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Scottish Winter


Walking across a frozen Loch Avon towards the Shelterstone My time in the Highlands is over and, later today, I begin the long journey back to Cornwall.  I have spent the last day and a half recuperating from my exhersions on my Winter Mountain Leader Assessment, with Glenmore Lodge.  Unfortunately I blew a couple of navigational legs and will have to come back up next winter for a day of navigation assessment, but it's a great excuse to head back into the mountains.  Winter has definitely returned with a vengeance.  High winds and snow at the end of last week meant we had to crawl off the mountain, as it was virtually impossible to stand up, let alone walk!  I was lucky enough to be in an assessment group with some great people and the banter was epic.  It is a shame that out of the four of us, only Nick passed outright, Simon, Dave and myself are having to come back.
Lunchtime in typical Scottish Winter conditions
The joys of snow-holing
I have had a wonderful time in Scotland this year.  It has been great to catch up with old friends and make new ones.  My thanks goes out to everyone who has helped me through it all, in particular,
Ned and Glenda, Jimmy and Kim, Wendy, The Last of the Summer Wine Mountaineering Club, Kathy from the SAIS (who, despite being very petite and looking incredibly fragile, heads out into the mountains in all weathers and conditions to gather valuable information on the snowpack, for the safety of others - if you are planning to head out into the Scottish mountains in winter, make sure you READ AND UNDERSTAND the SAIS report before you go!!), Desperate Dan, Willie and the guys of the BIG K, Al Gilmore and Heather Morning at Glenmore Lodge, and lastly, my mate and Laird of  the Tholl Bothy -  Heavy Whalley who took me in and looked after me when I needed it most (not that he had much choice!). Cheers guys
Heavy Whalley, Laird of the Tholl Bothy
"You know Alf, going to the right place at the right time, with the right people is all that really matters. What one does is purely incidental".
Colin Kirkus to his great friend, Alf  Bridge, on Skye 1930's

Magnificent Meagaidh and the Beautiful Ben

Those of you who go winter climbing, or have been following the reports in the climbing press, will know that snow and ice conditions in Scotland have been fabulous this past week.  Having done very little winter climbing over the past 13 years and now being in the right location, it seemed like an opportunity too good to miss.  Tools for winter climbing have changed dramatically over the past ten years.  Where once everyone climbed with ice axes that were fitted with leashes that went round the climber's wrists for support, now ice axes come with shaped hand grips that dispense with the need for leashes and that has allowed climbing standards to increase. Leashless climbing allows a much less complicated and freer movement.  I had never climbed with leashless tools, so it was with some trepidation that I joined my friend, Jimmy, on a 2 day trip west.
Creag Meagaidh in winter
A 5am start saw us head off on the 2 hour journey to Creag Meagiadh, one of Scotland's premier winter climbing venues.  Situated halfway between Glencoe and Ben Nevis in the West and the Cairngorms in the East, Creag Meagiadh seems to be in condition more than most, as it catches the weather from both sides.  Once we left the car park, I discovered another change to scottish winter climbing.....a lovely, well built path into the cliff.  It's a good 90 minutes to the lochan below the crags and, in the 'old' days, it was a horrid, wet, boggy walk that also had the hazard of slippery wooden sleepers waiting to send the unwary onto their backside! The new path made the going easy and soon we were eyeing up the possibilities for the day.  There were too many options as, being a Monday, meant less people out on the crag.  We had heard rumours of a climb called The Pumpkin being in excellent condition, but as we made our way up the lower slopes, it became apparent that other people had heard the rumour too! Two other pairs were making their way to the base of the route, so a quick reappraisal saw us head to South Pipe Direct, a quality grade IV. 
