As Seen In: USA Today, Discovery Channel, US News & World Report

Mountain Terrain

Operations in the mountains require soldiers to be physically fit and leaders to be experienced in operations in this terrain. Problems arise in moving men and transporting loads up and down steep and varied terrain in order to accomplish the mission. Chances for success in this environment are greater when a leader has experience operating under the same conditions as his men. Acclimatization, conditioning, and training are important factors in successful military mountaineering.


Mountains are land forms that rise more than 500 meters above the surrounding plain and are characterized by steep slopes. Slopes commonly range from 4 to 45 degrees. Cliffs and precipices may be vertical or overhanging. Mountains may consist of an isolated peak, single ridges, glaciers, snowfields, compartments, or complex ranges extending for long distances and obstructing movement. Mountains usually favor the defense; however, attacks can succeed by using detailed planning, rehearsals, surprise, and well-led troops.


All mountains are made up of rocks and all rocks of minerals (compounds that cannot be broken down except by chemical action). Of the approximately 2,000 known minerals, seven rock-forming minerals make up most of the earth’s crust: quartz and feldspar make up granite and sandstone; olivene and pyroxene give basalt its dark color; and amphibole and biotite (mica) are the black crystalline specks in granitic rocks. Except for calcite, found in limestone, they all contain silicon and are often referred to as silicates.

Rock And Slope Types

Different types of rock and different slopes present different hazards. The following paragraphs discuss the characteristics and hazards of the different rocks and slopes.

a. Granite. Granite produces fewer rockfalls, but jagged edges make pulling rope and raising equipment more difficult. Granite is abrasive and increases the danger of ropes or accessory cords being cut. Climbers must beware of large loose boulders. After a rain, granite dries quickly. Most climbing holds are found in cracks. Face climbing can be found, however, it cannot be protected.

b. Chalk and Limestone. Chalk and limestone are slippery when wet. Limestone is usually solid; however, conglomerate type stones may be loose. Limestone has pockets, face climbing, and cracks.

c. Slate and Gneiss. Slate and gneiss can be firm and or brittle in the same area (red coloring indicates brittle areas). Rockfall danger is high, and small rocks may break off when pulled or when pitons are emplaced.

d. Sandstone. Sandstone is usually soft causing handholds and footholds to break away under pressure. Chocks placed in sandstone may or may not hold. Sandstone should be allowed to dry for a couple of days after a rain before climbing on it—wet sandstone is extremely soft. Most climbs follow a crack. Face climbing is possible, but any outward pull will break off handholds and footholds, and it is usually difficult to protect.

e. Grassy Slopes. Penetrating roots and increased frost cracking cause a continuous loosening process. Grassy slopes are slippery after rain, new snow, and dew. After long, dry spells clumps of the slope tend to break away. Weight should be distributed evenly; for example, use flat hand push holds instead of finger pull holds.

f. Firm Spring Snow (Firn Snow). Stopping a slide on small, leftover snow patches in late spring can be difficult. Routes should be planned to avoid these dangers. Self-arrest should be practiced before encountering this situation. Beginning climbers should be secured with rope when climbing on this type surface. Climbers can glissade down firn snow if necessary. Firn snow is easier to ascend than walking up scree or talus.

g. Talus. Talus is rocks that are larger than a dinner plate, but smaller than boulders. They can be used as stepping-stones to ascend or descend a slope. However, if a talus rock slips away it can produce more injury than scree because of its size.

h. Scree. Scree is small rocks that are from pebble size to dinner plate size. Running down scree is an effective method of descending in a hurry. One can run at full stride without worry—the whole scree field is moving with you. Climbers must beware of larger rocks that may be solidly planted under the scree. Ascending scree is a tedious task. The scree does not provide a solid platform and will only slide under foot. If possible, avoid scree when ascending.

Rock Classifications

Rock is classified by origin and mineral composition.

a. Igneous Rocks. Deep within the earth’s crust and mantle, internal heat, friction and radioactive decay creates magmas (melts of silicate minerals) that solidify into igneous rocks upon cooling. When the cooling occurs at depth, under pressure, and over time, the minerals in the magma crystallize slowly and develop well, making coarse-grained plutonic rock. The magma may move upward, propelled by its own lower density, either melting and combining with the overlying layers or forcing them aside. This results in an intrusive rock. If the melt erupts onto the surface it cools rapidly and the minerals form little or no crystal matrix, creating a volcanic or extrusive rock.

