries removes a lot of worry.

As it is we stop at Culverden for a comfort stop and I could have taken a leisurely stroll to the store for batteries.  When we pass the turn off to Hanmer Springs I can review the occasion two years before when I had taken two days to walk the road between the turn off and Windy Point.  This long, pointless walk had been the result of the frustration born out of four days waiting in Christchurch for Jetstar to relocate my bag.  This time I’ve caught the afternoon bus (rather than have it drive passed me in one of the classic horrible moments of delayed realisation) and can appreciate just how far it was that I walked and how steep and narrow some sections of the road are.  It was a formidable effort.

The landmarks continue to pass by, Windy Point, where I’d been provided a lift by a good Samaritan who recognised that my bus would not have go through and the southern end of the St James Walkway, which I’d walked five years before.  Six kilometres up the road we arrive at Palmer Lodge and pull over.  I ask the driver what time he would pass through this area on his return trip to Christchurch and receive the good news that it would be about 10.15am.  Why am I asking if my intention is to end up 100 kms away at Lake Rotoroa?  Because I know that there is every likelihood that I will stay in this region for the duration of my stay.  With the Lewis Pass highway I have twice the public transport options and a much better chance to get a lift if I need one.

It is about 4.30pm when I am dropped off.  I’m not really sure what time it gets dark but the paper I’ve read on the bus suggests that sunset is at 6pm.  At best I can hope for half an hour of twilight which means I’ve got two hours of light to work with on what is a three hour walk into Nina hut.  At the back of the Deerstalkers Lodge I re-organise my pack and unload my new walking poles.  These come with snow cups which will prevent the poles disappearing into the bogs and soft snow.  I’ve wanted to attach some of these for a long time but I’ve never had the aptitude or inclination to put them on.  Even now I’m unable to force the cups onto the grooves and I’m sure that they are more likely to fall off than wedge on.  I can only wait and see how they go.

My old maps do not have the latest on the walk into Nina Hut, but fortunately the brochure I bought several years ago does.  It advises that the new hut has been relocated on the true left of the river and that it is reach by using the new swing bridge across Nina River.  As I heave my weighty pack onto my back I must firstly cross the long swingbridge across the Lewis River.  Arriving in Christchurch the previous evening the driver had informed us that it hadn’t rained for five days.  As a consequence the river is low.  As an almost certain outcome it starts to rain now so that I must don my full wet weather kit as well as test my theory that a pack liner can be used as a pack cover.  I discover that it sort of can in light rain but for anything heavier that drizzle you’d better have a back up plan.

Beech forest provides familiar tramping paths, while the boggy track deliver a more dubious reminder of where I am and what season it is.  There are several attractive flats on the lower Nina and where there is firm ground there is also a strong case for preparing camp.  I really want to be able to relax however and enjoy my time in the wilderness and this is much more achievable in a modern hut with cooking facilities, the option of a fire and a comfortable bed.  Eschewing the flats I press on, reaching the swingbridge in about an hour.  From here the track tends to sidle high above the river rather than stick to the flats.  At one point I’m intrigued by a turn off offering access to the Sylvia Tops, a high ridge on the true right of the Nina River.

Whenever the ground levels out however there are a prevalence of muddy bogs that take time to sidle around or pick a path through.  The discomfort that comes from stumbling along a track in fading light is something that must be hard wired into the psyche.  In order to circumvent this I imagine that I am guiding Christine along the track, reassuring her that we are making good progress and that there isn’t too much to worry about.  I recall the countless times I did this growing up in the hills outside of Tamworth.  I delay reaching for my headlight until it is well and truly dark, ensuring I get most use out of the available natural light and my peripheral vision.  When I go to headlight it means I must focus on the narrow beam of light as it picks out the pin prick reflections off the markers nailed to trees.  These are gratifyingly prominent and progress remains steady.  If anything the control pace that one reverts to walking at night perfectly suits my level of fitness for day one tramping.