Climbing South Pipe Direct IV, pitch one. Creag Meagaidh
The lower part of the route consisted of good slabby neve snow and short steep ice pitches.  Jimmy made short work of the first pitch, despite an awkward ice step and belayed on ice screws, then it was my turn. It didn't take me long to get back into the swing (pun intended) of things.  Just had to tell myself to relax and trust my front points of my crampons and the two thin picks of my axes. Move one thing at time, look for placements where the ice is softer.. swing axes gently...breathe...try and stay calm....look for gear placements....good job the snow is solid....God my calf muscles ache! Having a pair of one inch spikes sticking out in front of your toe (part of the crampons) changes the leverage on your legs and puts a lot of pressure on your calf muscles. Add the fact hat there can be some long 'runouts' (long way between protection points), to this and things can get quite exciting for the leader!  Best not fall off.  This isn't like being down the local climbing wall you know.  I go myself into a position where I could build a belay using ice screws as anchors, and brought Jimmy up.  The ice steepened on the next pitch, but it wasn't a problem for Jimmy, who swung hard and pulled like a man possessed, pausing only to place a couple of ice screw runners, before romping up easy ground, to find a belay.
Winter climbing: Jimmy feeling the cold on the belay shared with Staghorn Gully, Creag Meagaidh.
Our climb shared a belay stance with the classic Staghorn Gully (grade III), which crossed our climb.  The stance was large and comfortable, with good rock belays.  We paused and chatted about the climbing and the amazing weather.  It was a blue sky day and hardly a breath of wind.  Bitterly cold though, especially as we were climbing in the shadow of the cliff. 
Being in the shadow has its advantages, and for me this meant perfect ice on the main pitch...and it was my turn to lead!  The climbing was fairly straight forward, particularly as the climb had seen a bit of 'traffic', and although not totally 'stepped out', I could still hook into other people's axe placements.  This meant saving energy !  At one point I placed my axes into the ice and then 'palmed off' some bare rock to get my foot onto a small rock ledge.  This sort of move would have been awkward to execute in the days of leashes on axes, but now it just seemed natural to place the axe in the ice, let go, do the move, then pick up the axe and move on.  How simple was that?  I was immediately a convert to this new 'leashless' style of climbing!  It was a lovely pitch, full of steep, blue ice. Almost perfect, except that it ended after approx 30 metres.  Then it was my turn to bring Jimmy up and had the lead over to him. The next pitch looked reminisant of the "Rogue Pitch" on Point Five Gully on Ben Nevis (the world's most famous ice climb?). 
Winter Climbing. Jimmy on the crux of South Pipe Direct, Creag Meagaidh
 It looked steep, but Jimmy made it look easy, even pausing mid crux to place an ice screw, before pulling over onto the summit slopes.  When it came to my turn, I found it relatively easy, as I had got used to climbing leashless.  When it came time for me to lead up the summit slopes, I soon discovered a slight flaw in leashless climbing.  These snow slopes were quite steep and in the 'old days', I would have plunged the shafts of my axes into the snow for security as I moved upwards. But, these new axes have a finger guard at the bottom of the shaft, which makes plunging axes really difficult in hard snow.  The bend in the shaft doesn't help either.  Even though I used my axes as daggers, it felt quite precarious front pointing up the slope and I was glad to pull over the small cornice, on to the top.  It wasn't long before Jimmy joined me and he was grinning from ear to ear.  It was a great climb. thoroughly enjoyable.  Good line, great conditions, great company and amazing conditions!  I even managed to persuade Jimmy to walk to the true summit of Creag Meagiadh, over a kilometre away.  The summit is one vast plateau, with concave slopes dropping off steeply nearly all the way round.  It was easy to see why so many people get lost up here on a 'normal' winter's day.  The wind chilled us, but the views made it all worth it.  Then it was off down to "The Window" and back to the path and the long walk back to the car park.
Winter Climbing: Creag Meagaidh summit plateau.
