Nirmal Purja’s ascent of all fourteen 8,000m peaks: why is it controversial?

Every so often a story emerges in the world of mountaineering that is so big that it makes it into the popular press alongside stories about Brexit, Brexit and even Brexit. Last week was one of those weeks.

A Nepali climber and former soldier in the Gurkha regiment of the British Army called Nirmal Purja completed his quest to climb all fourteen of the world’s 8,000m peaks in the staggeringly quick time of 189 days. He called his challenge ‘Project Possible’, and it was staggering because the previous record for climbing all fourteen in the shortest time – held by the Korean climber Kim Chang-Ho – was 7 years and 10 months. Nirmal Purja therefore beat it by 7 years and 3½ months.

Nirmal Purja, who smashed the record for climbing all fourteen 8,000m peaks in the shortest possible time (Photo: Nirmal Purja / Project Possible)
Nirmal Purja, who smashed the record for climbing all fourteen 8,000m peaks in the shortest possible time (Photo: Nirmal Purja / Project Possible)

The mainstream press were unanimous in their praise. Nepali man shatters speed record for scaling the world’s tallest mountains headlined the Washington Post.

‘I don’t think we will see it again in our lifetime,’ said the New York Times, quoting his sponsor.

The BBC pointed out that he not only achieved a record, but he stopped his climbs to save people’s lives along the way. ‘During his climbs, he rescued four other climbers – three of whom he called “suicide missions” – and has, in his own words, “bled from every angle”,’ their article said.

The Great Outdoors (TGO) magazine even nominated his team for the Extra Mile Award alongside fundraisers, mountain rescue workers, campaigners and volunteers who have spent whole lifetimes promoting the great outdoors. The Project Possible team were cited for “willingly risking their lives and putting their world-record project on hold to make multiple life-saving rescue attempts on various 8,000m mountains”.

On the face of it, this was a straightforward story of someone smashing a record to smithereens and doing some good as they went along. But if you dig a little deeper, there is another side to it. Alongside the unqualified praise, Nirmal Purja’s achievement has attracted fierce criticism.

Leading the charge were British and Polish mountaineers. Krzysztof Wielicki, the first man to climb Everest in winter, described it as a performance and organisational feat without much importance. Stephen Venables, the first Briton to climb Everest without supplementary oxygen, said that ‘It isn’t exactly alpinism as I understand it. He is of course supremely fit and determined but I find it hard to get enthused by what he’s done. I think for most climbers, speed records aren’t that interesting. What excites most climbers is the creativity and artistry of taking on a steep or unknown route.’

Meanwhile, Sir Chris Bonington also waded in. Sir Chris is best known for organising the siege-style expeditions that made the first ascents of the south face of Annapurna and south-west face of Everest, but he is more highly regarded among elite mountaineers for his lighter, exploratory expeditions.

‘What he has done is quite extraordinary, but it isn’t mountaineering. Real mountaineering is exploratory — finding new routes up to big peaks … I don’t see this as a major event.’

These men are being churlish, surely – why do they have such a problem with what Nirmal Purja did?

At the root of the controversy is an argument about style. Within the broad church of mountaineering is a smaller subset of climbers known as ‘alpinists’ who like to climb in a certain way. Alpinists travel fast and light, carrying all their equipment with them in a single push. They eschew support from anyone other than their immediate climbing partners, and set great store in a more exploratory style of mountaineering, climbing hard technical routes that have never been climbed before.

Nirmal Purja completed his ascents in a very different style. Helicopters took him from base camp to base camp on each peak. He arrived during peak climbing season (if you’ll excuse the pun) when routes had been pre-prepared with fixed ropes for those on commercial expeditions. He chose the easiest and fastest standard routes on each peak. He also committed the cardinal sin (in the eyes of alpinists) of using supplementary oxygen. This reduces many of the difficulties presented by extreme altitude, and many alpinists consider it cheating.

