'The 46ers' Doc Goes to the Small Screen: A Q&A with Director Blake Cortright

Prior to 2012, when he spent a weekend backpacking, 18-year-old Blake Cortright knew next to nothing about the Adirondack 46ers—the mountains and the people. But, if the peaks are good at anything, it’s inspiring those who journey into them. Before long, Blake became fixated and hiked them constantly, hoping to craft his exploration of the 46 High Peaks and the group of hikers that share their name into a documentary. Today, that film (sponsored in part by Eastern Mountain Sports) is headed to the big-time, scheduled to air on PBS stations across the country, including WCNY on Monday, November 13. We sat down to talk with Blake about his progression from novice to storyteller and the things he picked up along the way.

goEast: How were you first connected to the Adirondack High Peaks, and how did that develop into wanting to create this film?

Blake: I hiked my first High Peak in 2008 with my Boy Scout troop. We summited Giant Mountain on a perfect autumn day, and that was my first “awe” moment in the Adirondack High Peaks. It wasn’t until a 2012 camping trip with my dad and my brother that I really got inspired to film in the High Peaks. We set out over three days to summit Marcy, Tabletop, Phelps, Algonquin, Iroquois, and Wright. We left with Marcy, Tabletop, and Wright and felt a new sense of reverence for the mountains.

During this trip, I got a little side of Mount Marcy all to myself and took in the sweeping views of lakes, rivers, mountains, and wilderness. That’s where the vision for the film ultimately came from—sitting atop Mt. Marcy on a beautiful summer day, looking out at the wild places as far as the eye could see. Shortly after returning from this camping trip, the wheels started to turn and the core question which drove the project began to take shape: “What transforms ordinary men and women into the legendary 46ers?”

Blake directing hikers on Whiteface. | Courtesy: Blake Cortright
Blake directing hikers on Whiteface. | Courtesy: Blake Cortright

goEast: You must have done a ton of hiking while making this film!

Blake: We summited 14 High Peaks and several smaller mountains during production.

goEast: Do you have any memorable experiences from all of that?

Blake: Each trip held its own challenges and rewards, and I have fond memories from every day of filming. One of most memorable hiking experience was summiting Cascade around 5 a.m. We had set out to capture a crew finishing their 46th on Cascade with a beautiful sunrise. We carried a camera crane and counter weights for the crane to the summit along with all of our camera gear and our normal hiking gear. Unfortunately, shortly after we summited, we were wrapped up in clouds. The crew came up, and we filmed them with the crane, climbing up the rocky summit in thick clouds with a lot of wind.

It was a cold, dark morning, and we were thinking of calling it a day, but then, Adirondack photography legend Carl Heilman hiked up to us almost out of the clouds. I had been in touch with Carl and had invited him to this trip, which he said he might make depending on his schedule. His presence lifted our spirits, and he was optimistic that we might get a change in the weather. He was right. The clouds began to part and reveal an incredible undercast scene: a sea of clouds below us, stretching to the horizon, and the High Peaks rising up above those clouds, like islands in the sea. We all dashed around to get our gear ready and got tons of amazing shots that day. I’m very thankful for my patient crew, who waited out the weather with me on that day!

Blake and the team using a boom to film on Whiteface. | Courtesy: Blake Cortright
Blake and the team using a boom to film on Whiteface. | Courtesy: Blake Cortright

goEast: You did a lot of hiking, but you also talked to a lot of people, some of whom are somewhat revered in local hiking circles. What did you get from that process?

Blake: What struck me early on in the interview process was how humble the 46ers are. I had set out to talk about “legendary hikers,” and most of them found that term amusing. They saw folks like the Marshall Brothers and Herbert Clark (the first 46ers) as the true legends. Their reverence extended not just to the people who literally blazed the trail, but also to the mountains themselves. I discovered a group of people who were not just thrill-seekers or checking off a list, but people who truly cared about the mountains and worked to conserve them. They all spoke of LNT principles, as well as safety and emergency preparedness. As an Eagle Scout, I knew many of the principles and safety precautions, but I learned even more from the amazing people I interviewed.

