Snow Cowboys Farming The White Stuff

 

DECEMBER A COUPLE years ago, I am on the back of a snowmobile. The gas fumes are overpowering, and the two-stroke engine too loud to hear anything over. I race up a hill with 30-feet of hoses trailing behind me. These are not some small rubber garden hoses but the size of ones firefighters use. I’m clutching onto someone named Nolan, who’s steering. Dusk is settling; the hill is steep, and I worry we’ll tip over as a he rounds a bend. Nolan has a first name but doesn’t use it. He’s thirty with rust-colored hair hidden under a hood and balaclava. He wears insulated everything: Carhartts, gloves and blown-out snowboarding boots patched together with duct tape. He’s head of snowmaking at a small ski hill in the Catskills near where I live, and until this afternoon I have no idea what it takes to make snow, the very work involved.

It’s 23 degrees, and Nolan slings the hoses like a lasso towards a hydrant installed disconcertingly near a stand of trees. The pipe isn’t there to fight fires but, in a sense, do just the opposite, directing air and water to make snow. Nolan travels with a blowtorch and ice ax. Other snowmakers swear by their vice grips. He clambers to the standpipe and checks the water pressure, radioing down to the pump house to see if he can open the pipe more. Who knows how he hears the response. The snow gun drowns out all other sound. He clambers back on his Polaris sled and races to another gun that’s been going a couple hours. The snow has piled in unearthly mounds like melted marshmallows or scoops of vanilla ice cream, and he starts beating on a fan gun (picture a giant fan you might use in a Hollywood movie to simulate wind). He tells me to duck. The ice comes off with the speed of bullets, he explains and nonchalantly dips his head to avoid them. They’re inches from his face.

He works in a team with Colin Oliver. They speak in shorthand and finish each other’s sentences. Watching them, they look like ranch hands wrangling cattle or sheep. Both are men of few words, and what they do say is hard to hear. Their faces are wind-burned, and Nolan has the stoic air of the Marlboro Man. He even travels with a cigarette between his teeth as he clangs on the fan or lights up his blowtorch to melt ice from another gun. And today he is particularly unhappy. There’s way too much ice. It might be cold enough for snowmaking, but it’s way too damp out at 87 % humidity, only the opening of the ski area demands snow.

Snow is made by combining water and air, often compressed and pressurized through hoses, and forcing the two together. But take those simple elements, air and water, and still making snow requires a level of complexity that’s hard to imagine. Manmade snow is ice crystals; so too, in a sense, are snowflakes. Making snow (or ice crystals) requires a temperature of 25 or lower. Fifteen is best, but it’s not just the temperature that counts. It’s also the humidity, what’s called the wet-bulb temperature that measures both. To create snow, water has to be pumped up from a pond, and there are a few kinds of “guns,” as the machines that make snow are called. Some are dragged on sleds; others mounted on booms. Fan guns use electricity, pushing water into the air, a bit like a perfume atomizer blasting the liquid into smaller particles that freeze before they hit the ground.

Until going out with Nolan, I don’t understand any of this. I’ve skied but never seen what lies behind the sport. Snowmaking, though, is the hardest task on the ski hill. The work is physical and dangerous. At Vail staff try to discourage people who apply for the job. Often the pay isn’t great. Few women do it. It’s seasonal, and most snowmakers are contractors or painters in summer. Add up all the clothes and boots and equipment you need to wear – not just what you carry on your snowmobile but what is on you – and you’re talking an extra twenty or so pounds to your body weight.  There’s a hard hat or helmet, balaclava, hood, coat, insulated Carhartts, plus gloves, work boots and ice cleats. One snowmaker describes it like going camping in winter.

