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Warren Macdonald is an adventurer
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Warren Macdonald is an adventurer
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"Some people go to church for that connection, but I knew I could find it outside. I think you can find it on top of a mountain, or in the middle of a forest, or out on the ocean."
1 July 2012

Warren Macdonald is an adventurer

Interview by Myke Bartlett
Photography by Matthew Newton

Myke Bartlett on Warren Macdonald

Warren Macdonald uses the word luck a lot. Frankly, he uses it in ways it’s probably never been used before. Sometimes he uses it to mean “things could have been even worse”, mostly he seems to use it as shorthand for his general mindset. Luck is the chink of light in unimaginable darkness, luck is the refusal to surrender in the face of overwhelming odds. Being lucky is deciding that losing your legs isn’t going to stop you climbing a mountain, or three.

To the rest of us, Warren might not be an obvious candidate if we’re looking to define lucky. In 1997, while hiking Hinchinbrook Island off the coast of Queensland, Warren was trapped beneath a fallen boulder for two days. Although he was rescued, thanks to fellow hiker Geert van Keulen, the accident cost him both his legs.

Strangely enough, that’s where Warren’s story really starts. A year after the accident, he scaled Tasmania’s Cradle Mountain in a wheelchair. Seven months later, he climbed Federation Peak on artificial legs. In 2003, he scaled Mt Kilimanjaro.

These impossible adventures are only half of the tale, however. When we chat over a couple of days in March—me in a St Kilda apartment, he in the Canadian wilderness—Warren describes how the accident transformed him. Armed with a new sense of self-awareness, a new determination to challenge himself and an extraordinarily powerful story, Warren has forged a new career as a motivational speaker. Again, he doesn’t seem an obvious candidate. He’s frank, plainspoken and entirely lacking the mumbo-jumbo or fridge-magnet philosophy you might expect from someone who inspires people for a living. If anything, he still seems surprised to realise the effect his experiences can have on others, when shared.

In some ways, it isn’t an easy interview, for either of us. I’m aware that, 15 years on, the accident remains tough territory for Warren to revisit. Sometimes I worry about putting him back under the rock. I don’t want to pick at the gruesome details, don’t want to linger on the shocking. But I want to understand the mindset that allowed him to survive two days under that rock. I want to understand the mindset that saw him fight a boulder and go on to conquer mountains.

Of course, that’s not where we start. We don’t begin up a mountain, but in two different offices, at two different desks, comparing notes on our working days.

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

MYKE BARTLETT: What have you been up to today?

WARREN MACDONALD: I’ve actually been interviewing someone today, so this is kind of a reversal for me. I realised a while ago that I speak a lot about change, but it’s all just from my perspective and I’ve got access to all these amazing people who have their own ideas on how we deal with adversity. So I started this online project called the Solution Revolution. It’s kind of an online web video show. What else have I done? I went for a ski for an hour and a half, did a bit of work in between, that’s probably an average day for my life.

I don’t get out as often as I’d like. I’m getting better at getting out and making sure I get something done every day.

It’s so easy for the whole day to go by while you’re sat stuck at your desk.

Yeah, I play that game a lot. If I didn’t have Mica to rein me in, I’d probably work all night as well. I’m a shocker. Everybody thinks when you work from home, you’ve got all this free time, but balancing it out isn’t that easy.

I work from home too. It’s hard to draw the boundaries between work and leisure.

Whereabouts are you?

Melbourne. You were born here, weren’t you?

I grew up in the western suburbs. Born in St Albans, grew up there. Mum and Dad are still there, been kind of running away from the suburbs ever since.

A pretty common story.

Yeah, especially in Oz.

So when did you first move overseas?

This’ll be my ninth year in Canada. We’re about halfway between Vancouver and Calgary. I’m actually closer to Spokane in Washington State than anywhere else. I’m coming to you via Skype, through a dish in a tree outside that points at a transmitter on top of a mountain. I’m living in the Boonies.

You’ve escaped from the suburbs into the wilderness.

Yeah, this is a long way from the suburbs. Mum and Dad were out last year and they were like, Holy shit. Dad was getting freaked out about bears walking across the yard.

Seems like the wilderness has always had a pretty strong call for you. Where do you think that came from?

