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Crazy Casper Backcountry

The Bighorns are highlighted in the salmon color.

Did you just spit out your coffee wondering if Michelle had finally, really gone all the way over the edge? Casper has WHAT country? That’s right – I said it. Casper has backcountry. And it rocks.

This town continues to amaze me. Just when I stuff it in a neat little box I find a whole new way to be active (like Prana) or have a totally unexpected powder day, right in my own backyard. Mind you, my definition of backyard is pretty big – just like my state.

Teton pass backcountry users: riddle me this. If you have a leisurely Saturday breakfast at home and eventually make it out mid-day, what will the parking situation be? The correct answer, assuming the avalanche danger isn’t crazy high, is ‘absolutely dismal’ and you my friend had better start warming up that thumb to bum a ride from the Stagecoach parking lot. In Casper? Not so. But here’s the trade-off – the backcountry isn’t swamped because it’s roughly located in the middle of nowhere.

Located about 1.5 hours from Casper, the Bighorn National Forest is 1.1 million acres and spans into Montana, but the biggest peaks are in Wyoming. Not that we were peak bagging – this was just a Saturday ski.  Lap after lap we explored new lines and enjoyed 18″ of new snow, all to ourselves. Our chosen spot sported less vertical than Teton Pass, which suited my short attention span quite nicely. As an added bonus, we didn’t have to worry about anyone ski cutting the slope above us and causing a massive avalanche, or about beating the 15 parties we saw in the parking lot. Nope, this was backcountry skiing in its purest from – just set a skin track and enjoy the ride down.

So where exactly is this almost epic backcountry? I’d tell you but then I’d have to kill you (not really… but I’m not telling so it’s a moot point).

Actually-helpful-ski-video-of-the-day: How to dress while skinning in the backcountry.

Avoiding Avalanches & Snowmobiles

Scenery to Skin to - Pinnacle Butte on Togwotee Pass, Wyoming.

To be clear: I’m not trying to avoid avalanches on a snowmobile, because taking a snowmobile out in dangerous snow conditions on avalanche terrain is just plain stupid. No, I’m trying to avoid the snowmobiles altogether, as well as avalanches.

Before you scream, “Hypocrite! You own your own personal snowmobiling helmet!”, let me clarify. I love the smell of 2-stroke in the morning. However, when your goal is a peaceful, quiet tour with great scenery, it helps to avoid the ‘whah-WHAH’ of snow machines. And if there’s one place sled necks like to go, it’s Togwotee Pass (pronounced toe-go-tee). Which also happens to be on my way home from Jackson.

As you can see in photo above, Pinnacle Butte (pronounced “be-YOOT”) is a gorgeous fortress of breccia cliffs, peaks, and spires in the far southern region of the Absorka Mountains.  We parked at the Deception Creek Cross Country trail, but as we wanted to be in the trees, we headed across the highway from the official trails and up towards Pinnacle.

We had our backcountry ski setup with no intentions of making actual turns, which was a good thing. The snowpack was so unstable that the “whomp” of settling snow was a constant on near flat terrain. To a seasoned backcountry skier, this is a very spooky sound. It is not unlike the thump from an actual bass drum compressed into a terrifying second. To explain what causes the sound (and avalanches), I’ll launch into a horrifyingly simple overview of snow science.

Snow falls in many, many forms which is why 12″ of new snow can be slushy gloop on the Pacific coast and a dry, fine powder in Utah. And of course, the snow may fall in many different forms in the exact same place depending on the air temperature and humidity. So maybe you get a wet, heavy snow in November followed by fluff in December. This would be a good snowpack, since the heavy stuff is on the bottom. But what about when the scenario is reversed? This is what skiers mean when they say that the snow is “upside down”. The heavy stuff is on top of fluff, or worse yet on top of a rain-crusted icy layer. In this scenario, picture a few feet of fluff falling on the side of steep, ice-covered slope. The fluff is going to slide down, right? But maybe it doesn’t slide down right away; it may stick just a little bit until somebody or something weights a certain spot on that slope- and the fluff is released.

To access Pinnacle Butte, park at the sign for the Deception Creep cross country ski trail.