Helicopters took Nirmal Purja from base camp to base camp on each peak
Helicopters took Nirmal Purja from base camp to base camp on each peak

Are these criticisms valid? Well, if you ask me, this is an age-old problem of alpinists being unable to look at things from outside their bubble. It’s not that they are wrong, it’s just that they are judging by a different set of criteria. To put it another way, they are comparing steak with bananas.

Mountaineering means many things to many people. Most people don’t care about such esoteric things as clipping into a fixed rope or treading the same route as other people, or the means of transport between each peak. In any case, Nirmal Purja never made any pretence about completing the challenge in alpine style. In an interview with ExplorersWeb, he was unapologetic about his use of oxygen.

‘You cannot plan a single mountain in isolation,’ he said. ‘I have to consider the whole phase: the weather, the features of the mountain and the conditions. I have to get back down, so that I can reach the next mountain … You can always go again without oxygen if that is what is so important.’

It may not have been much of an achievement for those who consider the rules of alpinism as sacrosanct, but it was undeniably an achievement in other ways.

Most obviously, it was inconceivably quick. Nirmal Purja titled his challenge Project Possible for a good reason. When he first announced it, before he had climbed a single peak, most people, myself included, considered it ridiculous. And for most people, it would be.

But not Nirmal Purja. He believed it was possible, and he had it well planned. First of all, there was the cost and the logistics. In this, he had the support of controversial Nepali operator Seven Summits Treks, specialists in organising expeditions to the 8,000m peaks.

Seven Summits Treks already had commercial expeditions running to many of the peaks that Nirmal Purja was climbing, including Annapurna, Kangchenjunga, Everest, K2 and Manaslu. There would already be base camps and fixed routes in place when he arrived. They have their own fleet of helicopters. They could ferry him between the peaks, and he could just turn up and climb.

Nirmal Purja has been generous in his praise of those who have supported him. In the same way that a Tour de France winner needs a team of support riders (domestiques) to keep them in the lead, he needed other climbers around him. These included 30-year-old Mingma David Sherpa, who climbed nine peaks above 8,000m with the Project Possible team this year, and Gesman Tamang, who climbed seven.

‘United we conquer ! Here is to The A-team: Mingma David Sherpa , Gesman Tamang, Galjen Sherpa, Lakpa Dendi Sherpa and Halung Dorchi Sherpa … Together we have been through so much,’ he posted on Facebook after his ascent of Shishapangma.

There were other barriers that are not so easy to overcome. Climbing an 8,000m peak takes a lot out of you. Most people need days, sometimes even weeks to recover from an ascent. But Nirmal Purja ticked the peaks off so quickly that he barely had time for a snack, let alone a good rest.

For example, he reached the summit of Dhaulagiri in western Nepal on 12 May, descended 3,000m to base camp, caught a helicopter to Kangchenjunga in the far east of Nepal, then climbed another 3,000m to the summit, reaching it on 15 May. He climbed Everest and Lhotse, joined by Everest’s South Col, on the same day (22 May), descended 3,000m to Everest Base Camp, caught a helicopter to Makalu Base Camp, then climbed up to the summit of Makalu on 24 May. How on earth he recovered between these climbs, I have no idea.

Nirmal Purja climbed Everest and Lhotse on the same day
Nirmal Purja climbed Everest and Lhotse on the same day

Then there is the weather and conditions. To climb an 8,000m peak you have to be lucky with the weather. This means high winds, extreme cold, and a surfeit of snow creating avalanche risks. It’s perfectly normal to spend weeks on an 8,000m peak without getting a suitable weather window.

How on earth could Nirmal Purja hope to have favourable conditions on all fourteen peaks? The answer lay in the very speed that was the defining feature of his challenge. In short, he made his own luck. Because he climbed so quickly, he was able to take advantage of tiny weather windows that would be too short for most people. He only needed a few hours of good weather to sprint up and come back down again.