The work often happens in the small hours when it’s coldest, and the job suits people who like isolation and quiet. It’s the hazardous toil that’s the stuff of reality shows like Ice Road Truckers and Ax Men. Imagine being out in the cold; it’s six degrees. The wind chill is minus twenty; you’re on a 40-degree pitch; the only light is from your headlamp. You have a flashlight, but you need both hands on the vice grip to fight 250 pounds of pressure to close a valve. You’re battling the slope and the cold, not to mention the exhaustion of the wee hours. Accidents happen and injuries are common. A widow-maker falls on you – not the sort of hanging limb you’d normally get in the woods dangling from a tree that might blow down in the wind. This will be just overhead, just above the snow gun you’re adjusting, and encrusted in ice. Snow is often wettest closest to the gun, and the ice and snow caked to the branch weigh it down until it snaps. You won’t hear it break; not with the roar of the gun, and even if you did, you’d probably not have time to jump out of the way. Then, there’s flipping a snowmobile or falling down a slope. Many are at an angle too steep to ride a snowmobile on, so you walk up and down the sides to adjust the guns, and if you’re working on a slope near a chairlift, you’ll use sled-mounted guns to avoid icing up the lift. This means you need to move the guns and their sleds by hand. That’s hard anytime, but when you’re making snow, they can get buried in it, and you’re lifting and dropping, hefting and shifting, the sled and gun to free them, a task you can repeat a hundred times a night. Or, there’s digging out hoses from four feet of snow, say ….

You climb down the hill in the dark, trying to avoid falling in other people’s tracks left on the side of the trail. The prints will be stiff and iced up, pressed a good foot down into the snow, making it easy to trip on them. You will have on crampons, and still you can slip. Or, your radio freezes up in the cold. Or, you get too cold. Frostbite is a danger. The compressed air comes out of the pipes at 100 psi, while the water will be anywhere from near 500 to 250 psi. If the hose isn’t tight enough, it – and its metal coupling – can fly off and hit you, or launch a sled and gun in the air. Those can land on you. There are many ways to die.

Last year a snowmaker at Hunter Mountain in the Eastern Catskills slid down a slope to his death. It was seven AM, and ski patrol was just starting their shift. He had on crampons and a hard hat. He collided with a tree. The patrollers responded, but it was too late. He died of blunt head trauma. He was 41. His obituary talked about how he loved camping and fishing. Reading it now I get stuck on the descriptions of how he loved to see a smile on people’s faces and was a wonderful father and friend and how his family will miss him and love him always. With their exclamation points and forced cheer, I stumble on these lines as if they came straight from his two children. I imagine their writing the notice and how it must have cost them dearly. He lived in the town next to mine.

 

~

 

In 1610 Johannes Kepler wrote, “There must be some definite cause why, whenever snow begins to fall, its initial formation invariably displays the shape of a six-cornered starlet. For it if happens by chance why do they not fall just as well with five corners or with seven? … who carved the nucleus, before it fell, into six horns of ice?”

His essay “On The Six-Cornered Snowflake” was the first to investigate the crystalline nature of snow, but he did more than that in the piece. It was a play on words and meaning and evanescence. He wrote in Latin, whose word for snowflake is “nix,” which in Kepler’s Low German also meant “nothing.” Kepler got at snow’s fleeting nature, and the essay itself was written as a Christmas present. He worked for Emperor Rudolph II who had been avoiding paying him, so the essay was a gift for a friend, because Kepler wondered, what do those “who have Nothing and receive Nothing have to give, but Nothing?” The essay is his exploration of this nothingness from dust to water. He argued that dust has more substance than a drop of water but had no idea that dust is as intrinsic in making a snowflake as water is.

René Descartes' 1635 sketch of snow crystals inspired by reading Kepler's essay.

Snow feels alchemical, coating the landscape in a mantle of white. It transforms sound, dampening it and illuminating the world with a phosphorescent glow. I have yet to lose my second-grade sense of snow-day anticipation watching flakes fall, and I fret over threatened East Coast winters where we may not see much more snow as the seasons shrink. While Kepler wrote about the six-sided snowflake, not all flakes are. At 23 degrees they fall as hollow tubes, and Kepler’s six-sided star is found at both 5 and 28 degrees (the warmer of which can also create triangles). I love that at around 10 degrees snow is so dry it squeaks. Recently I heard someone liken it to the sound of an old wooden turkey call. I hear it as Styrofoam being crushed underfoot. It can even be too cold to snow because the cold mass, which is low to the ground, won’t let the humidity in and shoulders the front with the precipitation away.