Anyone who has experienced an avalanche burial (thankfully, I know this second-hand) will tell you that fluffy snow ceases to feel like fluff in an avalanche. In fact, the process is very un-fluffy.  Skis, packs, and even clothes are ripped from the skier as a concrete sludge tumbles the body in a hyper-active spin cycle. If conscious, the skier tries to swim up in attempt to be towards the top of the pile when everything stops moving. This assumes the skier knows which way is up. Skiers have reported been partially buried up to their chest and if their hands aren’t free when the pile stops moving, they feel as if they have been cemented in concrete and must depend on their friends to dig them out. This is why you don’t ski alone, and also why you MUST wear a transceiver, carry a shovel and probe (a big expandable stick to find the body) and know how to use them to travel in avalanche terrain. Going without any of these four items (the knowledge to use the tools and evaluate terrain being a crucial item) is Russian roulette.

And this is why we weren’t making turns. The snow pack was so unstable that it didn’t even need the gradient to settle onto itself. There is little question that had we ventured onto the prime avalanche angles, we would have caused an avalanche. And the prime angles are 25° to 45°, which is the same angle as blue and black slopes at a ski area – in other words, the fun stuff. If you absolutely have to get out in dangerous snow conditions, take a cue from us and go for a cross-country tour. It’s great for the dogs, too.
Find an avalanche class by clicking here.

Holiday-detox-of-the-day: 7-day Portion Control Challenge from Vegetarian Times. I would make some substitutes for additional protein of the meat variety but they make it easy with shopping lists and recipes.

Skiin’ the ‘ghee: Grand Targhee Resort

To understand crossing into Idaho from Wyoming to get to a Wyoming resort, note the lack of roads over the Tetons.

With low levels of snow and high avalanche danger, skiing around the Teton Valley last weekend required careful decisions. We settled on Grand Targhee Resort in Alta, Wyoming and it proved to be an excellent choice.

To get to Targhee (or, the Ghee, as the locals say) from Jackson, one must drive over Teton Pass, into Idaho in order to cross back into Wyoming. If you’re coming from Jackson Hole Airport, the drive will take you 1.5 hours, but only about an hour if you’re coming from town, which can be totally worth it.

Grand Targhee gets a lot of snow – as you have to if you’re so bold as to mark the POWDER AREA on your trail map. That’s right- grab a trail map and locate the POWDER AREA for likely powder. While Sunday wasn’t exactly ‘blower’ (as in so much powder snow in blowing in your face), the snow was actually good.

The groomers were fast and grippy with the only speed limits imposed by how adept your are at dodging tourists, and there weren’t many of those. In fact, we skied on to every lift all day long. The only crowds worth noting were in the Trapper Bar, but given the calendar (it was New Year’s Day) and the amount of ball games on, that’s not exactly a surprise. They’d had 12″ of new snow in the last two days and the rocks showing were equivalent to Jackson Hole Mountain Resort on any given heart-of-winter powder day.

And the best part was the lack of rush. On a really blower day (see above for definition), there’s an underlying push to get in as many laps as possible in order to find the best, deepest snow on the mountain before everyone else. Since 11″ of the new snow fell the day before and 1″ overnight, the rush was off. We could cruise groomers or soft, pillowy snow and eat a leisurely, full-service lunch instead of horking down Cliff Bars on the chair lift. We were in such a not-hurry that we left before the lifts closed to stop for beers in the driveway of a good friend living in Victor, Idaho and again for wine in Wilson. It was a very, very slow drive back to Jackson (lest you worry, I was not driving). As I get older and dare I say wiser, I am beginning to suspect that it’s all part of the fun of skiing.

Targhee-tip-of-the-day: There’s a new shuttle from the town of Jackson to Targhee! At just $94.88 for shuttle and lift ticket, it’s a must for apre lovers. For more info on the Targhee Express, click here.


Being a Skiing Student + Announcement

People (not me) skate skiing on Casper Nordic Center.

So I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty good at most of the sports I do. I only fall over in yoga every now and then and haven’t hurt myself skiing in more than two seasons. I didn’t even hook my dog last time I went fly-fishing, so I was a little nervous when my latest gear came with a lesson from the sales person.