I’ve always traced it back to when Dad would take us out car camping. I got this real kick in going off to explore and seeing how far away from the camp I could get. I’d get this feeling that you could be okay wandering around… it was kind of like expanding my comfort zone.

The big one for me was I did something similar to an Outward Bound course. I found it incredibly hard, I wasn’t in good enough shape; it beat the shit out of me. But during that course, we got sent out to spent the night on our own. We got a box of matches, a bag of flour, and a water bottle and that was it and it was “I don’t want to see you until morning”. That night, I just felt this really intense connection, I felt really part of the universe for the first time ever. It was really strange and intense and it left me with this feeling of you know, I might have been really weak and not prepared for the physical part of this, but I just felt kind of safe. Staying out all night just wasn’t a big deal. And then I get back the next morning and find out that half the guys who were ten times fitter than me had gone back to the main camp in the night. They just hadn’t been able to handle being out there on their own. So I thought, Okay, I’ve got something out of this.

I never looked back. I went chasing those experiences of being out there and being totally self-sufficient. That course made that experience of being out, being immersed in wilderness, an important part of life for me.

It’s interesting to hear you say that experience made you feel at one with the universe, because it seems to me that you’ve had quite a genuine connection with the wilderness. A lot of people use it as a sort of playground, but it’s something that’s always meant a lot to you.

I would trace that back to that night, for sure. I’d call it a spiritual experience. Some people go to church for that connection, but I knew I could find it outside. I think you can find it on top of a mountain, or in the middle of a forest, or out on the ocean. I think it’s those experiences where everything’s stripped away and there’s nothing man-made there. It’s like, This is it, this is our home, this is the planet, this is where we come from.

You later became quite involved with environmentalism.

That was bound to happen, eventually. When I went down to Tassie, my intention was just to do some cool hikes, to just check it out and maybe sniff around to see what kind of work I could find. I was at that point, which I tend to get to every now and then when I just want to shake things up. Things get too comfortable, so you just roll the dice and try again.

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

During a hike I started hearing about what was happening in the Tarkine. I just thought, “This is friggin nuts, I’m going to step up and see what I can do about slowing things down.”

You ended up chaining yourself under a bulldozer, didn’t you?

We all did. Part of the strategy was about, “How can we have maximum effect and slow this thing down?” When you play that game, people are going to have to get arrested. And there’s another angle to that, it brings things into the media when people have been arrested on protests like that.

It doesn’t sound like something you have any regrets about.

It’s interesting that you say that. It doesn’t come up very often, but now and then someone will ask me what I’m most proud of and that comes immediately to mind. That’s usually a situation where we’ve spent the last hour talking about climbing Mt Kilimanjaro, all that stuff. But no, being involved in the Tarkine and standing up for what I believed in is definitely the thing that I’m most proud of, up to this point.

I’d like to reach the point where the environment’s not even a word, that we don’t even have to talk about protecting the environment—it’d be as absurd as a fish talking about protecting water.

Are you optimistic about that?

Depends what day you get me on. Yes and no. In my experience, it’s almost like we have to be pushed up against a wall and have some kind of crisis before we finally get it. My hope would be that the crisis is on a relatively small scale. How many of these things do we need before we figure out a way to be and exist on the planet without making it uninhabitable for ourselves?

Talking about reaching a crisis point, let’s talk about your accident. I kind of imagine when something traumatic like that happens that it’s easy to look back for the twitching of fate, or dark omens. Looking back, does it ever feel like it was a cursed enterprise?

I definitely went through this questioning thing. While I was trapped there, I didn’t really have the words for it, but I went through this thing of—“Well, is this connected enough for you? Are you happy now? Is that what you were looking for, to die out in the middle of nowhere, like this?”

I’d put myself further and further out there and something had happened. I was, in a sense, getting what I’d wished for. I’d always been one of those people who say, “I’d rather die out there in the mountains, doing something I love, than be run over by a car outside a supermarket”. But it wasn’t really that glamorous, while it was in the process of happening.

Was it fate? I look at it now in terms of: for me to be where I am now, that had to happen. I had to go through that experience.

People have asked me, “If you could go back and not go through it, would you?” And I got to the point five or six years ago where I realised I’d learned so much that I couldn’t just go back to being the person I was, living the life I was living. In a lot of ways, while I might have looked like I had a lot of freedom, it was still quite a small life.