Snow is ice, in that it is water crystallized, but it is nothing like a frozen lake or stream or what’s in your freezer after years of not defrosting. (That’s rime). At the heart of each flake is a nucleus of dust or pollen from which the crystals grow. The classic one Kepler described is formed as water vapor freezes on the crystal. Each arm branches symmetrically because they’re each formed at the same time in the same atmospheric conditions. There are countless kinds of snow, and the wonder it produces is, no doubt, responsible for the many words used to describe it. There’s graupel, a kind of hail/snow hybrid the consistency of granules of dishwasher detergent, formed when a flake melts and refreezes as it falls. Or, penitentes, blades of snow angled towards the sun. They can be tall as a person and are found only at high altitudes. Zastrugi is the name for ridges made in blowing snow that look like sand dunes, while surface hoar looks like flakes growing up from the ground. They develop as water evaporates from a snow bank or humidity from a nearby stream condenses, forming more crystals. Skiers talk of “chop” and “crud.” Snow can be “boney” or “hardpack,” and there’s perhaps my favorite, “coral,” not because of what it feels like underfoot but because it’s so evocative. It’s a hard raised, glazed surface that glimmers as it catches the light. On the Utah ski area Alta’s website, you can see individual snowflakes captured at 1/25,000th of a second on a “multi-angle snowflake camera.”

In Smilla’s Sense of Snow Peter Høeg describes how snow is nearly alive. “Even,” he writes, “when there’s no heat, no new snow, no wind, even then snow changes. As if it were breathing, as if it condenses and rises and sinks and disintegrates.” It’s true; we never need touch it, the temperature doesn’t have to rise or fall, and still snow transforms simply as a result of the flakes themselves compressing, flattening and joining together. They go from feathery to something harder and denser changing the very structure of the snow pack. The molecules solidify into something closer to ice. Hoeg describes it as “terra cotta,” and at this stage, it no longer softens sound but amplifies it.

In the late Sixties the artist Dennis Oppenheim used snow much like Robert Smithson did the bed of the Great Salt Lake to create his Spiral Jetty. Oppenheim, a burly man who’d have made a fine snowmaker, drove circles around a field in Maine on a snowmobile to make his “One Hour Run.” The piece’s monumental nature was unhinged by the fact that it would melt, while British artist Andy Goldsworthy installed giant snowballs in London on the summer solstice. Their mysterious appearance and gradual disappearance was a source of wonder for those who passed by. In Housekeeping Marilynne Robinson describes melting snow in a way that transfixed me when I first read the novel. Now that I live in a place with much snow, the desiccated piles left in spring as the water drains out look like crystal beads, a bit like a kid’s abandoned Lite-Brite tossed haphazardly on the ground.

Dennis Oppenhein, One Hour Run, 1968.

I love snow with a passion that is nearly unbridled and certainly immodest. Which makes it difficult for me to write about it with any kind of objectivity or without the risk becoming a bore. I ski, hence my attention to snow-makers, and this habit of mine, skiing, wasn’t something with which I grew up. In my family skiing was “the sport of the elite,” not the sort of thing we Kabats did. I only took up the pastime (that very word belies my dedication to it) here as a way to cope with winter in the Catskills. Living in a place where it’s cold half the year, winter for a good four months, summer for two and spring and fall about a week, snow is a force to be reckoned with. Also in upstate New York, it’s part of the economy.

 

~

 

There are 60 ski areas in New York, more than any other state in the country. They’re mostly located in poor rural communities where skiing is an economic engine worth over $ 1 billion during those few months of winter. And, skiing requires snow. Snow on the East Coast in turn requires snowmaking, and as I think about how it’s made, the forced nucleation of water and air, I can only wonder what Kepler would have thought of this alchemical process.

The history of snowmaking is bound up with the Northeast and its uneven winters. The very first artificial snow, however, was an accident. Canadian scientists were trying to figure out how to de-ice an airplane and came up with snow. They published the results but didn’t see much call for their invention. They didn’t want to make snow but get rid of it. The winter of 1949 though was dry in the Northeast. An engineer Wayne Pierce who’d designed an aluminum ski, set out to solve the problem. He took a spray paint compressor and garden hose to force air and water together and ended up with snow. By 1952 the first major commercial use of snowmaking was launched in the Catskills at Grossinger’s Resort in the Borscht Belt. Patent wars ensued over the years, and innovations increased from fan machines to how to get water uphill without its freezing. Now about forty miles from Grossinger’s is Belleayre Mountain, a ski area owned by New York State and opened originally in 1949, the year artificial snow was developed.