His supreme confidence also played to his advantage. For example, this year on K2 it was looking like another one of those seasons when nobody would reach the summit. Teams had been there for weeks waiting for a suitable window. The season was winding down and many climbers had already gone home. Then Nirmal Purja and the Project Possible team arrived. There was no way they were going to let the mountain defeat them. They blazed a trail to the top, and many other climbers who had been waiting there for weeks reached the summit in their wake.

There is another way that Nirmal Purja has been groundbreaking. He has shown what a Nepali climber can do when they have the support and the sponsorship that better-known western climbers are able to attract.

I have repeatedly written about how Sherpa mountaineers are in a different league when it comes to climbing at extreme altitude. Although Nirmal Purja isn’t actually a Sherpa (he’s a Magar), I believe that many other Sherpa climbers could do what he has done were they to have a similar level of support. But they haven’t. The difference is that Nirmal Purja has the superstar status that has enabled him to be the first. Hopefully he has forged a path that will enable other Nepali climbers to achieve the recognition they deserve.

Some alpinists have been more generous and balanced about Nirmal Purja’s achievement. These include two great Italian climbers, Reinhold Messner, the first man to climb all fourteen 8,000ers, and Simone Moro, who was the first to make winter ascents on four 8,000ers.

Simone Moro said that he could think of less than ten people who would be capable of repeating Nirmal Purja’s achievement using the same means. Messner agreed that while Nirmal Purja’s style has ‘nothing to do with Jerzy Kukuczka’s,’ (the second man to climb all fourteen, who completed a new route or a first winter ascent on every single one) Purja did not set out to better this achievement. He had never hidden his use of oxygen and helicopters. Instead of moaning about his use of oxygen, Messner suggested that alpinists should instead rise to the challenge by trying to repeat the achievement without oxygen.

But there are other sides to this story too. In setting such store in the style by which Nirmal Purja achieved his goal, other more genuinely controversial factors are in danger of being forgotten.

One of his chief sponsors, Seven Summits Treks have been embroiled in controversy in the last year. They have been strongly implicated in the helicopter rescue fraud that has still not been resolved. On Annapurna, Nirmal Purja became caught up in this story when one of their clients went missing on the mountain. Although it was their client, Seven Summits Treks wouldn’t instigate a rescue until his insurer Global Rescue agreed to cover the cost. Although the climber was eventually found and brought down by Nirmal Purja and other climbers, he subsequently died in hospital. A very public feud followed, and Nirmal Purja unwisely waded in by making critical comments about Global Rescue.

The manner in which rescues have been used as publicity by the Project Possible team is something many people consider distasteful. Rescues happen regularly on the busier 8,000m peaks. These are usually coordinated by the larger expedition companies in cooperation with each another. While some operators do publicise these incidents if rescues are successful and they feel the victims need to be called out, many operators do not publicise them out of respect. While credit may be due, it is more dignified to keep quiet about rescues and let others do the talking.

On Everest, Nirmal Purja unwittingly instigated a much bigger media storm by taking THAT photo of a queue of climbers on the Hillary Step. The photo went viral, appearing in every media publication from Kathmandu to Timbuktu and once again Everest was in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The same old stories buzzed around the internet. Everest has become too easy, overrun by tourists who don’t know how to put on a pair of crampons.

Lost in these stories was the fact that Nirmal Purja’s sponsor Seven Summits Treks are one of the worst offenders, providing cheap trips with low levels of support, accepting anyone who would pay the money regardless of their previous experience. Seven of their clients died on the 8,000m peaks this spring season. Instead of being ashamed of this statistic their owner was quoted as saying the clients ‘know they have a 50% chance of returning safely and a 50% chance of dying or being rescued’.

Manaslu is a mountain notorious for having a number of different summits. Did Nirmal Purja reach the true one?
Manaslu is a mountain notorious for having a number of different summits. Did Nirmal Purja reach the true one?

More recently, questions have arisen about whether he reached the true summit of Manaslu, a mountain that is notorious for having a series of summits, some easier to reach than others. Not every climber is diligent about checking which summit they reach. I wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago.