I was also inspired to learn of the Summit Steward Program and how multiple Adirondack organizations, including the 46ers, came together to address the erosion of the summits and the dangers to the rare alpine vegetation that lives there. The journey of the 46ers stretches far beyond adventure and into conservation and stewardship. It has been a privilege to learn from these folks and see them give back to a place that has given so much to them.

Blake interviewing one of the film's subjects. | Courtesy: Blake Cortright
Blake interviewing one of the film’s subjects. | Courtesy: Blake Cortright

goEast: Fun question: In all the hiking you did for the film, was there one piece of gear that you would say was critical? 

Blake: While hiking, we always needed good boots, wool socks, backpacks, various jackets and layers, gloves, hats, etc. One that was easy to forget, but thankfully we didn’t, was a headlamp and extra batteries! Many of our hikes started or ended in the dark. So, having a headlamp was essential. Also, for me personally, after a few knee injuries in the High Peaks Wilderness, I finally bought a pair of trekking poles, and now, I never hike without them. We also made use of MICROspikes and snowshoes in our winter shoots. Depending upon the trail conditions, we would use one or the other, but we usually carried both.

goEast: You’re well on your way to becoming an Adirondack 46er from your time making the film alone. Do you want to finish it?

Blake: The 46ers film was a three-year process for me, from the initial idea to our finished product. And now, two years later, it’s about to be shown to an ever-growing audience, thanks to WCNY partnering with us to take the film further than we could on our own. At the outset of the journey, I thought I would likely finish my 46 while making the movie, but in hindsight, I’m thankful I didn’t. I learned so much from the 46ers I interviewed, from being out in the mountains and from putting the movie together. I will become a 46er down the road, but now, I know it will be a longer journey, and I’m okay with that.

One thing I learned from my interviews is that whether you hike them in a few weeks or over decades, the mountains will wait for you. I would say making the movie broadened my perspective about hiking and helped me to value the journey as much as the destination.

Blake with his crew and guests on Cascade Mountain. | Courtesy: Blake Cortright
Blake with his crew and guests on Cascade Mountain. | Courtesy: Blake Cortright

goEast: You mentioned WCNY and other PBS stations picking the film up. Was that something you had in mind making it? Did you have an “end goal”?

Blake: When I had the initial inspiration for the project in 2012, I wanted it to be seen by a wide audience. We did a series of limited screenings in 2015 when we finalized the movie, and it was very well received by those audiences. I’m excited for the upcoming television release of The 46ers, as it will expand that audience far and wide around the U.S. There was something surreal about seeing a film I had made projected on the big screen and experiencing it with an audience. I’m very happy with how well the documentary has done and continues to do, and I’m hopeful that it will inspire more people to not only experience the outdoors, but also to take care to preserve and steward the wildernesses where they adventure.

goEast: It’s going to be seen now by a lot of people who don’t live in the Northeast, don’t know what the 46ers are, and may not even be familiar with the Adirondacks. What do you think they’re going to get from the film?

Blake: I think 46ers who see the film will take a trip down memory lane and hopefully feel joy watching the movie. I think those who love the Adirondacks will be awed by the beautiful cinematography my team captured, showcasing the mountains in a new and visually stunning way. I think those who are unfamiliar with the 46ers and the Adirondacks will be intrigued, inspired, and moved by the film. I hope the deep love for the wilderness comes across on screen and folks seeing this place for the first time will be better equipped to adventure in it after hearing not only the exciting stories, but also safety and LNT principles, which are so deeply connected to the culture of the Adirondacks and the 46ers.

Filming the remainder of the undercast on Cascade Mountain. | Courtesy: Blake Cortright
Filming the remainder of the undercast on Cascade Mountain. | Courtesy: Blake Cortright

Newsflash: Adirondack Peaks To See Temporary Trailheads for Columbus Day Weekend

In an effort to keep hikers safe in the face of increased traffic for Columbus Day Weekend, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation will be closing a section of Route 73 to parking that includes the trailheads for Cascade and Porter Mountains, and Pitchoff Mountain. Hikers for all three peaks will be able to park at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Sports Complex and use new trail connections to reach existing trails.

Beginning at dusk on Thursday, October 5 and stretching through dusk on Monday, October 9, pull-offs along State Route 73  west of the Cascade Lakes and east of the entrance to Mount Van Hovenburg will be closed, blocked off and patrolled by New York State Troopers.