Pack straps weigh heavily on my frame so that frequent breaks for food are a necessity.  I’m steeled for a 9pm arrival if need be.  Keep going is the motto, eventually the hut will reveal itself.  The last thing I need is a particularly broad bog that prevents easy skirting.  Ploughing through the middle I catch sight of a frame, the familiar phone  booth shape of a camp toilet.  And there it is, just ahead is the larger frame of the hut.  It is 7.20pm, I’ve actually made better time in the dark than what could have been anticipated from the track signs.  What a pleasure it is to step onto the veranda, get out of the rain and begin the slow peel out of wet clothing.

The hut is an absolute treasure, spacious but not impersonal, functional but modestly attractive.  After I’ve shucked out of slimy layers I discover that it isn’t too cold and despite the presence of a good pile of firewood I decline the luxury of a warming blaze and instead opt for dry gear and a hot meal.  Better yet the hut has an excellent supply of Wilderness and Alpine Club magazines, some of which I will redistribute to other huts.  Here I discover that St James Station has been purchased by the government and will be added to national estate.  What this means for tramping opportunities in the region is unclear but it should provide extra routes through a most attractive area.  If there is one thing annoying about the St James Walkway it is the feeling that if you step off the track you are somehow trespassing.

Just as informative is the hut book that has frequent entries from people who have come from Brass Monkey Biv via the Duchess Stream.  It is route that I’ve contemplated over the years but haven’t really considered for this trip as the reports are that the track to Lucretia Biv and beyond have been recently cut.  It gives me something to consider as I move towards a well earned night’s sleep.

The weather forecast advises that I need to make the most of the next two days before rain sets in.  This should give me time to reach Brass Monkey Biv and cross the Lewis Tops down to the northern end of the St James Walkway.  Mist obscures the tops and hides the view to the head of the valley.  Momentarily it lifts and offers a glimpse of attractive mountains beckoning with the promise of adventure.  With the veil raised there are also suggestions of a heavy overnight dusting of snow on the mountain tops.

The most diverting sign is the track marker suggesting that Brass Monkey Biv is a mere four hours away and that it can be followed by well marked route.  All that it requires is an attentive navigation of the Duchess Stream.  Somehow it sounds too easy and I’m set on the careful route accessed by the Lucretia Stream.  I still intend to aim for Monkey Biv today but I want the reassurance of a biv halfway.  It is not very daring thinking and it will shape the course of the entire journey.  I’m not to know that at this point and it’s impossible to say how the trip might have turned out had I been bold enough to go with direct route.

And so it is I opt to backtrack to the swingbridge and follow the true left track to the Lucretia Biv.  It’s enjoyable to re-visit the path that I’ve navigated in the dark and to find that it’s easy travel.  After an hour I arrive at the straw coloured flats and from here I set my mind to identifying a spot where the mild flow of the river can be best forded.  It doesn’t take long to opt for a broad, slow moving section of the river.  Pausing briefly to remove my boots I’m soon wading into the thigh deep water and pushing through the rocks and eddies that complicate the final exit from the channel.

It’s hard to tell how much time I’ve saved by crossing here, it may be even up to an hour.  As the hut books indicates the track on the true left is easier going that the new track.  It is flatter and broader and I arrive at Lucretia Stream by about lunchtime.  With the track immediately commencing a steep climb it is easy to opt for the early lunch and enjoy a tuna snack.  When I get going I’m distracted by gas guns that are spaced along the track.  Determining their purpose provides thought to go with the exertion of the steady ascent required to avoid the gorge.  Are they meant to scare possums?  It is certainly curious.  Along with the gas guns there are numerous stoat traps armed with patient eggs.

At some point along the track I lose the top off my improvised water bottle.  It doesn’t occur to me to go back and look for it even though the loss annoys me.  Am I to walk for the next ten days sloshing water?  It doesn’t sound like an attractive option.  After several hours the well-cut track descends to stream level and provides an easy crossing point to the true right.  Using submerged rocks I’m able to skip lightly to the other side with dry boots.

Lucretia Bivvy is not too far away, located on river flats and easily distinguished by its orange coat of paint.  Opening up the tightly closed door I discover two bunks, neither with mattresses.  There is barely any cooking space and numerous holes around the fireplace suggest that the hut is susceptible to the elements.  What the hut does have however is a hut book going back more than twenty five years.  Just to hold the book is a privilege and it’s inconceivable to continue on without having read the entries.