This year, ExplorersWeb reported that most people who reached the top of Manaslu didn’t reach the true summit, and Nirmal Purja may have been among them. If this turns out to be true, then he could join the short list of people whose ascents of all fourteen are disputed because one summit is in doubt. This list includes Alan Hinkes, to date the only Briton to have climbed all fourteen. Hinkes reached the summit of Cho Oyu, an enormous plateau, in a whiteout, and wasn’t explicit enough about which point he reached for everybody’s liking.

For most people, stopping a few metres short doesn’t make too much difference (something I’ve written about before) but the argument is that those claiming records have to be more precise.

While Nirmal Purja’s record is not currently in dispute, there are still many details about his climbs that are sketchy. The Project Possible website is light on detail and while he has posted many verifiable summit photos and snippets of information to Facebook, these do not contain full trip reports of each ascent.

I am sure these details will emerge in time, and when they do the importance of his achievement can be more easily assessed. The team from the Himalayan Database will be diligent about documenting the details of some of his ascents. These will be publicly available in the not too distant future, though it won’t include the five 8,000m peaks in Pakistan.

However you choose to judge this feat, and whatever you want to call it – mountaineering, speed climbing, high-altitude peak bagging, or something completely different – there is no doubt that it has been an extraordinary achievement. It was a feat that nobody considered remotely possible, but he did it.

He has raised the bar for something, whatever that may be, and don’t be surprised if he does something else to silence his critics. He has hinted about attempting K2 in winter, the last of the 8,000m peaks yet to have a winter ascent. If he manages that then it would shut a few more people up.

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19 thoughts on “Nirmal Purja’s ascent of all fourteen 8,000m peaks: why is it controversial?

  • November 6, 2019 at 6:41 pm
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    Great piece. Thorough, balanced and nuanced.

  • November 6, 2019 at 7:26 pm
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    To this day I remain amused/bewildered by the fact that a small group of alpinists consider that mountain climbing is only real when done without oxygen.

    As a physiologist and MD I wonder why they focused on the O2 content at the mitochondrial level, which picks up trash H+ ions from the Krebs cycle, instead of on temperature which keeps the enzymes running properly in this chemical reaction. (They all invest heavily on double layered boots and thick down jackets!) They also don’t give up on their caloric intake (glucose for the Krebs cycle) or hydration for that matter, which is equally important. O2, glucose, temperature control, and H2O, are all equally necessary to keep our cells working! Why low O2 in their mitochondria makes them purists I don’t understand. It’s just a chemical reaction where you are tripping up one part of it!

    Climbing a high mountain while damaging your brain with no oxygen is no feat of intelligence or sports ability – it is rather one of negligence. We will see in a few years how these purists fare with senile dementia, Alzheimer’s or other degenerative disorders of the brain.

    I agree with Mark that Nirmal’s feat is impressive and that he carefully followed Sir John Hunt’s rulebook on the first Everest climb: It’s all about organization! It also shows what Westerners have being fearing for a while, and that is that the Nepalis can now climb a mountain as well or in this case better than anybody else.

    I also agree with Mark that Nepali safety record does not yet match our standards yet. But to this day Western expeditions could also do better.

    Let us not let our sport be kidnapped by the ‘elite’ group of climbers that drank the no-O2 kool-aid. Using O2 will allow us to climb for many more years than they will, it will allow us to remember those climbs, and perhaps most importantly, enjoy better cognitive capabilities while aging gracefully. The evidence is there.

    Climb on – but with O2!

  • November 6, 2019 at 7:38 pm
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    Leo, that is a most excellent point. Indeed, why focus on only one aspect of physiology when there are so many more they are not surviving in a “pure” state.

    It is an amazing achievement, whether from logistics or from fitness or from pure bloody mindedness…yes, many issues but he still needs congratulated.