(1) Plutonic or Intrusive Rocks. Slow crystallization from deeply buried magmas generally means good climbing, since the minerals formed are relatively large and interwoven into a solid matrix. Weathering develops protrusions of resistant minerals, which makes for either a rough-surfaced rock with excellent friction, or, if the resistant crystals are much larger than the surrounding matrix, a surface with numerous knobby holds. Pieces of foreign rock included in the plutonic body while it was rising and crystallizing, or clusters of segregated minerals, may weather differently than the main rock mass and form "chicken heads."

(a) Intrusions are named according to location and size. Large (100 square kilometers or larger) masses of plutonic rock are called "batholiths" and small ones "stocks." Most plutonic rock is in the granite family, differing only in the amounts of constituent minerals contained. A core of such batholiths is in every major mountain system in the world. In the Alps, Sierras, North Cascades, Rockies, Adirondacks, and most other ranges this core is at least partly exposed.

(b) Small plutonic intrusions are stocks, forced between sedimentary strata, and dikes, which cut across the strata. Many of these small intrusive bodies are quickly cooled and thus may look like extrusive rock.

(2) Volcanic or Extrusive Rocks. Explosive eruptions eject molten rock so quickly into the air that it hardens into loose aerated masses of fine crystals and uncrystallized glass (obsidian). When this ash consolidates while molten or after cooling, it is called "tuff," a weak rock that breaks down quickly and erodes easily. Quieter eruptions, where widespread lava flows from large fissures, produce basalt. Basaltic rocks are fine-grained and often sharp-edged.

(3) Jointing Rocks. In plutonic rocks, joints or cracks are caused by internal stresses such as contraction during cooling or expansion when overlying rock erodes or exfoliates. Some joints tend to follow a consistent pattern throughout an entire mountain and their existence can often be predicted. Therefore, when a ledge suddenly ends, the joint—and thus the ledge—may begin again around the corner. When molten rock extrudes onto the surface as a lava flow or intrudes into a cold surrounding mass as a dike or sill, the contraction from rapid cooling usually causes so much jointing that climbing can be extremely hazardous. Occasionally, this jointing is regular enough to create massed pillars with usable vertical cracks such as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming.

b. Sedimentary Rocks. Sedimentary rocks are born high in the mountains, where erosion grinds down debris and moves it down to rivers for transportation to its final deposition in valleys, lakes, or oceans. As sediments accumulate, the bottom layers are solidified by pressure and by mineral cements precipitated from percolating groundwater. Gravel and boulders are transformed into conglomerates; sandy beaches into sandstone; beds of mud into mudstone or shale; and shell beds and coral reefs into limestone or dolomite.

(1) Though in general sedimentary rocks are much more friable than those cooled from molten magmas, pressure and cementing often produce solid rocks. In fact, by sealing up internal cracks cementing can result in flawless surfaces, especially in limestone.

(2) Most high mountain ranges have some sedimentary peaks. Ancient seafloor limestone can be found on the summits of the Himalayas and the Alps. The Canadian Rockies are almost exclusively limestone. With the exception of the Dolomites, in general sedimentary rocks do not offer high-angle climbing comparable to that of granite.

c. Metamorphic Rocks. These are igneous or sedimentary rocks that have been altered physically and or chemically by the tremendous heat and pressures within the earth. After sediments are solidified, high heat and pressure can cause their minerals to recrystallize. The bedding planes (strata) may also be distorted by folding and squeezing. Shale changes to slate or schist, sandstone and conglomerate into quartzite, and limestone to marble. These changes may be minimal, only slightly altering the sediments, or extensive enough to produce gneiss, which is almost indistinguishable from igneous rock.

(1) Metamorphic rocks may have not only joints and bedding, but cleavage or foliation, a series of thinly spaced cracks caused by the pressures of folding. Because of this cleavage, lower grades of metamorphic rocks may be completely unsuitable for climbing because the rock is too rotten for safe movement.

(2) Higher degrees of metamorphism or metamorphism of the right rocks provide a solid climbing surface. The Shawangunks of New York are an excellent example of high-grade conglomerate quartzite, which offers world class climbing. The center of the Green Mountain anticline contains heavily metamorphosed schist, which also provides solid climbing.