I’ve arrived at 3.09pm, leaving at least three hours of daylight still available for tramping.  Brass Monkey Biv is no more than four kilometres away which shouldn’t take any more than three hours.  But I’ve been caught out before attempting to make a late afternoon approach to this biv.  The thought of struggling with a heavy pack on a steep route through deep snow does not induce boldness.  Instead I quickly opt for the measured approach, deciding that I’ll enjoy the charms of Lucretia for an evening before a comfortable morning approach on the mountains.  If all goes well I’ll be able to explore the range overlooking Lake Christabel in the afternoon.

With several hours daylight still available I take a brief reconnaissance of the route to the north of the hut, only to turn back after discovering relatively slow going and the distinct lack of view.  Rather than push it I settle down with the billy on the boil and the hut book on my knee.  I read of exploits undertaken and rescues effected.  A party had been choppered out after being unable to cross the stream following three days of heavy rain.  If I’m slightly incredulous that the gentle trickle running nearby could prevent a desperate party leaving I’m reminded of my many strandings in similar circumstances.

Deeper into the book I discover the exertions of James Broadbent, a gent who has devoted himself to track maintenance beyond the bivvy.  He has marked the route onto the tops and provided some flood routes following the grumblings of one tourist group.  One fellow from Denmark has spent the day creating a stone footpath leading to the hut.  Reading his entry I think it must be a joke until I step outside and discover his diligent masonry.  And it does make a difference standing on dry rock rather than muddy ground.

Late in the afternoon the skies break and sunlight hits the snowy caps of the nearby ranges.  I don’t welcome good weather as I’ve enough experience to appreciate that it means worsening conditions are much more likely.  The weather forecast suggested there would be one good day of weather followed by rain.  To have the calm conditions start now means that they are very unlikely to remain in two days time when I hope to traverse the Lewis Tops.  There may be less than 24 hours to the next storm front and I’m frittering it away on the flats.  I’ve made my decision and I’ll have to live with it.  Best to enjoy a relaxing afternoon and enjoy a moment when the light is good and it's possible to rest.

September 1 2010

With a three hour walk ahead of me to the next hut I don’t feel inclined to start too early and it is mid morning before I commence the leg to the Main Divide.  The guide book suggests there are two routes onto the tops.  The first involves following the head of the valley and scaling up the true left of the waterfall before attempting to zig zag through bluffs to some tarns.  From below this route looks formidable and it will take me further away from the next bivvy.  The alternative involves following Broadbent’s markings until the third stream coming in from the true right and tracking through the forest until it becomes a distinct spur.

The reasons for the navigation stuff ups that follow are not clear.  For an hour and a half I follow the lightly cut trail as it drifts close to and then away from Lucretia Stream.  There are several avalanche paths and dry gullies as well as small streams falling out of the high ridge.  At the first stream near the hut I slip on the mossy rock and my leg plunges into the pool below.  It is a horrible lapse and I am lucky to get out of it with nothing more than a wet boot.

Arriving at the head of the valley it appears the track markers have dissipated.  The third stream should have been no more than a kilometre and a half from the hut and yet I’ve been walking for an hour and a half.  So far I’ve counted two streams but having come this far I wonder if the dry gullies count as streams on the map.  For a moment I contemplate pushing further up valley just to make sure that the trail does not break to the left beyond the scrub.  Struggling with the clumps of tussock and the unpredictable plunge holes into underground streams I decide to retrace my steps and look for track markings leading to the west.

Arriving at the dry gully and viewing what appears to be a scree slopes leading through a break in the ridge I begin a panicked ascent on loose rock.  Perhaps I’m following the credo of Bear Grylls who advocates getting high in order to have a viewing point.  After I’ve travelled for one hundred metres the absence of markers and cairns strengthens the feeling that this is madness.  There appears to be a route through the bluffs to the left but in order to get to it I would need to bash through the forest as it clings to steep ground.  The urge to make any sort of progress almost compels me to attempt it before common sense overwhelms my panic.