What was it that really changed in your personality, after the accident? Looking back on yourself, what do you see in the person you were then?

I’ve definitely learned, through the accident, that we can all play a bigger game, we’re all capable of so much more than we could have ever imagined. The big thing the accident taught me was we’re not here forever, so you really want to get focussed on what it is you want to do and take the steps to make that happen.

What was it you really wanted to do?

I suppose I’d always wanted to work for myself. And I was always content to keep that fairly small. I realised over time that if you keep it too small, all you’re really doing is creating a job for yourself, you’re not really creating anything bigger than that.

Really, it’s probably about growth, what can life be about? What can somebody’s life look like? Growing up in the western suburbs, life was in a box and it wasn’t a very big box. I suppose I was never really satisfied with that. You look around, there’s people doing amazing things and I wondered if that’s something I could do.

It sounds like you’ve stumbled across the power of a story and the way stories can change our lives.

The funny thing is, if you’d’ve told me that ten years ago, I’d’ve thought, That sounds like a crock of shit. The reason it kind of took me so long to really accept the value in sharing our stories is that I honestly believed for years after the accident, that that’s just what you do. Something like this happens, you find a way to pick yourself back up and you just keep going.

Going back to the accident, what led you to undertake that trip, in particular?

I just felt like I needed to reconnect. I probably wouldn’t have used the connection word at the time. I was living on a beach, working part-time as a painter, I was partying pretty hard. I’d just got to this point where I needed to go bush, to spend a couple of nights out somewhere and just get that grounding effect. I’d had times where it was great to go do a trip with somebody but I got as much from heading out on my own. I was just going to spend a week hiking the Osborne trail. Things were going pretty well, I met some people on the ferry, hiked with one guy for a couple of hours, stopped at every beach I came to and had a swim. Everything was falling into place. I was thinking, This is perfect, this is exactly what I came here for. That afternoon, I met Geert [van Keulen] on the beach and, as soon as he mentioned that he wanted to hike to the top of Mt Bowen, I was like, “Well, that’s a no brainer, let’s do it”. It’s wild to think about in hindsight, but I’d never been more confident on my feet. Here I was with a fairly heavy bag, bouncing from rock to rock. It felt amazing at the time, but it’s not lost on me now, that it was the last time I got to do that and I’d never been more confident on my feet than that last day.

In some ways it must seem both lucky and unlucky that you met Geert. Without him, you wouldn’t have been rescued, but he was the one who first mentioned the idea of climbing the mountain.

Good luck and bad luck often go hand in hand. Was it bad luck? It’s interesting that you say that, because I’ve never really looked at it that way. I know that Geert went through a period of years where he went through survivor guilt, because he was the one, he invited me up there. I was like, “Mate, don’t even go there”. If he hadn’t been with me, I wouldn’t have survived, he saved my life. I think I’ve always been way too much of a realist to dwell on ‘would’ve, could’ve, should’ve’ scenarios.

Do you remember the moment of the accident?

Yeah, yeah. The way it happened was, I was trying to do the right thing. If it had been someone who hadn’t spent a lot of time outside, they probably would have just pissed in the creek. But for me, that was our water supply. So I thought, If I get up that rock wall and get away from the creek, that should be fine. I thought it was lucky that I’d found a crack that I could use to climb up out of that gully, but what I didn’t realise was that crack then ran across. When I pulled up on it, that was enough to crack that band. I don’t remember being in the air. I have no memory of that. I just remember the crack and then hitting the ground and that second crack which they told me afterwards was my pelvis fracturing. And then pain. Incredible, burning pain that just took over everything else.

Obviously, for someone who hasn’t gone through that, it’s impossible to conceive the amount of pain you must have been in.

It’s always been a question for me when we talk about unbearable pain. What happens when pain gets above a threshold we can stand? Do we die from shock? Wherever that line is, I felt I was pretty close to it, that’s for sure.

But you were conscious the entire time?

I didn’t lose consciousness until they actually lifted the rock off me. For me, I think the pain and the adrenaline in the beginning got me really focussed. I realised that what we were doing wasn’t going to work and we would need to use a lever or something. I have this in life now that there’s gotta be a next step. Thinking about it, that came from the accident.