Mountain Building

The two primary mechanisms for mountain-building are volcanic and tectonic activity. Volcanoes are constructed from lava and ash, which begin within the earth as magma. Tectonic activity causes plates to collide, heaving up fold mountains, and to pull apart and crack, forming fault-block mountain ranges.

a. Plate Tectonics. The massive slabs composing the outer layer are called tectonic plates. These plates are made up of portions of lighter, granitic continental crust, and heavier, basaltic oceanic crust attached to slabs of the rigid upper mantle. Floating slowly over the more malleable asthenosphere, their movement relative to each other creates earthquakes, volcanoes, ocean trenches, and mountain ridge systems.

b. Mountain Structure. The different horizontal and vertical stresses that create mountains usually produce complex patterns. Each type of stress produces a typical structure, and most mountains can be described in terms of these structures.

(1) Dome Mountains. A simple upward bulge of the crust forms dome mountains such as the Ozarks of Arkansas and Missouri, New York’s Adirondacks, the Olympics of Washington, and the High Uintahs of Utah. They are usually the result of the upward movement of magma and the folding of the rock layers overhead. Erosion may strip away the overlying layers, exposing the central igneous core.

(2) Fault-Block Mountains. Faulting, or cracking of the crust into large chunks, often accompanies upwarp, which results in fault-block mountains. Many forms are created by the motion of these chunks along these faults.

(a) The ranges of the desert country of California, Nevada, and Utah provide the clearest display of faulting. The breakage extends to the surface and often during earthquakes—caused by slippage between the blocks—fresh scarps many feet high develop.

(b) Sometimes a block is faulted on both sides and rises or falls as a unit. More often, however, it is faulted on one side only. The Tetons of Wyoming and the Sierra Nevada display this—along the single zone of faults the range throws up impressive steep scarps, while on the other side the block bends but does not break, leaving a gentler slope from the base of the range to the crest. An example of a dropped block is California’s Death Valley, which is below sea level and could not have been carved by erosion.

(3) Fold Mountains. Tectonic forces, in which continental plates collide or ride over each other, have given rise to the most common mountain form—fold mountains. Geologists call folds geosynclines. Upward folded strata are anticlines and downward folds are synclines. When erosion strips down the overburden of rock from folded mountain ranges, the oldest, central core is all that remains. The Alps and the Appalachians are examples of fold mountains. When the squeezing of a range is intense the rocks of the mountain mass first fold but then may break, and parts of the rocks are pushed sideways and override neighboring formations. This explains why older rocks are often found perched on top of younger ones. Isolated blocks of the over thrust mass may form when erosion strips away links connecting them with their place of origin. Almost every range of folded mountains in the world exhibits an over thrust of one sort or another.

(4) Volcanic Mountains. Along convergent plate boundaries volcanic activity increases. As it is forced underneath an overriding neighbor, continental crust melts and turns to magma within the mantle. Since it is less dense than the surrounding material it rises and erupts to form volcanoes.

(a) These volcanoes are found in belts, which correspond to continental margins around the world. The best known is the "Ring of Fire" encircling the Pacific Ocean from Katmai in Alaska through the Cascades (Mount Rainier and Mount Saint Helens) down through Mexico’s Popocatepetl to the smokes of Tierra del Fuego. This belt then runs west down the Aleutian chain to Kamchatka, south to the volcanoes of Japan and the Philippines, and then east through New Guinea into the Pacific. Smaller volcanic belts are found along the Indonesian-SE Asian arc, the Caucasus region, and the Mediterranean.

(b) Volcanic activity also arises at boundaries where two plates are moving away from each other, creating deep rifts and long ridges where the crust has cracked apart and magma wells up to create new surface material. Examples of this are the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which has created Iceland and the Azores, and the Rift Valley of East Africa with Kilimanjaro’s cone.

(5) Complex Mountains. Most ranges are complex mountains with portions that have been subject to several processes. A block may have been simply pushed upward without tilting with other portions folded, domed, and faulted, often with a sprinkling of volcanoes. In addition, these processes occur both at the macro and the micro level. One massive fold can make an entire mountain peak; however, there are folds measured by a rope length, and tiny folds found within a handhold. A mountain front may be formed from a single fault, but smaller faults that form ledges and gullies may also be present.