Courtesy: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
Courtesy: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

Hikers planning to climb the summit of Cascade and/or Porter Mountains:

Hikers should park in parking lots at the Mount Van Hoevenberg Sports Complex at no cost. Volunteer stewards will direct hikers to a 2.0-mile marked route on the complex’s cross-country ski trail system. The route links to a newly constructed 0.4-mile connector trail between the ski trail and the Cascade Mountain Trail. The connector trail joins the Cascade Mountain Trail approximately 0.6 mile from the current trailhead. A roundtrip hike to the summit of Cascade Mountain will be 8.6 miles long—3.8 miles longer than the regular route from the Route 73 trailhead.

Hikers seeking to climb the summit of Pitchoff Mountain:

Hikers will also park at the Sports Complex and take the same route across the complex’s cross-country ski trail system. After 1.7 miles, the route to Pitchoff Mountain leaves the ski trail and traverses 0.3 miles across a private driveway to State Route 73. Hikers will then walk 0.15 miles and cross State Route 73 to the current trailhead for the Pitchoff Mountain Trail. A roundtrip hike to the summit of Pitchoff Mountain will be 8.4 miles long—4.4 miles longer than the regular route.

The current trailheads on Route 73 straddle a sharp narrow turn that has been known to be dangerous. “The Cascade Mountain trailhead is presently a parking hazard and nightmare,” said North Elba town Supervisor Roby Politi. “I’m pleased DEC is taking action to address this public safety need by relocating the trailhead.” The relatively short hike and high reward, particularly of Cascade Mountain, combine to make it a very popular hike and the small pullout quickly reaches capacity during busy weekends.

The trailhead at Mount Van Hovenburg will feature bathrooms and food or drink concession. The DEC notes than hikers not interested in the increased length of these hikes should look for shorter options outside of the High Peaks Wilderness.


Alpha Guide: Mount Marcy via the Van Hoevenberg Trail

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Towering over New York State at a cloud-splitting 5,344 feet, Mount Marcy is a breathtaking Northeast peak and an iconic wilderness hike.

Climbing Mount Marcy is a rite of passage for many area hikers, whether it’s a personal goal on its own or a small piece of the pursuit to become an Adirondack 46er. Beginning from the High Peaks Information Center (HPIC) at the serene Heart Lake, this moderate, 14.5-mile hike passes scenic areas, like the old Marcy Dam and Indian Falls, before climbing for a half-mile on the windswept, rocky slope above treeline to a summit with spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounding Adirondack landscape and adjacent mountains. Mount Marcy is a special place in the High Peaks Wilderness, more than five miles away from any road and a mile into the sky and reachable only by those on foot, thus making it a worthwhile journey into a wilderness as deep as you can find anywhere in the region.

 

Quick Facts

Distance: 14.5 miles, out-and-back
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery: ★★★★


Season: May through October
Fees/Permits: $10 parking at Heart Lake ($8 for ADK Members)
Contact: http://www.dec.ny.gov/lands/9164.html 

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Turn-By-Turn

Parking and the trailhead are located at the High Peaks Information Center (HPIC) at Heart Lake, about 15 minutes south of Lake Placid.

From the south (Albany or New York City), take I-87 north to Exit 30 and head west (left) on Route 73 towards Lake Placid for 26.5 miles, where you’ll take a left onto Adirondack Loj Road. The road is winding and becomes unpaved, however; you’ll reach the ticket booth after 4.8 miles. From the north (Plattsburgh or Montreal), take I-87 south to Exit 34 and head west (left) on Route 9N towards Lake Placid for 26 miles, where you will bear right (west) on Route 73. After approximately 11 miles on Route 73, take a left onto Adirondack Loj Road.

06_Trail-Section-1.2_WEB
Credit: Sarah Quandt

The Warmup

Begin by signing in at the trail register, located at the end of the parking area opposite the HPIC (44.18296, -73.96251). The trail is marked by blue discs, which you will follow the entire way to the summit. Almost immediately, you’ll encounter one of the various ski trail intersections. These are denoted by numbers, and by the well-worn path and markers, it is fairly obvious which is the main foot trail. At one mile from the trailhead, you will come to a signed intersection that leads toward the MacIntyre Range. Stay left on the blue trail, and climb gently towards Marcy.