  • November 6, 2019 at 8:26 pm
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    Really enjoyed this piece and understanding the different viewpoints surrounding this new record. I’m still very impressed by Nims’ accomplishment, enjoyed watching the progress on Facebook and Instagram, but your post provided a lot of good background and color. Having had to tap out with bronchitis at Labuche on an EBC trek last October, even one 8000 summit is impressive, with or without oxyegen!

  • November 7, 2019 at 1:08 am
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    Thank you Mark for another excellent read. I for one am very impressed with Nims’ accomplishment. To the naysayers, if what he did was so easy then why hadn’t it been done before? Or why don’t you give it a try? This world has too many haters.

  • November 7, 2019 at 1:17 am
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    There’s a lot here I won’t bother with but:

    1. You have quoted Moro very selectively. Most of what he said was that Nims’ feat would put into perspective the host of 8000m climbers wanting great fanfare for being guided up the normal routes on hi-flow O2 and fixed ropes.
    “…Simone Moro, has said that although he considers such climbing “high-altitiude tourism,” Purja has eliminated “all those who consider themselves heroes for accumulating 8000’ers with good weather, oxygen, fixed ropes and guides.” The Italian added that such a “clear worldwide reference” may spell the end of “false heroes” and climbers claiming superficial mountain records.” https://explorersweb.com/2019/11/01/mixed-reviews-himalayan-climbers-assess-purjas-feat/

    2. You say “It was a feat that nobody considered remotely possible…” Now of course I may be ‘nobody’ as I’ve never jumared on bottled gas following Sherpas to an 8000m summit, but it’s simply untrue to say that no one thought it possible. It was clearly possible with the right logistics, weather, money and person – in that order. I wrote as much on UKC in 2011 when the question came up, and on other sites. Nims deserves credit and congratulations for pulling all that together, but it was never ‘impossible’.
    https://www.ukclimbing.com/forums/expedition+alpine/will_anyone_ever_climb_all_the_8k_peaks_in_one_year-454790?

    Ultimately, Mark, you can judge anything by any standard and with endless relativity things just become meaningless. Rules and conventions within games and cultures are there to give them value and meaning to us who are part of them. This is why things such as climbing and mountaineering have such a draw on so many – they are not normal life. Transgressing such contrived rules may be justifiable by mainstream standards, but climbing is not mainstream. If anything was acceptable, then just build a cable car or take people up there in helicopters. If it was war, or any unasked-for fight for survival, then anything would be acceptable. But it’s none of those things, it’s a voluntary game, where quality and value are defined over time. Transgressing those accepted measures of value will always create controversy.

  • November 7, 2019 at 1:54 am
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    Excellent synopsis of a complex, but remarkable acheivement, Mark. Thanks for putting the icing on a grand cake and saving me days of writing.

  • November 7, 2019 at 3:29 am
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    Outstanding piece, Mark Horrell! Thanks for exploring this controversy. Well done.

  • November 7, 2019 at 7:49 am
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    The day will come when a human being will get the Everest’s summit with no boots or crampons in sheer purity…
    May I say this blog is an inexhaustible well of new words? As a student of English as a second language I couldn’t be happier.

  • November 7, 2019 at 2:31 pm
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    A well-balanced article Mark!

    “He called his challenge ‘Project Possible’, and it was staggering because the previous record for climbing all fourteen in the shortest time – held by the Korean climber – was 7 years and 10 months. Nirmal Purja therefore beat it by 7 years and 3½ months.”

    One topic that is not yet discussed is that as per the Himalayan Database, Purja climbed his first 8000er back in Spring 2017. He climbed Everest, Lhotse, and Makalu that season. Shouldn’t his clock for the 14 8000ers start back then? He did climb 14 8000ers in a span of 189 days under this new project but shouldn’t the shortest time taken to climb all 14 8000ers be 2.5 years instead of 189 days as most media are portraying?

    IMO the clock starts when you summit your first 8000 as it did for Kim Chang-Ho, Kukuczka, etc; not when you start a new project!

    A superhuman effort nonetheless! Congratulations to Nims & Team!