After a good night's sleep in Raisag, the hut in Roy Bridge, owned by The Climbers Club, we headed to Ben Nevis.  I have climbed on the Ben many times in the past, both in summer and winter.  I have even taken part in Mountain Rescue callouts here when I was part of the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team.  It is a majestic mountain and has a complex north face that is covered in hundreds of climbs at all grades.  Being the highest mountain in the UK, it holds winter conditions for most of the Winter and into Spring.  In fact snow can be found in many places on the mountain throughout the year.   Even summer day trippers have been caught out by snow showers on it's summit!  It is best to go prepared.  For winter climbers, the Ben, as it come to be known, it is our Mecca.  There are so many climbs of quality that it even attracts visitors from abroad, who come from the big mountains of the Alps and further afield, just to test themselves on it's climbs. 
Our journey started from the North Face car park, which was a new experience for Jimmy who had enjoyed the luxury of driving up the Torlundy track every time, as the Mountain Rescue team had a key for the gate.  The approach path is steep initially, but is well kept and it only took us 30 minutes to get to where those fortunate enough to have a key, park their vehicles.  Another long walk in saw us arrive outside the famed CIC Hut.  This hut, owned by the Scottish Mountaineering Club, has undergone a complete transformation over the past few years and now looks very comfortable.  It even has a working loo!  Already many people were up and about, heading for their chosen route.  We spotted a team already on the second pitch of Point Five Gully, who we were told later, were up at 4.30 to beat the crowds!
We were hoping to get on the mega classic Green Gully (grade IV), but as we made our way up into Coire na Ciste, a team had already laid claim to the route.  Looking at the options, we decided on another classic grade IV climb, Comb Gully.
Winter Climbing: Jimmy on Comb Gully, Ben Neviswinter climbing: Jimmy on Comb Gully, Ben Nevis
This short, but classic climb was first climbed back in 1938, when it must have been some undertaking.  Then in the '60s, the gifted Scottish climber, Dougal Haston was said to have raced up it in 20 minutes!  I can safely say we took longer than that!  Having walked quite a bit and climbed yesterday, our calf muscles were beginning to complain, especially as the first 90 metres was front-pointing up steep snow!  Even Jimmy was suffering.  Eventually the snow gave way to ice as the gully narrowed.  having done the climb before, Jimmy handed the lead over to me.  What a great pitch! 40 metres of ice, steep enough in places to keep you on your toes (literally!).  It had seen some traffic, but not as much as South Pipe Direct had.  I managed to find the occasional hook placement with my axes, saving precious energy just in case the climb got nasty, but I needn't had worried.  The climbing stayed honest all the way and I had finally dug out my winter climbing skills from deep within my memories.
Winer Climbing: Comb Gully, Ben Nevis
Winter Climbing: Comb Gully, Ben Nevis
Having belayed, I brought Jimmy up and he quickly scampered up the summit slopes.  The weather had deteriorated and the wind was whipping up loose snow, know as "spindrift".  With low cloud, it was time to put navigational skills to the test.  As with Creag Meagaidh, the summit of the Ben is like a small plateau, with dangers on all sides.  Many people have been caught out and have descended into the nightmare that is Five Finger Gully, or have slipped and gone speeding over the edge on the hard ice that forms.  Some have even walked over/through the big cornices that form at the top of a steepening.  There have been so many accidents in the past that there now are navigational cairns (piles of stones) that lead one safely from the summit to the middle of the 'zigzags' on the tourist path.  You will still need a map, compass and the ability to use both to navigate your way safely off.  We found the line of cairns and made our way down, keeping our crampons on until we reached the main path where it crosses the Red Burn.  We grabbed a bite to eat, relaxed a little and reflected on the day.  A steady stream of climbers trundled past us, everyone asking how our day was, keen to kind out where we had been, what route we had climbed and whether it was in 'good nick'.  All this information gathering helps in making good decisions for the following day's activities. (Also look at weather and avalanche forecasts and keep appraising the situation throughout your day on the hill...things can change rapidly and forecasts can be wrong!)