And exactly what gear comes with a lesson (or should, at any rate)? Skate skiing gear. For those of you that need a refresher, cross-country skiing has two types- classic and skate skiing. When doing the classic style, the skier appears to be on a Nordic track and their skis are indeed often in tracks. For skate skiing, imagine ice skating on really narrow skis and add in poles that come up to your nose. If that sounds incredibly awkward, then you have the correct mental picture.

I met my instructor at the Casper Nordic Center, which has 42 kilometers (26 miles) of groomed trails. This is exceptional. The alpine skiing in Casper is less than exceptional, hence the reason for my new sport. He first had me bumble around without any poles, practicing the basic skating motion, which is a great first step in all skiing disciplines. Shortly after, I added the poles in and learned the various V1 and V2 techniques. I won’t bore you with the details here, but suffice to say I felt like a torso barely held upright by four randomly flailing appendages.

After jaunting up and down a straight bit for a while, we went for a ski. The downhill sections didn’t worry me much since I’ve been flinging myself down steep slopes for too many years to remember. This was a gross oversight. I had one fantastic spill when I knocked my jaw with the handle of my pole, all because I tried to turn on the edges of my skis. Downhill skiers, Heed My Warning: skate skis do not have edges. You must step turn. Noted.

By the end two intense cardio hours, I was more or less gliding with gradual but significant weight shifts over the active ski. I even feel confident in several of the poling techniques. But the biggest lesson was how awkward my new gear felt and the ensuing trepidation which resulted from said awkwardness, which is a great reminder for any instructor. We get so comfortable in our chosen vocation that we can forget the sheer terror that is a perfectly normal response for most students, which is why I recommend that all instructors learn something new every now and then for a healthy dose of empathy.

Announcement! In a hopefully brilliant attempt to boost readership, MountainKidd will now post every Wednesday. Ideally sometime in the AM hours, but hey, I’m human. Feel free to forward this blog onto anyone and everyone who might marginally enjoy it (or just read it, even if they don’t enjoy it).



Junkshow Backcountry Weekend

A typical day on Teton Pass- not a space to spare.

A long January weekend in Jackson has a relatively narrow list of outdoor activities and most involve skis of one sort or another. Fully prepared for this reality, I armed myself with the full backcountry arsenal of an avalanche transceiver, probe, shovel, AT gear and snacks and headed out to Teton Pass.

But Teton Pass was a junkshow. I was punished for the none-too-early nine a.m. start with a ridiculous parking lot scene. The already limited parking on the pass has recently been reduced, resulting in a number of cars lingering in the lot waiting like vultures for earlier skiers to vacate a spot. On this particular day there was an extra bright spot- a large RV parked sideways across the middle of the lot. Staring at the RV with disgust, I was rewarded with the gratifying scene of a state trooper knocking on the RV door and a rag-tag ski kid poking his head out with a quickly evaporating smile as he eyed the man in uniform.

Eventually the troopers (there were two at this point) got the RV parked properly and four of the five circling cars were rewarded with spots. I was in car number five.

With a cursing companion, we backtracked to a midway parking lot with milder terrain and thus, less people. The small drop in elevation got us out of the cloud cover and into full, beautiful sunshine. The mild terrain was exponentially safer and while I had no regrets, I couldn’t help but wonder if I had played into “their” plan.

“They”, meaning the Wyoming Department of  Transportation (WYDOT), “considered not plowing the parking lots during storm cycles to decrease the number of skiers and snowboarders heading into the backcountry on days when the avalanche danger is high.” (according to Jackson Hole News & Guide on Dec. 3, 2010) While this obviously didn’t happened, the discussion did result in a reduction of the number of total spaces plowed. But how do they make sure only the smart kids park in the remaining spots?

When I took an avalanche safety course with the epically qualified American Avalanche Institute, there was some blame placed on the extreme sport film company TGR for exciting the uneducated (in terms of backcountry safety) masses to head out on Teton Pass and start hucking themselves off cornices and snowy cliffs. This is where I depart from the US government court rulings over the last 50 years and become a bit more Darwinistic in my thinking.

If people want to throw all logic to the wind and chug that just-poured cup of coffee or ski that dangerous slope, is it our job to stop them? I like the modern interpretation of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. quote, “Your rights end where mine begin” (his exact words were “The right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.”). I had heard the above WYDOT quote in casual conversation around the valley but realized that many failed to consider the rest of the story – which was that “WYDOT has become concerned with motorist safety on Highway 22 over the pass due to the potential of human-triggered avalanches reaching the road.”