Route Classification

Military mountaineers must be able to assess a vertical obstacle, develop a course of action to overcome the obstacle, and have the skills to accomplish the plan. Assessment of a vertical obstacle requires experience in the classifications of routes and understanding the levels of difficulty they represent. Without a solid understanding of the difficulty of a chosen route, the mountain leader can place his life and the life of other soldiers in extreme danger. Ignorance is the most dangerous hazard in the mountain environment.

a. In North America the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is used to rate the difficulty of routes in mountainous terrain. The YDS classes are:

  • Class 1—Hiking trail.
  • Class 2—Off-trail scramble.
  • Class 3—Climbing, use of ropes for beginners (moderate scrambling).
  • Class 4—Belayed climbing. (This is moderate to difficult scrambling, which may have some exposure.)
  • Class 5—Free climbing. (This class requires climbers to be roped up, belay and emplace intermediate protection.)
  • b. Class 5 is further subdivided into the following classifications:

    (1) Class 5.0-5.4—Little difficulty. This is the simplest form of free climbing. Hands are necessary to support balance. This is sometimes referred to as advanced rock scrambling.

    (2) Class 5.5—Moderate difficulty. Three points of contact are necessary.

    (3) Class 5.6—Medium difficulty. The climber can experience vertical position or overhangs where good grips can require moderate levels of energy expenditure.

    (4) Class 5.7—Great difficulty. Considerable climbing experience is necessary. Longer stretches of climbing requiring several points of intermediate protection. Higher levels of energy expenditure will be experienced.

    (5) Class 5.8—Very great difficulty. Increasing amount of intermediate protection is the rule. High physical conditioning, climbing technique, and experience required.

    (6) Class 5.9—Extremely great difficulty. Requires well above average ability and excellent condition. Exposed positions, often combined with small belay points. Passages of the difficult sections can often be accomplished under good conditions. Often combined with aid climbing (A0-A4).

    (7) Class 5.10—Extraordinary difficulty. Climb only with improved equipment and intense training. Besides acrobatic climbing technique, mastery of refined security technique is indispensable. Often combined with aid climbing (A0-A4).

    (8) Class 5.11-5.14—Greater increases of difficulty, requiring more climbing ability, experience, and energy expenditure. Only talented and dedicated climbers reach this level.

    c. Additional classifications include the following.

    (1) Classes are further divided into a, b, c, and d categories starting from 5.10 to 5.14 (for example, 5.10d).

    (2) Classes are also further divided from 5.9 and below with +/- categories (for example, 5.8+).

    (3) All class 5 climbs can also be designated with "R" or "X," which indicates a run-out on a climb. This means that placement of intermediate protection is not possible on portions of the route. (For example, in a classification of 5.8R, the "R" indicates periods of run-out where, if a fall was experienced, ground fall would occur.) Always check the local guidebook to find specific designation for your area.

    (4) All class 5 climbs can also be designated with "stars." These refer to the popularity of the climb to the local area. Climbs are represented by a single "star" up to five "stars;" a five-star climb is a classic climb and is usually aesthetically pleasing.

    d. Aid climb difficulty classification includes:

    (1) A0—“French-free.” This technique involves using a piece of gear to make progress; for example, clipping a sling into a bolt or piece of protection and then pulling up on it or stepping up in the sling. Usually only needed to get past one or two more difficult moves on advanced free climbs.

    (2) A1—Easy aid. The placement of protection is straight forward and reliable. There is usually no high risk of any piece of protection pulling out. This technique requires etriers and is fast and simple.

    (3) A2—Moderate aid. The placement of protection is generally straight forward, but placement can be awkward and strenuous. Usually A2 involves one or two moves that are difficult with good protection placement below and above the difficult moves. No serious fall danger.

    (4) A3—Hard aid. This technique requires testing your protection. It involves several awkward and strenuous moves in a row. Generally solid placements which will hold a fall and are found within a full rope length. However, long fall potential does exist, with falls of 40 to 60 feet and intermediate protection on the awkward placements failing. These falls, however, are usually clean and with no serious bodily harm.