A couple on their way down stopped to chat.  It was obvious from the clothing, boots and equipment that they weren't really prepared for the conditions that they had encountered.  The lady in question would have looked better placed in the High Street on a Saturday afternoon shopping outting.  How did they get on? we asked.  It seemed they underestimated the conditions and had no idea it would be that icy, windy and misty on the top. They had slipped over several times on the way down, but luckily for them, they were met by some better equipped and experienced climbers who roped them down.  They were fortunate.  I have been on searches for people who, like them underestimated the conditions and went on the mountain ill-equipped.  Unfortunately, I have had to recover the bodies of such people.  There is plenty of information about what to expect and what to wear if venturing onto the hills in winter.  Even better, book yourself onto a course with a member of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors who offers winter skills courses.  Don't become another statistic!
On a brighter note, after our long (2 hour) walk down to the car, Jimmy and I were invited in for tea and cake by a young couple from the Lake District we had met higher on the hill.  It was warming to know that people are still kind and welcoming in this day and age.  What was funny though was that they and I have several common friends and work colleagues.  Its a small world!  What a great way to end  a really good couple of days.  Thanks to H's mum for the chocolate cake, it was lush!
Winter Climbing: Jimmy at the top of the crux pitch on Comb Gully, Ben Nevis

The Silence is Deafening

Bynack More and Bynack Beg, CairngormsA bit of a strange one yesterday.  I was over in the Cairngorms again, this time to make ascents of Bynack More, Bynack Beg and A' Choinneach.  It's approximately a 20 km round trip from Glenmore Lodge, the majority of it is on good paths.  The weather forecast was very favourable, with light winds, a freezing level of around 3000 feet and a cloud base above the majority of the summits.  All went well on the walk up Bynack More.  A great wee hill, especially if you stick religiously to the apex of the North Ridge.  Here exposed rocks and small pinnacles provide good sport and, coupled with some 'step cutting' practise on it's lower slopes, makes for a memorable day out in it's own right and is like a mini alpine ridge.  I paused for a while on the summit to take in the views of the Cairngorm plateau.  Ben Macdui had lost it's summit to the cloud base and the light was flat and left views dull and uninspiring. There wasn't a breath of wind and it felt oppressive and eriee.  Another walker appeared out of nowhere and we exchanged pleasantries before he headed back to Glenmore, while I descended past the Barns of Bynack and onward to A'Choinneach.  It was while I was traversing this ground that I became aware of the silence that surrounded me.  Apart from the 'crunch' of my footsteps on neve, there was nothing. No wind noise, no animal or bird sound. weird, I thought to myself. 
Carn Etchachan and the Shelter Stone Crag looking bareNot much snow on the Barns of Bynack
It's a relatively short journey between the two summits (this is probably a reason why A' Choinneach has been dropped from Munro's list).  There are a couple of cairns on it's summit plateau and I'm sure the smaller of the two is the one that marks the true summit.  It's a quite uninspiring mountain, but the views across Loch Avon to the giant cliffs of the Shelter Stone Crag and Carn Etchachan are spectacular (although not on this occasion, due to the poor light) and would be worth the extra effort.  With recent thaws and no precipitation, the dark, brooding cliffs were in stark contrast to the white snows of the plateau.  Not much hope for any climbers hoping to get on Sticil Face or Route Major, I thought.  I took some photos and then headed for Bynack Beg.  Again, this was an easy walk, mostly on flat ground, with good, hard snow.  I took delight of jumping across the summit rocks, just as one would across Adam and Eve, the summit rocks of the most majestic of Welsh mountains, Tryfan. 
I opted to descent into the deep valley of Strath Nethy via Bynack Beg's NW spur and was surprised to find evidence of others using this feature as a descent.  All too soon I was in the bottom of the glen, facing a 7km walk back to Glenmore and the first part of it was very boggy!  I wasn't keen on the place and it would be a serious place to be in poor conditions, as place is definite 'terrain trap' for avalanches. Friends have told me harrowing stories of people getting into difficulty and walking out through Strath Nethy, as well as mountain rescue searches taking place here.  It must have been horrendous. 