Your rights to be stupid skiing in avalanche terrain end when your avalanche buries my car. The pass remains plowed, but if catastrophe strikes, access could be compromised. Be smart- check the avalanche report before you go out, dig snow pits and make wise terrain decisions.

Cool house of the day: It really is a Stone House (in Portugal!)

Dear Columbia – Welcome to Cool.

Checking my avalanche transceiver before heading up the mountain in the background. If you look closely at my right hand, you can see the inner cuff with thumb-loop on the jacket- which I LOVED for situations like this.

While gear testing wasn’t a stated goal when I started this blog, a cool thing happened. Columbia Sportswear Company stumbled across little ole’ and decided that I’m the kind of person that could test their new techy gear. After a three-second contemplation, I decided they were absolutely right and received a pretty sweet jacket system in the mail last week. In exchange, they wanted my honest feedback. While they didn’t stipulate that I blog about it, I actually had a great time putting it through the rigors with some pleasant surprises.

In my book, Columbia didn’t rate as anything approaching ‘technical’. Would it do the job? Kinda. Are there much better options? Absolutely. However, it would appear that they are sinking some serious dollars into R&D these days. The $270 Black Diamond Dash Parka™ I received was actually comprised of two pieces: a black, insulated layer and a waterproof/breathable shell. On first inspection, I was impressed. Actually, I thought, “THAT’S a Columbia??”. It has taped waterproof zippers, a beefy and functional powder skirt, and a ridiculously soft and cozy high collar with a functional freestyle fit. I had no idea that Columbia was so with it. But I still had to take it outside.

If you find yourself on a skin trail at this angle, consider setting an alternate, more sane trail.

Sacrificing hugely, I concluded that a true test would involve driving  over to Jackson to do some backcountry skiing. In the backcountry, the skier huffs and puffs up a mountain, sweating all the way, then virtually flies down all that hard-earned terrain in no time at all. Reasoning that this would be fairly rigorous conditions for a gear test, I set off to experience Jackson’s record-breaking early season snow in the name of work. Right.

On the drive over, the snow on Togwotee Pass was too good to pass up. Temps were in the teens with a breeze but the insulated layer with their much-touted omni-heat technology seemed to do its job. You’ve probably seen the advertisements for the “tiny silver dots that keep you 20% warmer”. I personally don’t think 20% sounds like a huge number to brag about, but whatever the silver dots were doing, I stayed plenty warm and appreciated the full pit zips in an insulated under layer (not that common).

The great thing about skiing on Togwotee is that not many people ski there. The horrible thing about skiing on Togwotee is that not many people ski there, which means you’re pretty much always breaking your own skin trail. With little pride in my early season ski fitness, I let the fiancee set the skin trail. I had no idea that he would set it so steep. Really, really stupid steep (see picture at above left).

Oh right, this is why I climbed up the moutainside...

The trail was so steep that the dogs actually spun-out and buried their hind legs. Twice. Like a rear-wheel drive pickup in soft snow, they tried to run faster and faster to get up past the steep corner of the skin trail. This only succeeded in digging their hole deeper and deeper. The 40-pound dog could be easily assisted, but my 60-pound Lab was another story. After the second time I made him ‘stay’ (demonstrating the value of a well-trained dog) to pass him and pack down the snow so he could leap onto an area that wouldn’t give way, I offered some helpful tips to the man setting the skin trail. They may not have been said in a helpful tone.

Soon, all was forgiven as we reaped the rewards of our labors- the sweet, sweet down. The snow could be lighter and fluffier, but it wasn’t bad. I zipped my shell over the insulated layer and had a happy ski down. See the snow piling up around my downhill knee? That’s a beautiful thing- no ‘cheese’ for the camera required. And I’ve concluded that Columbia makes some pretty cool gear- sure, the insulated piece could use a few improvements (like a zipper garage and a zippered pocket on the inside where a velcro one now lives) but the shell is pretty close to perfect and I didn’t freeze or get too hot and sweaty (quite a feat). Overall, the system passed my test with flying colors. And flying downhill is quite the place to be tested.

Life-Saving Avalanche Shoveling Technique: Make your friends watch it too… because it’s hard to shovel yourself out.