Giving up hard won ground feels like a loss but I know well enough that it was a meaningless achievement.  The steepness of the descent suggests that any continuation of the approach to the tops could have got very precarious.  My backtracking continues until I reach the first stream.  I firmly believe there will be indications of a trail leading up one of the stream edges but there is nothing.  Dumping my pack I examine the flats downriver and discover that I am about five minutes away from the hut.  I’ve been travelling for three hours to get where I’ve started.  It’s time to take stock.

Lunch and a harder examination of the map begins to provide some perspective.  I know that I need to climb to the right of Lucretia which is not too far away from the head of the valley.  There is an even higher mountain two kilometres south south west.  With these landmarks in view I commit to following the track beyond where I’ve been and in all likelihood picking it up on the other side of the dense tussock.  To follow the first stream would take me many miles away from where I need to go.  I resolve that if I’m unable to find the trail that there is still ample time to backtrack once more and arrive at Lucretia hut well before dark.  Hopefully it won’t come to that and I can get my act together.

By now the track is very familiar and I make good time reaching the valley head.  Counting streams from the left I reach the third waterway and locate track markers leading the way up the spur.  After a steady forty minutes of climbing I arrive at the tree-line and can start to appreciate the views of the formidable Mt Technical.  Leaving the last of the markers behind I follow a relatively narrow spur that drops away sharply on both sides.  It is one of several spurs leading of the slopes and I note that it is the only one that doesn’t end in bluffs.  From above it would be impossible to know this from simply looking.  A very close study of the map might suggest this, after all, two topographic lines coming together suggests a twenty metre drop and that is easily enough to kill you if you land on something hard.

Twenty minutes walking up the spur brings me to the snow line.  Though the layer does not appear to be deep I opt to put on my snow shoes on while still on firm ground rather than flail about.  It was my experiences three years ago when travel was extremely slow in soft deep snow that convinced me that snow shoes were a wise purchase.  I opted for a pair that had the grip and flexibility of crampons so that I would always feel safe.  When the slope steepens and the snow turns icy I still feel confident and don’t have to second guess myself.  Despite wasting the morning getting to this point I’m still comfortable with what needs to be done in order to reach the hut.  It’s important however not to have another navigation stuff up.

Given my failure three years ago Brass Monkey Biv has a mythical quality to it.  I don’t want it to be too easy, it is a challenge to be savoured.  I climb steadily towards a saddle between Lucretia and point 1605.  From here I’ll have the option of following the ridge or dropping over the other side and skirting the western slopes.  As it is the slope I’m on is steep and only by zig zagging am I able to make steady progress.  The change in the weather I’ve anticipated is well advanced but it appears to be manifesting itself as high cloud rather than the more ominous lowering fog.  Many times I’ve been caught out when travelling across mountains in the late afternoon by rolling mist.  It can make navigation extremely difficult, particularly when it is combined with high winds.  High clouds and good light provide dramatic views and some welcome photo opportunities.  Being able to stop and appreciate my surroundings takes the tension out of my search for the best route to the hut.

There is a choice to make.  I could sidle underneath the ridge and aim towards the face of point 1602.  There are several bluffs hovering beneath the slopes however and I’m unnerved by the prospect of slipping.  The alternative is not easy as there are several snow banks beneath the saddle and with the loss of perspective it is difficult to get an impression of their height.  Ultimately I continue the zig zag that gets me to the saddle and reveals a disappointing lack of snow on the western slopes.  Perusing the gullies to the south west I’m unable to see any basin that might hold Monkey Biv.  Such is the force of the wind sweeping over the saddle from the west it occurs to me that the tarns to the north offer the semblance of protection.  Certainly it appears to offer easier travel than following the ridge to the looming Lucretia.

There are many reasons to be wary in this environs and after flirting with skirting underneath the saddle and sidling around the mountains I’m driven back by the hostility of the chilly gusts.  Scrambling over the frosty rocks that lead up the ridge towards 1605 I eventually seek the shelter of the eastern slopes.  Trading wind for bluffs makes for queasy travel on a hard layer of ice.  The absence of an ice axe is keenly felt and its painfully obvious that my walking poles offer nothing should I need to self arrest.