The mountain’s pump house roars like the inside of a 747. Giant steel valves and pipes give the space the look of a ship’s engine. Here 2900 gallons of water are pumped each minute. Green and yellow hoses snake across the floor thawing out. Dennis Fickeria, the head of snowmaking at the mountain, points and yells at dials and equipment but seems to be only mouthing the words, at least, from what I can tell through my ear defenders. In the corner an industrial drier spins, silently, it seems drying workers’ clothes. Outside in the relative quiet, Fickeria rattles off stats in gallons per minute, talking in the thousands, 2900 here and 1500 for a pump-house down the hill, and 3200 at a third station at the base of the mountain. There’s more than three miles of buried pipe and 20,000 feet of hoses all to fight gravity and send water uphill to make snow.

Fickeria is a walrus of a man with a Tom Selleck mustache. He has a gravely voice underpinned by a Queens-inflected bass and wears jeans and work boots, a baseball jacket over a plaid flannel shirt open at the neck. On his head is merely a trucker’s cap emblazoned, “Ratnik Snowmaking.”

“Cold?” he asks.  I have on long johns, insulated ski pants, two sweaters, a fleece and a down jacket. I’m too embarrassed to admit that I am. He laughs. “Heck, it’s warm out. It’s nine degrees.”

He waves at cargo bays; each one holds a compressor that looks like a trailer from the back of an 18-wheeler. With three more below he can pump more than 20,000 cubic feet of air a minute, enough to easily fill a large McMansion in seconds. Running the compressors for 24 hours would take 6,000 gallons of diesel fuel, which at today’s price is just over $24,000 a day. He hastily says they’re rarely all operating all the time. Still Belleayre’s is a modest snowmaking operation. In Vermont, Killington can pump 12,000 gallons of water a minute, and not far from Belleayre, Hunter has a capacity for 13,000. The biggest guns Fickeria runs take 138 gallons of water a minute.

He recites these stats shaking his head not in disappointment but as if he too is still impressed by such numbers. “It’s the most expensive part of skiing,” he says and points to what looks like a boxy green water tank. Inside are air coolers, because the compressed air is too warm, so the tank cools it to 40 degrees. “See those little silver circles on the side?” he says, “Those are tubes across the top, and there’s a fan underneath just like a giant car radiator.”

The pump house is a plant – a factory, for snow, for air, for water. In a break room that seems bolted to building’s side, a handful of men cluster around a wood veneer conference table clutching coffee cups. The room smells of cigarettes. Unaccustomed to interlopers in their world, the workers shift their weight and watch me warily. They’re used to being alone on the hill. Three white boards on the wall list trails to be covered and equipment to be moved. In bold letters someone has scrawled, “No snowmaking over 21.96 degrees.” I ask Fickeria why, expecting the answer to be about some precise measure of temperature and humidity, that his operations are honed to the hundredth of a degree. He shakes his head, “They’re just being wise asses; it’s 22 degrees.”

Fickeria left Yonkers in 1979, sick of all the people. “I’d just had enough and that was that,” he says. He started working at the mountain in 1984 doing pump-house maintenance. He was in charge of starting and operating all the pumps and compressors and telling snowmakers how many guns to run or turn off in case of a warm up. There was also rolling and thawing and storing hoses and frozen snow guns. “It was just a job at first,” he explains, the implication being that now it’s a vocation.

Inside his office, the engines from the pump room drone through walls. He sits in a chair that lists to the side and clutches and unclutches his thick fingers. One wall is lined with gauges measuring air and water pressure, water levels in the lake that feeds the snow. Canisters of Folgers are stacked on filing cabinets as if the coffee was ordered in bulk, and a bottle of aspirin sits on his window ledge. Something that looks like a gumball machine is filled with swirled bright pink and green lozenges. How great, I think; of course, doing this kind of work you need coffee and a jolt of sugar. Only later do I realize they’re not candy but moldable foam earplugs. Working in the pump house, men will wear these and ear defenders, the kind that look like earmuffs. A pair of which are right now slung around my neck like DJ’s headphones.