A New Range for Mountain Kidd

Downtown Casper and Casper Mountain

After six full years in the valley of Jackson Hole, Mountain Kidd is relocating to the second biggest city in Wyoming. Since very few people know the second biggest city in Wyoming, I’ll just spill the beans; I’m moving to Casper.

Casper, Wyoming has a population of 53,500 according to the 2010 census.  This is a significant number for Wyoming. And yes, I’ll still be “Mountain Kidd”. Casper is located at the north end of the Laramie mountain range. In this range is Casper Mountain, rising 3,000 feet above the city to a total of 8130 feet. 8130 is no Grand Teton. but that’s okay- I’ll adapt.

I’ve lived throughout the Rockies for over ten years and each town has pushed me to develop one skill set or another. In Vail, I was young and made bold job choices. Working full-time as a ski instructor Beaver Creek allowed me to become a technical, proficient skier very very quickly. When summer came around, I paid $200 to take a two-week training course as a whitewater rafting guide. At the end of the two weeks, everyone was granted an interview with the promise that about half of us would be hired on for the summer. With a customer service personality and a deep passion for water in all its forms, I got the job and spent the summer swimming rapids on the Eagle River (not on purpose) and guiding tourists down the Shoshone section of the Colorado.  I also bought a whitewater kayak and found that I enjoyed the solidarity of kayaking even more than rafting

There was a brief stint swimming flood-stage whitewater on the New River in West Virgina, but it was clear that I needed to find my next mountain town ‘out west’. Vail was fantastic but I knew the fur coat party scene wasn’t for ultimately for me. I told people I wanted another ski town without so many people and more laid back. Those in the know all said “go to Jackson.” And to Jackson I went.

While Jackson has whitewater, it’s not near as plentiful or accessible as it is in Colorado. But we do have epic mountain biking. Armed with a tricked out Kona mountain bike as a college graduation gift, I took to the trails with vengeance and let whitewater fall to the wayside. I dare say the shift in focus fit my aging process as well. When things go ‘wrong’ on whitewater, it’s game on. The situation instantly becomes exponentially more serious and a rapid set of decisions needs to be made to ensure the continuation of life. As a raft guide, you may need to flip the raft, which involves climbing on top of an upside-down raft, attaching a rope to the side and pulling it on top of yourself as you go back into the water. After this, you need to collect your guests. There’s no question that it’s a high pressure situation. But with mountain biking, a wrong decisions leads to a glorious stand-still. Assuming your friend isn’t about to run you over, a crashed mountain biker can luxuriate in lying on the ground and doing a mental once-over before acting.

Of course, the winter months in Jackson are all about the skiing. I went from a good skier in Michigan to a good skier in Colorado (a considerable jump) during my time at Beaver Creek and I consider myself lucky to have had the time to cut my teeth before coming to Jackson. When people call it the best skiing in the lower 48, they’re right- if you can ski it. Jackson is steep and rugged with limited beginner and intermediate terrain. It’s one reason we’ll never get the skier numbers of Vail- which is fine by us locals. On drops where other resorts would issue series of flashing lights and multiple rope lines, Jackson puts a pole with a small orange “cliff” sign. Skiers that wander off the groomed trail, ski at your own risk. It’s fantastic skiing, but a minor knee injury and the cumulative effect of many long, hard winters has me thinking I may be able to live without flinging myself down mountains on two narrow sticks.

Casper does have world-class Nordic skiing. The Casper Nordic Center has 42 kilometers of groomed trails with a 1.2K lighted loop. So I’ll buy some Nordic gear for the winter months. Maybe I’ll help develop the mountain bike trails in the summer, but Casper does have a whitewater park on the downtown section of the Platte river- it’s fun without the consequences of class V rivers. And Jackson is an easy five-hour drive away. Maybe a mountain lifestyle has more to do with the person than the geographical location.

Nonprofit of the Day: Teton Valley Hapi Trails

Leave Me Alone – It’s Over & Hello Mossberg

Wildlife is on the move, but winter is back. My backyard, two days ago.