    (5) A4—Serious aid. This technique requires lots of training and practice. More like walking on eggs so none of them break. Leads will usually take extended amounts of time which cause the lead climber to doubt and worry about each placement. Protection placed will usually only hold a climber’s weight and falls can be as long as two-thirds the rope length.

    (6) A5—Extreme aid. All protection is sketchy at best. Usually no protection placed on the entire route can be trusted to stop a fall.

    (7) A6—Extremely severe aid. Continuous A5 climbing with A5 belay stations. If the leader falls, the whole rope team will probably experience ground fall.

    (8) Aid climbing classes are also further divided into +/- categories, such as A3+ or A3-, which would simply refer to easy or hard.

    e. Grade ratings (commitment grades) inform the climber of the approximate time a climber trained to the level of the climb will take to complete the route.

  • I — Several hours.
  • II — Half of a day.
  • III — About three-fourths of a day.
  • IV — Long hard day (usually not less than 5.7).
  • V — 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 days (usually not less than 5.8).
  • VI — Greater than 2 days.
  • f. Climbing difficulties are rated by different systems. Table 1-1 shows a comparison of these systems.

  • YDS (Yosemite Decimal System)—Used in the United States.
  • UIAA (Union des International Alpine Association)—Used in Europe.
  • British—The British use adjectives and numbers to designate the difficulty of climbs. This system can be confusing if the climber is not familiar with it.
  • French—The French use numbers and letters to designate the difficulty of climbs.
  • Brazilian—Brazil uses Roman Numerals and adjectives to designate difficulty.
  • Australian—Australia uses only numbers to designate difficulty.
  • YDSUIAABritishFrenchBrazilAustralia
    Class 1Ieasy (E)
    Class 2IIeasy (E)
    Class 3IIIeasy (E)1a,b,c
    Class 4III-moderate (MOD)1a,b,c
    5.0IIImoderate (MOD)2a,b4
    5.1III+difficult (DIFF)2a,b5
    5.2IV-hard difficult2c,3a6
    5.3IVvery difficult3b,c,4a7
    5.4IV+hard very difficult3b,c,4aII8,9
    5.5V-mild severe3b,c,4aIIsup10,11
    5.6Vsevere, hard severe, 4a4a,b,cIII12,13
    5.7V+severe, hard severe, 4b4a,b,cIIIsup14
    5.8VI-hard severe, hard very severe, 4c5a,bIV15
    Table 1-1. Rating systems.

    g. Ice climbing ratings can have commitment ratings and technical ratings. The numerical ratings are often prefaced with WI (waterfall ice), AI (alpine ice), or M (mixed rock and ice).

    (1) Commitment Ratings. Commitment ratings are expressed in Roman numerals.

  • I — A short, easy climb near the road, with no avalanche hazard and a straightforward descent.
  • II — A route of one or two pitches within a short distance of rescue assistance, with little objective hazard.
  • III — A multipitch route at low elevation, or a one-pitch climb with an approach that takes about an hour. The route requires anywhere from a few hours to a long day to complete. The descent may require building rappel anchors, and the route might be prone to avalanche.
  • IV — A multipitch route at higher elevations; may require several hours of approach on skis or foot. This route is subject to objective hazards, possibly with a hazardous descent.
  • V — A long climb in a remote setting, requiring all day to complete the climb itself. Requires many rappels off anchors for the descent. This route has sustained exposure to avalanche or other objective hazards.
  • VI — A long ice climb in an alpine setting, with sustained technical climbing. Only elite climbers will complete it in a day. A difficult and involved approach and descent, with objective hazards ever-present, all in a remote area.
  • VII — Everything a grade VI has, and more of it. Possibly days to approach the climb, and objective hazards rendering survival as questionable. Difficult physically and mentally.
  • (2) Technical Ratings. Technical ratings are expressed as Arabic numerals.