14_Old-Marcy-Dam
Credit: Sarah Quandt

At 2.3 miles, you’ll emerge from the woods at the old Marcy Dam (44.15884, -73.95165). Here, stay left, and walk a short ways to the bridge to cross Marcy Brook. Marcy Dam previously impounded the brook, but Hurricane Irene damaged the wooden structure in 2011, and as a result, it’s in the process of being removed. Nonetheless, many hikers still refer to the crossroads and large opening in the trees where a small pond once sat as Marcy Dam. Upon crossing, turn right back towards the dam. Here, you’ll have your first peek at the MacIntyre Range and find a second register, which you should also sign (44.15866, -73.95094).

Credit: Sarah Quandt
Credit: Sarah Quandt

A Gentle Climb

Near the trail register, you’ll notice various paths leading to privies and designated campsites surrounding Marcy Dam, which are occupied on a first-come, first-serve basis. Bear left, following signage for the blue trail, and you’ll quickly reach an intersection at 2.4 miles. Bear left again, heading towards Marcy, and the terrain will become more rugged as the trail parallels Phelps Brook and begins to gain elevation more dramatically.

You’ll reach a high-water bridge at 2.6 miles (44.15719, -73.9474), where you will have the option to cross the brook now or continue about 500 feet farther upstream for a more natural water crossing via rock hopping (44.15616, -73.94622). If it’s early in the spring, if it’s been raining lately, or if you’re unsure about the water level, use the bridge, as it’s better to stay safe and dry this early in the hike. After some more uphill trekking, you’ll come to the intersection with the trail to Phelps Mountain (44.1516, -73.93561) at mile 3.3, a worthy day hike on its own.

Credit: Sarah Quandt
Credit: Sarah Quandt

Break with a View

Shortly after passing the turnoff to Phelps Mountain, the trail crosses Phelps Brook for the second and last time on your ascent. After the bridge, you’ll immediately begin to climb steeply. Next, you’ll come to the Marcy ski trail at 3.7 miles, where the hiking trail turns sharply right and begins to veer away from the brook. Following the blue trail markers uphill, you’ll eventually encounter the herd path to Tabletop Mountain at mile 4.4—the peak is commonly paired with Phelps for a full day.

Just past this intersection, you’ll cross a stream and reach the spur for Indian Falls at 4.5 miles (44.14051, -73.92827). Less than a minute from the main trail, the falls are a favorite spot for hikers to rest and soak their weary feet while taking in a picturesque view of the MacIntyre Range.

Credit: Sarah Quandt
Credit: Sarah Quandt

Still Climbing

Just beyond the spur to the falls is the intersection with the Lake Arnold Crossover Trail. Bear left, following the signs towards Mount Marcy and the blue trail markers. From here, you will enjoy a relatively flat walk before beginning to steadily climb again. The terrain begins to become rockier as you near 4,000 feet above sea level.

At 6.1 miles, you’ll reach the intersection with the Hopkins Trail, where the last pit toilet is available before you reach the summit. Stay right, following the signs and blue discs towards Marcy. After more steady climbing, you’ll reach the intersection with the Phelps Trail (44.11561, -73.91551)—not to be confused with the Phelps Mountain Trail, which you passed earlier. You may not notice the sign at this intersection, however, as it’s behind you, facing hikers as they descend from Marcy. There is no sign for ascending hikers, but you should still bear hikers’ right. Past the intersection, the trail will quickly climb above the treeline, so now is a good time to add a layer, secure your pack, and fuel up for the last leg.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Above the Treeline

From the Phelps Trail, switch to following the yellow blazes painted onto the rocks to stay on the trail. The blazes help you follow the trail immediately in front, and large cairns (rock piles) indicate the overall direction in which you are headed. These are especially helpful on cloudy days, which are frequent on Marcy due to its elevation.

Take care to stay on the trail and avoid damaging sensitive alpine vegetation, as marked by twine and rocks.