You’re obviously having to manage a whole lot of different, conflicting emotions being stuck there.

There’s a lot going on. What are you in control of? You’re in control of your headspace, that’s about it. Physically, I could control what was directly around me. I had a yabby trying to chew into my foot so I had to kill that bastard.

That’s a horrific image to have to confront.

I don’t know if it was horror, but a big part of that was the sheer cheek of something having a crack at you when you’re just so helpless.

It’s a new level of connecting with nature.

Again, is this glamorous enough for you? I tell you what was lucky, in a sense.

Part of the experiences I’d chased over the years was about testing myself. I’d learned to be comfortable being uncomfortable, if that makes sense. Being stuck under a rock was kind of a whole new level, but being out in the rain and being exposed to nature, I was already good with that part.

You felt prepared.

In some ways, I felt my whole life was preparation for getting me through that accident.

The next morning, Geert went for help, how did it feel watching him disappear into the wilderness?

Kind of devastating. [long pause] Watching him walk away, I figured, This is it. This is my ultimate test. I’ve just gotta hang in there, he’s gotta do his part. I knew if he twisted an ankle or anything like that, it would be the end of the road for me. Really I just felt incredibly lonely, watching him walk away.

You’ve talked about seeking out that experience, from a young age, of being alone, but I can’t imagine anyone feeling more alone than you must have at that point.

If we’re talking about luck, it’s lucky the rain came that first night while Geert was with me. Even though the water didn’t go over my head and I didn’t drown, you have to wonder whether it wouldn’t just scare you to death. Literally shut you down in some way.

At which point did you realise that you were going to be rescued?

Probably when I heard the helicopter for the first time. I’d been hallucinating so badly that I thought I’d been there an extra day. I was convinced I’d been there an extra day and I was convinced that something must have happened to Geert and the rescue party might not be coming. I heard the helicopter early in the afternoon and it seemed closer than other aircraft. But then they flew away. So that was pretty devastating, to say the least. They flew over and missed me. They went back and picked Geert up, and Geert flew them straight up the creek to me. Once they had a visual on me, they disappeared again. And of course, I’m freaked, that was twice I’d had that contact and they were gone again. The third time, a paramedic was winched down. I watched that going on downstream and then a few minutes later, [Dr Chip Jaffurs] walked up to me and checked me out and started stabilising me.

It must have been an immense sense of relief to have someone else there with you, after all that time.

Yeah, I’m not sure that I’ve ever been so happy to see someone, that’s for sure.

How long did it take them to get you out from under the rock?

I started to drift in and out at that point. As far as my memory goes, I remember pretty clearly Chip talking to me and getting an IV into my arm, explaining I had to hold this bag up in the air. Those conversations are pretty clear, but then I would start to drift off and he would wake me up.

Just checking you were still there, I guess.

That was the most dangerous part for sure. Once they started lifting that rock up, all the toxins started to flood back into my body. They can cause all kinds of problems. But at that point I was going through this thing that, in one sense it’s a huge relief that I wasn’t out there alone, but thinking back about it, that’s when a person could easily die. Because you’d kind of let go of that grip you’re hanging onto, you could relax and slip off into oblivion. And I think there was probably a danger of that happening.

Because you’re passing all responsibility on to someone else.

I think the point when I did that was when I was out from under the rock. At that point I just thought, Shit, I’m done, there’s nothing more I can do. I don’t remember being in the helicopter at all. I didn’t wake up again until I was in the hospital.

How did it feel realising you were in the hospital, that you’d been rescued?

In one sense, I thought, that it was kind of over, that I was out of the woods, that I was safe. On the other hand, I felt shitful. I don’t know what you’re supposed to feel like before you die. I felt like I was close. It wasn’t really until the surgeon came in and explained that my legs had been so badly damaged that they were going to have to amputate them that it really hit home.

You must have felt like the ordeal wasn’t over. You thought you’d made it out but now there’s more to deal with.

There’s that. In one sense, you’re so grateful to be in hospital, but then someone delivers you this really fucking big piece of news. In a way, it was too much to even think about. My reaction was: “Can’t we wait?” And the surgeon explained that I was in such a bad way, that if we waited I wasn’t going to be around in the morning.