For me, Winter 09-10 was like a bad boyfriend. Like every fall, there was an excitement when the first snowflakes came. Everything seemed so fresh and exciting. But the newness quickly wore off as the rocks stayed visible and the total snowfall stayed well below average. Just as I accepted that our shoddy relationship was indeed over and Jackson Hole Mountain Resort shut down the lifts, that bastard came back with 4 1/2 feet of snow in seven days. But it was too late. In my mind, we were as over as ‘N Sync. Yet, not all of my friends let go as quickly.

Co-workers and even my own dear sister reported “best day of the season” as the day after the mountain closed, also known as employee ski day on April 5th. But I refuse to be cajoled into a tortureous here-today gone-tomorrow relationship. He had his chance. I’ve moved on.

My fly rod is out and ready to get wet this weekend providing the weather accommodates. And if it doesn’t, I have a new love interest. His name is Mossberg. My first shotgun. You see, I tried trap shooting with the boyfriend’s gun but it wasn’t a good match. Too much kick and generally just too big. But yesterday I started looking around and found a 20-gauge pump action. It just fits. And if winter tries coming back again, I’ll just introduce him to Mossberg.

Living in Vacation Land

Blue Skies. Skiing. Not Me. You get the idea, anyhow.

Realizing that it has been an embarrassing two weeks since I last posted, I mentally back-tracked over what ‘adventures’ I had over the said time period. Sure, I had a beautiful bluebird cruiser day at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort just two days ago, but is that anything exceptional? The answer is yes, and it would do me and others well to remember that every day in a resort town is fairly exceptional to the general population.

We started the day in typical not-so-alpine fashion with an arrival time just shy of 11am. With 0 inches of new snow in way too many days, we had wisely chosen the go-fast (narrow) skis and were ready to cruise some serious vertical. The snow on the first run was just a hair hard to set a super secure edge but by the second run, the sun had eased it into prime fast and furious skiing conditions. With an open window on Amphitheater Bowl, I set off with the goal of very few turns and was disappointed when the speed didn’t get my heart pumping quite like I remembered. Luckily, Jackson is the perfect place to dial up the steepness and Thunder chairlift provided some stellar steep runs to excite most mortals.

So was it an ‘epic’ ski day? Not even close. But I made a few runs with great friends new and old in a beautiful destination that most feel privileged to visit a week or two a year. Note to self.

Lust of the Day: Cookbooks on the NPR list of “The 10 Best Cookbooks of 2009

Outsmarted by Skiing Seven-Year-Olds

Over the “rush” season at Jackson Hole Mountain Resort, I once again returned to teaching 7-14 year-olds how to ski. This is a source of endless amusement and wonderment, especially in the private lesson sector. At a fantastic $600 a day for a full-day private less0n, these kids (and their parents) occupy a higher tax bracket than I knew as a child. This became glaringly apparent when I entered the gondola with two children and they began arguing whether the gondola box was bigger or smaller than the little girl’s closet. “Your closet is NOT this big”, scolded the big brother.

“Yes it is, yes it is. My closet at the Cape House is really big” she taunted back. “The Cape House.” Right. Some instructors turn this into a game. The level of bluntness depends on the age of the child, but a favorite question when I taught skiing at Beaver Creek was, “did the plane you took here have just your family or other people too?”.

While the younger children unquestioningly volunteer information, those persnickety tweens offer up unsolicited chatter like, “my dad drives a Porche-Audi-BMW. What do you drive?”, to which I responded (years ago) with, “a Sonoma. Does he have one of those?”. Confused, the child would usually drop the subject, and with this sort of child this is a good thing.

Last week I was skiing with a beautiful feisty Venezuelan girl who asked to see my phone while we were on a hot chocolate break. “How do you know I have one?” I questioned. Rolling her eyes, she let me know that her seven-years was far beyond that sort of naivety and said “I just want to see it.” Quickly locating my pictures, she asked, “Who’s that?” at a snapshot of my boyfriend cooking eggs. I answered honestly, which was my first mistake.

“Where does he live?”. When I responded “five hours away,” she asked where I stayed when I visited him. Uh-oh. And for that matter, why was he in pajamas? Did we sleep in the same bed? Realizing that I was in way, way over my head, I decided now would be the perfect time to change the conversation to English and speak with the other, more naive seven-year-old in my class. I can only hope that when I have kids, I’ll be smart enough to invent a fictitious older brother.

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