After I’ve zipped up my wind jacket and donned my balaclava the prospect of returning to the ridge isn’t as daunting and in surprisingly quick time I’ve scrambled to the crest of point 1602.  At 1640hrs I’m able to look down on the tarns that lead down to One Mile Creek and with this point of reference I’m able to locate the tiny Brass Monkey Biv.  There it is, dwarfed by mountain range that leads to The Grand Duchess.  From this perspective the route from Rough Creek looks just as unappealing as it did three years before.  Even if the day had gone better for me it’s hard to imagine that I’d have ventured on a day trip across the lumpen terrain that links up with the next valley system.

The absence of snow suggests that it has been a light winter compared to recent years.  This and the approaching cloud makes for gloomy scenery.  The views and snow cover on the eastern slopes are much more appealing and so I allow myself to wander towards point 1683 on the long approach to Brass Monkey Biv.  There is of course one prospect that would lead me to having an extremely uncomfortable night out and that is if the hut is full.  This is extremely unlikely and locals rarely venture out in winter, particularly on weekdays and I’ve scoped the two major approaches to Brass Monkey and encountered no-one.

Pausing on the ridge I take a last opportunity to assess the route to the north, fully expecting to make the traverse in the morning.  I anticipate being able to sidle at 1400 hundred metres to the tarns and then swinging around The Apprentice to gain the ridge at point 1580.  The snow cover is so sparse on the ridge that sidling east is the only way to postpone having to remove my shoes.  One hundred metres above the hut I pause to take off the props and carrying them in one hand before sidling through a series of plateaus to the basin.

The door to the hut is firmly shut but I use my experience at Lucretia and hook my snow pole strap under the lock and prise it open.  The hut is in neat condition and at least the lower bunk has a foam mattress.  The top bunk mattress is torn into three pieces for reasons that are difficult to imagine.  The maintenance of the hut has fallen to local parties and they’ve done a number of clever repairs to ensure that the hut remains sound.  There is a request in the hut book to keep the door of the hut open as much as possible as mould inducing humidity is a problem.  I comply with this but come to appreciate that the artfully constructed cross pipe ventilation built into one of the walls blows fresh air into the biv.

A quick trip to the spur starting above the semi frozen tarn marks the extent of my exploration of the area.  The fog continues to thicken and minutes before my arrival sleet begins to sweep over the area.  It is a bleak, lonely place, the glorious isolation provides a strong appreciation of the sturdy shelter and it isn’t long before I return to the hearth.  Gathering water from the unfrozen edge of the tarn I commence the evening's cooking duties.  Settling in I feel a strong sense of contentment and this is strengthened as I read the stories of those who have come here before me.   Perusing the most recent entries it is instructive to learn that I am the first person to visit in three months.  Is there something wrong with me?

Through the night a storm rages.  The small hut shudders as the winds wrack its structure.  I’d be alarmed if it wasn’t wired down.  In the early hours of the morning the door flies open and flaps wildly.  I stagger out of my sleeping bag and try and get the door shut.  There is no inside handle and given the alignment of door to wall I’m unable to force it shut.  Floundering in the darkness I’m unable to locate my headlight so that I must work unaided by visual reference.  Eventually I opt to use my rope to secure the door.  Somehow it works and I can return to bed.

When daylight creeps into the basin it is much muted by the mist, the snow and the sleet.  Outside a light layer of snow has transformed the tussock, rock and slopes.  It is an easy decision to abandon plans to cross the Lewis Tops.  Lay days have to be expected when travelling through the mountains in winter.  In some ways they offer welcome respite and it is no hardship to opt for a comfortable day indoors imbibing hot chocolate, soup, crackers and dip and the warmth of a sleeping bag.  Pit days, they’re known as.

Even the walk to the tarn looks uninviting so I opt instead for heating up the powder snow accumulating at the hut door.  For just such occasions I’ve brought a large and involved book to work my way through.  On most occasions my book remains unread but every now and then an enforced waits provide the opportunity to luxuriate in another world.  It’s one of the secret pleasures of tramping.


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