At that point, I just checked out. I signed the permission form for the operation and I cried myself to sleep. I basically started to shut down at that point. I really didn’t want to know about it.

I guess that’s the kind of collapse, the breakdown you’ve been putting off. This is where it catches up with you.

Up to that point, I’d just been hanging in there. But once he’d explained what was going to happen, there was nothing to hang on to. I can’t say I went to sleep trying to fortify myself. I didn’t. I just completely gave in to what was going to happen next.

I saw you say that waking up after the operation felt like waking up to a new world. What did you mean by that, the change in expectations?

Part of it was waking up to a world of incredible pain. A big part of it was, half an hour after I woke up, they brought mum and dad in. That’s probably one of the most intense things I’ve gone through, because I didn’t know then whether I was going to live or die. I’m not even sure if it was really about my legs at that point.

I imagine that part of dealing with such a traumatic event must be dealing with the reactions of family and loved ones. You feel the weight of their upset.

Yeah and it’s a huge weight. Especially for me, for the most part, I would have rather dealt with anything like that on my own. The last thing you want to do is drag people into something like that. All of a sudden, this isn’t just me, this is everybody around me.

How did you deal with that, with their distress?

[Pause.] I suppose I dealt with it as best I could. [Long pause.] I’m not sure that I really helped them grieve through it or anything like that. As far as emotional weight goes, it was at its heaviest in those first couple of days. Once people realised I was into this fight or getting through this that I hadn’t just rolled up and given in, I think a lot of that emotional weight dissipated. It was hard to see people again for the first time, for sure. There were people who just couldn’t come in. I get that. I don’t deal with a situation like that well myself. I like to think I’d deal with it better now, but at the time I wouldn’t have.

Leaving the hospital, how did you set about to adapting to the reality of life without your legs?

One of the most vivid memories for me was getting out of the hospital bed or the first time and going to the toilet. Using a wheelchair to go to the toilet and looking down and going, “Yeah, you’ve got no legs.” At one point I lifted myself up in front of the mirror and thought, Holy shit, that’s what I look like, what I’m going to look like until the day I die. I hadn’t got that before. I could look down and see my legs were gone, but that was a really striking image to see myself in the mirror. Then you start to come up against all the obstacles that come up pretty quickly. If I’m going to be able to do things like get some groceries or get across a parking lot, I’m going to have to be able to go up a step or a kerb.

We’re not just talking about the everyday tasks. It seems incredible to me, but you didn’t just get home and say, “That’s it, I’m done”. I imagine for a lot of people it would be a very good idea to never go anywhere near the wilderness again. But ten months later, you’re climbing Cradle Mountain.

It wasn’t really thinking that I’m done. It was more questioning what life might look like now. Would I ever get out into the bush again? I had no idea what was possible. To me it was all about being less limited. I realised that had been a strong point all through my life. The point of going out into the bush and backpacking around the world was to push those limits out, so I could feel comfortable being anywhere. And all of a sudden, it looked like I might have been relegated to a life where I’m basically stuck to the pavement. It became about, “How much can I reclaim?”

I’d imagine you’d have a couple of moments feeling haunted by the last trip, or worried that you were asking for trouble.

There were definitely moments of being haunted. They got far outweighed by the overwhelming freedom I felt from being out there again, even on the first day. Just the fact that we were heading towards a mountain and we were going to camp for the night. That was a huge deal. That feeling, that connection, being outside was such a huge part of my life.

It must have felt like quite a special achievement, getting back from that first trip.

Every one of those experiences was huge. Coming back from Cradle, it was interesting. Not too long after, I went into quite a big slump. If you go to such a high point like that, there’s an inevitable crash waiting on the other side. I didn’t know that in the beginning, it kind of confounded me. Now I’ve come to expect it and embrace it.

You certainly didn’t stay in the trough for long, given you were up Federation Peak the next year. It was a very different climb. How much preparation, how much training was needed for that?