I ask about the dangers of the work, and he waves at the gauges then out the window where someone is adjusting a gun up the hill. “A hundred PSI of air, it’s pretty constant coming out of the pipes. And, the water pressure is 300 pounds up on top, higher where he’s working. You need to be on your toes. If a gun freezes up or you pop a hose, it can kill you. The couplings come loose, not that it’s happened,” he says hastily and explains that safety is most important part of the job. He pulls a handful of screws from his desk. They have split heads. He puts one in my hand. The top is sharp enough to cut you. He grabs a rubber sole that flops like a dead fish. You strap it to your boots, and the split-head screws fasten into the cleats to keep you stable on the ice.

The job is exhausting, and he always finds himself short on his crew. Some guys can’t hack the job. Some can’t deal with working in the small hours and the dark, and he counts on his hand the ones who’ve drifted off and not bothered to call or even resign this season.

Snowmaker at Belleayre Mountain, photo by Jake Fronckowiak

As we’re talking, someone comes in from the far west of the mountain with a question about the wind. He wears a hat and balaclava and helmet. Only his eyes peer out and he looks like a miner working not in a coal mine but with ice. It coats him like frosting. Asked what he likes about making snow, he says shyly, “Making snow.” The hardest part of the job? “The elements.” Each word is chewed down to the nub, and he seems embarrassed at even being asked a question.

A few days before a neighbor of mine comes over for coffee. Jake Fronckowiak started working at the mountain when he was fourteen in the cafeteria and at sixteen was loading lifts, at eighteen making snow. His best friend’s father was in charge of snowmaking. Fronckowiak is a bullet of a man, snub and bandy-legged as if he could easily withstand 20-foot swells on a fishing boat. He’s also a self-described “snow person” and “mountain boy.” He ice climbs and snowshoes and skis. Even his dog is, as he puts it, a “snow dog,” a Siberian husky. Fronckowiak works the 2-10 pm shift at the hill and says, as he starts his second cup of coffee, that he lives on caffeine in winter.

Jake at work, farming the snow.

He’s the same age Brian Mattice would be this year if he were still alive, and Jake talks about the job’s dangers and Mattice’s death. He asks, voice dipping low, if I know a snowmaker died last year in the job. OSHA is investigating and rumors swirl among snowmakers at other mountains that he didn’t have enough safety equipment but Jake says it’s impossible to avoid all dangers. As he talks about the job he’s still full of wonder at snow. The work suits him not just for the brute physical labor but the subtleties too. He can feel the humidity in the air and senses from the top to the mid-point of the mountain the difference in temperatures and how much to adjust the water. He describes seeing a mating pair of bobcats this winter. “One ran up the slope—the other to the side, watching me and its mate to make sure she was safe.”  The sunsets and moon rises he’s witnessed alone on the hill are some of the job’s rewards.

He sets down his mug and picks it up again, grasping it from the base as if it were a flashlight, describing how he tests the snow to tell if it’s the right consistency. He’ll watches the flakes land on the light. “If they stick, it’s good for base,” the heavier wetter snow used to coat a trail. “And, for quality (the next grade up), you’ll get a sparkly light show. It’s a neat trick to see its consistency like that.” He admits he’s certainly not the first to use a flashlight like that, but what he sees is different than you or I would, and he’s still impressed by the magic of it.

Outside on the hill Fickeria talks about the four different kinds of snow he makes. Base is heavy and sticky and will survive warming trends and rainfalls. Quality makes what he calls, “the perfect snowball.” He gestures with his hands as if patting one into a globe. “Packed powder,” he explains, “you can pack and then it’ll fall apart. Powder just blows away.” As you go up the scale from base to powder, each takes less water and more air. Powder requires the coldest temperatures and the most air (which means the most diesel) making it the most expensive to produce.

Fickeria drives the four miles down to the lake at the base of the mountain. The area is bucolic surrounded by hemlocks and with an imported white sand beach where families swim in summer. At the far side is a building with arching windows like some kind of chalet, only with roller doors like a municipal garage. Even outside the pumps churn loudly. Here water is pumped up the mountain for snowmaking. Inside is the same jet-engine roar, but the vast room is like a cathedral. The ceiling towers up twenty feet high, and vents at the side look like modern day stained glass. Fickeria is clearly proud of the capacity here, but he drives over to the weir that feeds the lake and points out a fish ladder where trout can swim upstream to spawn. He talks about all the animals he’s seen in his years on the job: fisher, bobcats, mink and snowshoes. He doesn’t mean the ones you strap to your feet for walking in snow either but the rabbits who are rare to see in the Catskills. As he describes them, his voice grows wistful. For years he worked the graveyard shift and now he misses it. Asked why, he laughs as if the answer is obvious. “No people, just me and this. No one to deal with.” He waves at the space around him, and his love of the solitude makes me think of the snowmaker with his shock at being asked questions or Jake talking about the intimacy with nature he gets in the work and the sunrise I saw at six forty-five this morning as I drove to the mountain. The sky was lit with shell pink and lilac and a scribble of bright salmon on the underside of the clouds like handwriting.