By now it was late afternoon and it was a weary walk along the track to the van.  Again I was aware that there was complete silence. no wind, no bird sounds, just the crunch of my boots on the gravel.  It was really spooky, especially as I never met anyone else on the path.  I wondered whether World War 3 had kicked off and everyone was dead, or aliens had abducted everyone.  (Un) fortunately, this wasn't the case as Aviemore was as busy as usual.

Crazy Times

The last few weeks have been fairly hectic for me.  I've had lots of fun up in Scotland, but managed to write off my van.  Fortunately I managed to source a replacement very quickly.  Then it was a mad dash back down to the Southwest to instruct on a Walking Group Leader training course on Dartmoor, then a long journey up to the Lake District for some mountaineering/navigation training.  Conditions were fabulous, with clear skies, cold temperatures and frozen ground.  It was so sunny that I really should have been wearing sunscreen! 
Fabulous conditions in Kentmere, Lake District
Then it was another long journey North to continue my preparation for my Winter Mountain Leader Assessment.  I went into Corrie an Lochan, one of the Northern Corries of Cairngorm, today with friend and trainee British Mountain Guide, Ben of Vertical Frontiers.  Ben has an assessment at the end of this week and was keen to use me as a 'mock' client.  Since my two weeks in England, there has been a lot of snow disappear, but conditions are still good high up.  We bagged two climbs, Astroturfer and Andromeda, before handrailing the corrie rims of Corrie an Lochan and Corrie an T-sneachda to return to the Cairngorm Mountain ski area car park.  There were very few people on the hill compared to the usual busy weekend traffic.  It was also the first time I have climbed with 'leashless' ice axes and this took a bit of getting used to, although I could see some of the advantages.  It will just take time for me to adjust to not hanging from leashes attached to the axes by my wrists. 
Andromeda, Corrie an Lochan, Cairngorm National Park. A fine climbYou have to look the part!  Ben, British Mountain Guide in the making
Check out Ben's gloves.  These are "Chamonix Bin man" gloves and no self-respecting climber should be seen without a pair.  Definitely the things to be wearing this season!
There was a tunnel through the cornice at the top of the climbs, which provided an amusing end to proceedings, although Ben thought that the fact that I had left my van lights on and flattened the battery, was funnier. So I made him push it to get it started (Thanks also to member of the RAF Mountain Rescue Service, who also gave assistance and mickey taking!
Ben tunnelling through the cornice at the top of Andromeda
The end of a saitisfying days climbing
Apologies for a short blog.  I have had lots of emails and enquiries regarding climbing in Cornwall to respond to this evening.  I have also got to post details of my journey into the Fisherfield in Northwest Scotland.  Two days in a remote and very beautiful part of the world, in the company of a true mountain man, Heavy Whalley.


Just got in from a good day in the Northern Corries of Cairngorm (not far from the Cairngorm Mountain Ski Area) with one of my buddies that I haven't seen in years.  We were members of the RAF Kinloss Mountain Rescue Team and had joined at the same time.  Jimmy has settled up in Scotland with his family and, even though he is no longer in the RAF, he is still keen to get out in the hills.  After 2 days of gales and fluctuating temperatures we were both keen to escape the confides of the house, so we set off to the Cairngorms, armed with good weather and avalanche forecasts, climbing kit and a loose plan to do something.
The walk into Coire an t-Sneachda, a very popular winter climbing venue
The recent warmer weather, high winds and freeze/thaw cycle had stripped a lot of snow from the corrie, but there had been a light dusting and transportation of fresh snow.  Things looked promising, however, not having had a chance to consolidate, fresh snow doesn't make a great climbing medium (ice axes have no purchase), but as it is mostly 'mixed climbing' in the corrie, we decided to head to the Fiacaill Buttress and the climb, Invernookie. 