First off, there was the move to prosthetics because I knew there was no way I could use a wheelchair for that distance or shuffle along on my arse—it’s 42 km. So I went to my prosthetist and asked if there was any way to make [my prosthetic legs] shorter to get me through that sort of terrain. And he said, “Yeah, there’s these things called stubbies.” They’ve got no knee and they can put a pad at the bottom so you’re nice and low to the ground. We put a hiking boot sole on the bottom, and adapted them so they had some twist in them. We took a pair of crutches, we cut them down and it worked. Then it was a matter of breaking them in and getting used to them and just hiking as much as I could. I started rock-climbing at that point, I hadn’t done any before. I went into a rock gym to check it out and start testing out my system.

A few years later, you used a similar system to climb Mt Kilimanjaro. Climbing that mountain seems a crazy thing to attempt for most people, let alone someone on prosthetics. Is that part of the appeal for you, looking for things you shouldn’t be able to do?

Um, it’s a good question. Part of it was it really pissed me off when people would make assumptions about what I could do. It wasn’t just assumptions about what I could do, but all of a sudden I was put in this box, called a disabled person. A cripple, as one charming woman called me. It really didn’t sit well with me. Part of it was my own perception of what that box meant. Everybody’s going to feel sorry for you. I wanted to push back at that. Another part of it was sheer curiosity. If somebody can do that, if they can climb Federation Peak, I wonder if they can climb up a bigger mountain. How high can somebody go, with no legs? In a lot of ways, it was just answering the questions that I had.

Do you see yourself continuing to challenge yourself?

Often in different ways. Not so much with climbing. A lot of the physical stuff these days is just about a way to stay fit. Some of the more challenging things for me have been in mindset really. Once I started speaking more and getting invited to speak to bigger and bigger conferences, eventually I realised I can’t be flying around and running around like a maniac doing 150 conferences a year. So then you have to start cranking your fee up and I found that really hard to do. I definitely had issues around money and what somebody’s time is worth. I had to look at what I brought to the table, the value I bring. So that was stretching myself in a different way.

It’s hard to put a price on yourself.

In the beginning I wasn’t sure I had anything to say. All I did was what anyone would do and I honestly believed that. Took a long time to realise, you know, everybody’s probably not going to do that. People were obviously getting a lot from hearing my story.

You spoke earlier about how you thought the accident had changed you. Listening to you talk, it seems you became more conscious of yourself, more reflective.

I was probably reflective in a lot of ways before, but more externally. On world events or the environment. It wasn’t really focussed inwards at all. I think that’s definitely one of the reasons I wouldn’t go back. I’ve definitely learned a lot about myself that I wouldn’t have ever learned any other way.

You talked about one of the other things that really changed for you was a clarity. Knowing what you want to do and who you are. Where do you see yourself going from here?

I think the drive more and more for me is to be really part of something that makes a difference.

I got to know Bob Brown a bit back in the Tarkine days and was always amazed that he could keep doing what he was doing, year after year. I asked him once, how do you keep doing it? You know, we were completely burned out and felt like we’d lost one battle after another. He said, “You know what, I decided a long time ago that I’d rather be part of the solution than part of the problem.”

I guess that’s the thing for me. How can I continually be part of a greater solution?

Your new project is moving in that direction, isn’t it?

In some ways I feel like I’m coming full circle, where I’m feeling like I want to be involved in activism again. So these days, do I need to be on the front line somewhere, waving a placard? Probably not. If I play my cards right, I could have a greater impact in other ways.

Finally, having gone through this terrible experience where you were stuck on your own, is that something you still enjoy, being out there on your own in the middle of nowhere?

Ummm. [long pause] Yeah, I’d say yes. You know, I’d never really thought of it this way, but maybe that was a big part of the driving force to get back outside. And having to be able to do it on my own. I definitely wasn’t interested in having someone carry me up a mountain in a backpack or whatever. One of the most powerful part of the Federation Peak climb was when the guys left me up on the summit for a couple of hours, while they went and got the tents. That was probably the most amazing part of the whole trip, being left alone. That hasn’t gone away, whether I’m swimming across a river or skiing at home. I just find it quite peaceful.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett was born in Perth, and spent his first twenty years trying to escape. A trained journalist, Bartlett writes on politics, movies, pop culture and rock music for Australia’s best known cultural publications. His debut young adult novel Fire in the Sea won the 2011 Text Prize. Read more at mykebartlett.com

Photography by Matthew Newton

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