  • 1 — A frozen lake or stream bed.
  • 2 — A pitch with short sections of ice up to 80 degrees; lots of opportunity for protection and good anchors.
  • 3 — Sustained ice up to 80 degrees; the ice is usually good, with places to rest, but it requires skill at placing protection and setting anchors.
  • 4 — A sustained pitch that is vertical or slightly less than vertical; may have special features such as chandeliers and run-outs between protection.
  • 5 — A long, strenuous pitch, possibly 50 meters of 85- to 90-degree ice with few if any rests between anchors. The pitch may be shorter, but on featureless ice. Good skills at placing protection are required.
  • 6 — A full 50-meter pitch of dead vertical ice, possibly of poor quality; requires efficiency of movement and ability to place protection while in awkward stances.
  • 7 — A full rope length of thin vertical or overhanging ice of dubious adhesion. An extremely tough pitch, physically and mentally, requiring agility and creativity.
  • 8 — Simply the hardest ice climbing ever done; extremely bold and gymnastic.
  • Cross-Country Movement

    Soldiers must know the terrain to determine the feasible routes for cross-country movement when no roads or trails are available.

    a. A pre-operations intelligence effort should include topographic and photographic map coverage as well as detailed weather data for the area of operations. When planning mountain operations, additional information may be needed about size, location, and characteristics of landforms; drainage; types of rock and soil; and the density and distribution of vegetation. Control must be decentralized to lower levels because of varied terrain, erratic weather, and communication problems inherent to mountainous regions.

    b. Movement is often restricted due to terrain and weather. The erratic weather requires that soldiers be prepared for wide variations in temperature, types, and amounts of precipitation.

    (1) Movement above the timberline reduces the amount of protective cover available at lower elevations. The logistical problem is important; therefore, each man must be self-sufficient to cope with normal weather changes using materials from his rucksack.

    (2) Movement during a storm is difficult due to poor visibility and bad footing on steep terrain. Although the temperature is often higher during a storm than during clear weather, the dampness of rain and snow and the penetration of wind cause soldiers to chill quickly. Although climbers should get off the high ground and seek shelter and warmth, if possible, during severe mountain storms, capable commanders may use reduced visibility to achieve tactical surprise.

    c. When the tactical situation requires continued movement during a storm, the following precautions should be observed:

  • Maintain visual contact.
  • Keep warm. Maintain energy and body heat by eating and drinking often; carry food that can be eaten quickly and while on the move.
  • Keep dry. Wear wet-weather clothing when appropriate, but do not overdress, which can cause excessive perspiration and dampen clothing. As soon as the objective is reached and shelter secured, put on dry clothing.
  • Do not rush. Hasty movement during storms leads to breaks in contact and accidents.
  • If lost, stay warm, dry, and calm.
  • Do not use ravines as routes of approach during a storm as they often fill with water and are prone to flash floods.
  • Avoid high pinnacles and ridgelines during electrical storms.
  • Avoid areas of potential avalanche or rock-fall danger.
  • Cover and Concealment

    When moving in the mountains, outcroppings, boulders, heavy vegetation, and intermediate terrain can provide cover and concealment. Digging fighting positions and temporary fortifications is difficult because soil is often thin or stony. The selection of dug-in positions requires detailed planning. Some rock types, such as volcanic tuff, are easily excavated. In other areas, boulders and other loose rocks can be used for building hasty fortifications. In alpine environments, snow and ice blocks may be cut and stacked to supplement dug-in positions. As in all operations, positions and routes must be camouflaged to blend in with the surrounding terrain to prevent aerial detection.


    Observation in mountains varies because of weather and ground cover. The dominating height of mountainous terrain permits excellent long-range observation. However, rapidly changing weather with frequent periods of high winds, rain, snow, sleet, hail, and fog can limit visibility. The rugged nature of the terrain often produces dead space at midranges.

    a. Low cloud cover at higher elevations may neutralize the effectiveness of OPs established on peaks or mountaintops. High wind speeds and sound often mask the noises of troop movement. Several OPs may need to be established laterally, in depth, and at varying altitudes to provide visual coverage of the battle area.

    b. Conversely, the nature of the terrain can be used to provide concealment from observation. This concealment can be obtained in the dead space. Mountainous regions are subject to intense shadowing effects when the sun is low in relatively clear skies. The contrast from lighted to shaded areas causes visual acuity in the shaded regions to be considerably reduced. These shadowed areas can provide increased concealment when combined with other camouflage and should be considered in maneuver plans.

    Fields of Fire

    Fields of fire, like observation, are excellent at long ranges. However, dead space is a problem at short ranges. When forces cannot be positioned to cover dead space with direct fires, mines and obstacles or indirect fire must be used. Range determination is deceptive in mountainous terrain. Soldiers must routinely train in range estimation in mountainous regions to maintain their proficiency.

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