This is the week when ski areas make their money, like Black Friday for retailers. On a chairlift recently with a director of sales for a ski area in Vermont, he lamented that they have only 21 days essentially to break even: Christmas week, Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and now President’s week. He shook his head. Snow was falling thickly, and as the chair climbed ever higher, we saw a hooded man at the intersection of two black diamond runs adjusting a standpipe. He was focused on his work as if used to being ignored. He performs tasks few consciously notice on a ski slope. Another head of a ski area near where I live calls running a hill, “farming snow.”

You’re at the whims of nature, not just snow, but temperatures too. The task is Sisyphean. In the end everything you create is doomed to melt. It will all disappear with rain and spring. You’re fighting the elements. What would Kepler with his dual nix think? The nature of magic is perhaps that it is fleeting and monumental both, everything and nothing – dust and water.

 

Photo by Jake Fronckowiak

Jennifer Kabat

About Jennifer Kabat

Jennifer Kabat (@jenkabat) is a writer who lives between London and the sticks, officially Upstate NY. Recently awarded a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant for her criticism, she writes about art, design – and sometimes life in the middle of nowhere. She’s written for her small-circ local paper, New York Magazine, The FT and The Guardian, contributes to The Believer and Frieze and was once an editor at the legendary style magazine The Face in London.
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5 Responses to Snow Cowboys Farming The White Stuff

  1. kevin swan says:

    I worked “night snow crew” for exactly one night. I showed up for the second night, pulled into the parking lot, looked up at the lighted hills and couldn’t get out. Walked in to tell the guys I was quitting. They just kinda shrugged.

    The worst part was dragging the air and water hoses across the hills. I would be sweating, but couldn’t feel my hands or feet. Knowing that my girlfriend was asleep, that everyone I knew was asleep, warm, safe got to me. The pay was several steps up from running lifts during the day, but in the final tally it really wasn’t worth it. That was decades ago, but I can call that one night on the hills as clearly as if it were last week.

    Thanks for that great read; I’ve wondered if anyone else out there thought much about making snow. Now, I know.

  2. Jennifer Kabat Jennifer Kabat says:

    Kevin, what a great story. The whole world of snowmaking — it’s like mining, well maybe not that dangerous. One head of snowmaking looked at me and was like, yeah you could do it. Which I have to say I took as great praise, but also perhaps flattery. I mean I weigh just over 100 pounds so don’t think I’m going to be humping a gun and sled anytime soon.

    The thing that gets me about it is so few skiers really appreciate it. I mean everyone grumbles about the snow and one day working on snowmaking, never again. Grumbling that is.

  3. Shane says:

    Ha Ha Ha…Just got done making snow at Breck tonight. It’s been 3-20 minus zero for the last 4-5 nights. Excellent and grueling. Can anybody tell me what the windchill is at -10 F while standing in front of a rat 5? Read a cool thing about -138 in antarctica and it was hard to breathe…thinking it must be about the same. Yippee kay oh snowmakers…cha cha cha…I know you’re all smiling out there…cheers.

    • Jennifer Kabat Jennifer Kabat says:

      You have my respect. And my jealousy — there is snow in Co at the moment… And damn, that work… Stay warm, stay safe.

  4. Shane says:

    Funny thing. This time of year we celebrate life on the mountain…I think I was doing a bit of that when I posted this. It is amazing what we do and I’m mostly happy to be a part of it. Check out the Dew Tour footage if you can find some…We blew 55 million gallons of water on that run to make it possible yet we work in the shadows and our work is mostly taken for granted. That was grueling. Good news is it has warmed up to about 10 degrees for us…feels balmy. Cheers.

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