  • November 7, 2019 at 2:54 pm
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    Mountaineering is also about loving nature that you see in approach marches to peaks. Speed climbing is a travesty and climbing to break records is a sacrilege. Especially when helicopters are used to fly from base camp to base camp. This feat by Nirmal Purja is remarkable for the stamina and strength displayed and exceptional in the heroic of climbing Everst and Makalu on the same day.

    What Purja has done is almost impossible to duplicate even if one had the helicopters and a large team to help. Yet, if a book is made about this climb it will be a dull one.

    I am grateful to Mark Horrell for this carefully written analysis. That late rescue on Annapurna by Seven Summits Treks (Nirmal Purja’s employers and sponsors) was an ugly tale of guarding profits and not helping a climber in distress first. Nirmal’s role is not clear and it would have been better had he kept quiet afterwards.

  • November 7, 2019 at 4:42 pm
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    Great article Mark. I followed Nim’s progress throughout and interestingly , Manaslu was the one that I did a double take on. I have no doubt he made the climb, but I knew there are several summits but thought he would know the true summit more than anyone. Controversies aside , it was a superhuman accomplishment by Nims and his team .

  • November 8, 2019 at 12:27 am
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    I don’t think anyone, even elite mountaineers, is saying that what Nims did was not impressive from a range of different aspects e.g. logistics, support, Nim’s physiological prowess and, let’s not forget luck! They are simply saying that from the point of view of pushing the boundaries of mountaineering it is not so important. Mark suggests that they are comparing steak to bananas but really, the issue is more about the media and the public comparing bananas with steak…

  • November 8, 2019 at 5:47 am
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    Well done, Nirmal. Congratulations.

  • November 8, 2019 at 12:27 pm
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    Great piece on a wonderful achivement, and man/team. The fact that the majority of mountaineers struggle to get up one of these mountains, let alone all 14, and so quickly it’s extraordinary some of these people have anything but praise for this achivement.

    Mountaineering is not about a specific style, route of getting up a mountain or using O’s. Anyone who belives it is, no matter who they are, needs a reality check. Mountaineering is many things, including different styles of climbing, both high and not so high peaks. There are both slightly easier, and more challenging ways to get up and down, but at the end of the day, it is still mountaineering.

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  • November 11, 2019 at 2:51 am
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    Thanks for an excellent, unbiased piece.
    This was an almost unbelievable feat by any standards and I find it sad and pathetic that great mountaineers, such as Chris Bonnington, refuse to hail it as such.

  • November 11, 2019 at 4:53 am
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    difficult to understand why the naysayers are trying to find fault with this outstanding and unprecedented feat which may not be repeated in a while . They are just plain jealous .Nothing else.Many of them are not climbers but make judgements sitting in the warmth of a log fire in their cabins in the mountain.There is talk about take a heli from base camp to base camp.What about all those climbers who have used hypoxic tents to shorten their 8000m climb and those who have done the lhotse everest combine by straddling the south col..should they not have gone all the way back to kathmandu and come back to lhotse after climbing everest ???and those who go down to namche for a breather before the final summit rotation…they often fly back to the base camp…! In fact it is quite apparent why these critics are making loose comments ….and i dont need to say more….

  • November 12, 2019 at 2:33 am
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    Nice write up as always Mark.

    It’s truly amazing for what it is, what an incredible physical and organizational achievement.

    I just have little personal interest in pure feats of athleticism and logistics. I would have rather read a detailed account of Nirmal picking one mountain no matter the height and exploring a new route -even not making it to the top and w/ or without oxygen. I mean, hell -I enjoy Mark Horrell lollygagging on an Munro trail he’s never been on much more than this.. lol

    That’s just were my head is about mountaineering. I enjoy the exploration and climber’s account from a philosophical and psychological stand point -and don’t care much for publicity and throw back ABC wide world of sports style staged spectacles.

    There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not where myself and apparently many climbers hearts and interests lie.

    That said, congrats to Nirmal Purja on his superlative achievement -it is amazing.

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