Credit: Sarah Quandt
Credit: Sarah Quandt
Credit: Sarah Quandt
Credit: Sarah Quandt

In good weather, you will be treated to outstanding views, as you make the final push to the summit. Spruce trees stunted from harsh weather give way to gleaming rock slabs dotted with lichens. Massive rock outcroppings, towering cairns, and the adjacent High Peak summits and rock slides elicit feelings of awe and respect for Marcy and the Adirondacks. To the right (west) is Mount Colden and the MacIntyre range, and to the left (east) is Mount Haystack. As you crest the summit, you’ll see Mount Skylight ahead of you. Behind you, views of Basin and Saddleback Mountains introduce the rest of the Great Range.

With one last scramble, you’ll hoist yourself onto the summit rock, and be sitting on top of the world—or at least New York State! On most days, the summit steward there educates hikers on the alpine vegetation and helps with general questions.


Credit: Sarah Quandt
Credit: Sarah Quandt

The Kit

  • The LifeStraw Water Filter is a lightweight and economical way to filter backcountry water in a pinch. The filter is good for up 1,000 liters and removes over 99.9 percent of waterborne protozoan parasites and bacteria. Use it in one of the brooks along the trek, but remember, Indian Falls is the last water source between the Loj and the summit.
  • Always carry a headlamp and extra batteries in your pack. It can make the difference between an easy walk out and being forced to spend an unplanned night in the woods. Try Petzl’s Actik headlamp, which delivers 300 lumens and offers both white light for visibility and red light for night vision.
  • A lightweight jacket to keep the wind at bay is an absolute must-have and the key to enjoying the summit. Don the Techwick Active Hybrid Wind Jacket for superior breeze protection, with better moisture control than a standard rain jacket.
  • The hike along Phelps Brook comes with pretty scenery and soothing sounds but typically also includes a wet trail. So, pack the Spindrift Gaiters to keep water, mud, and snow out of your boots.
  • Thatcher’s Mount Marcy Peak Finder is a fun tool to interpret the view from the summit and identify the adjacent mountains. It’s light, weather resistant, highly accurate, and very easy to use.
  • Pick up the Adirondack Mountain Club’s High Peaks topographical map. It shows all trails, campsites, and recreational features and offers relevant information on wildlife history, geology and archaeology.

Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Keys to the Trip

  • Check the weather. The last half-mile up is exposed and can feature conditions more severe than what’s happening in the parking lot or woods.
  • Pack some warmer clothes for the summit, where it’s often cooler. Even on the most beautifully sunny day in June, I’ve been thankful for my jacket and hat.
  • Keep up on the latest trail conditions at the DEC’s Backcountry Information for the High Peaks Region webpage, which is updated weekly.
  • Hikers may use the various designated camping sites near Marcy Dam and along the Van Ho trail, although they are first-come, first-served and fill up quickly. Aside from within the marked sites, campers can camp anywhere that is at least 150 feet from a water body, road, or trail, and below 3,500 feet in elevation, unless the area is posted as “Camping Prohibited.” Bear-resistant canisters are required in the eastern Adirondacks, which include the Mount Marcy area.
  • Lodging is also available at the Adirondak Loj on Heart Lake, in the form of private rooms, bunks, campsites, and lean-tos (all must be reserved). Meals are included, and kayak and paddleboard rentals are available.
  • When adding side trips, like Phelps or Tabletop Mountain, it’s best to attempt them on the way back. This will ensure you have enough time and energy for the day’s main prize—Marcy.
  • For strong, experienced hikers looking for a unique way up and a chance to bag other remote High Peaks, consider doing this trek as a long loop hike with Gray Peak and Mount Skylight. Or, opt to hike up in the dark, and watch the sunrise from the summit.
  • Filling a growler at the Adirondack Pub and Brewery, or noshing on some of Noon Mark Diner’s famous pie and milkshakes is a great way to treat yourself after your hike.

Credit: Sarah Quandt
Credit: Sarah Quandt

Current Conditions

Have you done the entire traverse or even a piece of it recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


The Top 8 360-Degree Adirondack High Peak Views

You’ll see a lot of things from the top of an Adirondack High Peak—endless summits, gray slides scarring mountainsides, alpine lakes, and deep gouging passes. But, aside from the stray ski jump peaking up above the thick carpet of trees, one thing you won’t see much of is civilization. More than any other range in the Northeast, the Adirondacks are alone, set far away from the region’s cities and towns. As a result, this makes the views from these bare (or not) summits all that much better.

No two summits offer the same perspective, however, so which ones are the best? See them for yourselves below, and then, start planning your next hike to one of these high alpine islands.

1. Mount Colden

There’s no quick way to get to Mount Colden, but the longer hike definitely pays off. You’ll climb into the heart of the High Peaks Wilderness, an area completely surrounded by giant summits, including the state’s two highest—Marcy and Algonquin—directly east and west of you, respectively. Peer down into Avalanche Pass and Lake Colden, and then out to the Flowed Lands, located just north of the Hudson River’s beginning. The hike from the Adirondack Loj will take you past the former site of Marcy Dam, where a clearing offers views down Avalanche Pass as if it were a gunsight.

 

2. Mount Marcy

Not having anything above you definitely goes a long way to making a mountain’s views memorable. In New York, Mount Marcy is the place to do that. The summit is completely bare and rocky for a few hundred feet up, meaning absolutely nothing obstructs your view of just about all the other High Peaks. To the east, gaze 1,000 feet down into Panther Gorge and Mount Haystack beyond. Catch views of Lake Placid to the north, and the river valleys to the south. Plus, the hike via the Van Hoevenberg Trail offers a smattering of worthy views, like Marcy Dam and Indian Falls.

 

3. Gothics Mountain

The Great Range peaks make up a continuous line extending from Marcy and Haystack all the way into Keene Valley. Here, Gothics sits smack in the middle. The summit has the best views of the Upper Great Range, including Haystack, Basin, and Saddleback, all lining up and pointing to Marcy. The Dix Range dominates the southeast, and Big Slide’s bald face sits alone across the Johns Brook Valley. Hike it from the Ausable Club and past Beaver Meadow Falls.

 

4. Mount Skylight

Marcy’s next-door neighbor to the south, Skylight has similar panoramic views from its bald summit, with one notable addition—Marcy herself, rising from behind Lake Tear of the Clouds. For reference, this article’s header image was taken on Skylight at sunrise. You’re pretty close to the High Peaks’ southern edge, which means, as you’re looking out, the mountains slowly shrink away and give you great views of the Upper Hudson River Valley. Hike this one from Upper Works, tracing the Hudson River’s path to Lake Tear, the river’s highest source.

 

5. Cascade Mountain

Cascade is one of the Adirondacks’ most popular “first-timer” peaks, and for good reason. For starters, while it’s a relatively quick and easy hike up from Route 73, the views from the top are spectacular, making it one of the 46’s best bang-for-your-buck treks. The rocky summit lines up with the rest of the peaks to the south and Lake Placid and Whiteface just down the road to the north. Make it a two-fer by adding the less-impressive Porter Mountain to your itinerary.

 

6. Rocky Peak Ridge

In this area, Giant Mountain gets most of the attention. But, its smaller neighbor, Rocky Peak Ridge, has arguably better views. Unlike Giant, they’re nearly 360 degrees. Plus, the view of Giant itself is impressive. Look down toward Keene Valley with the Great Range beyond, or try to pick out the fire tower on Hurricane Mountain, located on the other side of Giant. The bummer is there’s no quick way to get here. So, climb over Giant and through the deep col between the two, or approach RPR from the ridge to the east—longer but with consistent views all the way to the top.

 

7. Algonquin Peak

From Algonquin, the state’s second-tallest mountain, the views of the Trap Dike and slides on Mount Colden dominate. Beneath that, Avalanche Pass and Lake Colden slice a deep gorge into the valley. Above Colden, Mount Marcy’s bare summit towers over everything, with the Great Range extending to the left. Algonquin is part of the four-peak chain known as the MacIntyre Range, and thus, you can also tag Wright and Algonquin in one long day, with views extending across all three summits. Keep in mind that the range’s final peak, Marshall, isn’t connected by the same ridgeline trail.

 

8. Whiteface Mountain

Far to the north, Whiteface offers a unique perspective of the region. Immediately south, scenic Lake Placid is laid out, surrounded by smaller mountains. Beyond that, the High Peaks’ center, a jumble of jagged summits, clusters together. The views here are so popular that a road goes up to the top. But, for a handful of viewpoints on the way up, hike it via Marble Mountain from the Atmospheric Sciences Research Center.