Fiacaill Buttress, Corie an t-Sneachda.  A good place for winter climbing
It has been quite a while since I last went winter climbing, so Jimmy lead off first and made short work of the easy, but serious first pitch.  Then it was my turn on the 'sharp end'.  It took a little time before I felt comfortable, teetering around on crampons and hanging from the tips of my axes that were embedded in the consolidated snow that lay beneath the fresh powder.  At a steepening, I felt that I needed to place a piece of protection before I committed myself to the crux moves, but the exposed rock was very compact and offered nothing in the way of a nut placement. Eventually, after a lot of digging, I unburied an old piton from beneath the snow cover.  Its all I could find and would have to do, as I couldn't anything else to back it up (never trust old, in-situ gear).  Taking a deep breath, I committed myself to the moves and pulled up, gingerly, onto a steeply banked-out ledge. Phew!  An easy ramp followed, before an awkward groove led to a good belay.  Jimmy made short work of following the pitch, before he led out to the top of the climb.  Here we coiled our rope, and had a bite to eat, before heading up easy ground to the plateau.
Leading the last bit of the climb. Invernookie.  Quite exposed!Jimmy following on the second pitch of the climb, Invernookie
From there we descended a feature know locally as Point 5 Gully, practising lowering techniques and constructing 'bucket seat belays'.  It's been quite a while since either of us did this, so it was good to refresh our memories and skills.  Then it was time to head off home and plan for the next adventure....a two day bothy trip to the hills Northwest of Inverness...and the forecast is very, very promising!


With winter upon us, I have decided to head up to the highlands of Scotland to get amongst the white stuff.  I've been up here for 5 days now and have managed to get out on the hill a couple of times already, but the weather is keeping most sensible people indoors.  A succession of deep low pressure systems have been lining up and marching across the country, bringing with them warm, wet air (rain low down, snow higher up) and very, very strong winds.  Having been blown over and breaking some bones in my foot a year ago last November, I have a big respect for the power of the wind and nature, so I have been careful to keep an eye on the weather and avalanche forecasts.  It would be extremely foolish of anyone venturing out into the Scottish hills in Winter not to check the forecasts, especially as they are readily available in this technological age.  Prehaps the best sources of information are the Mountain Weather Information Service website, which provides detailed weather forecasts for the mountain regions of the UK, and the Sports Scotland Avalanche Information Service website, where experienced forecasters are out on the ground, checking the snow conditions every day.  Only a fool goes out without checking this information and there have been plenty of incidents this season already, where people have been caught out, including, sadly, some fatalities.  REMEMBER, TO BE FOREARMED IS TO BE FOREWARNED!
Having been to the AGM and Annual Dinner of the Association of Mountaineering Instructors on Saturday, I decided to go for a little walk to stretch my legs and reaquaint myself with the hills.  I always struggle with the first day out - not taking the right kit, putting gloves in the wrong pockets, forgetting lipsalve etc and this time was no exception.  I always find the first day out in the winter a bit of a faff, as far as personal admin is concerned, but by having an easy first day helps to iron out some of the problems.  I had spent a couple of days previous 'winterising' my kit, the most useful being tying 'idiot cords' to gloves, mapcase and compass, so they could all be physically attached to me, and not get blown away in the wind...a simple and cheap thing to do...and a lifesaver? 
My little walk started from Glenmore Lodge and over to the delightful Ryvoan Bothy, before heading up the slopes at the end of the North Ridge of Cairngorm.  I found it hard going to start with and my foot felt stiff with the exhursion, but I just kept up a steady pace and I slowly made progress.  The ridge had almost been stripped bare of snow low down by the wind and thaw, which made things a bit easier.  Higher up, the wind picked up in strength.  Fortunately, I had a set of walking poles with me. These too, are an essential piece of kit for winter, although it must remembered that they are not a subsitute for an ice axe, which must be carried, and used when moving on steep ground.
By the time I got back to Glenmore Lodge, my foot was beginning to protest a bit, which was to be expected after over a year of being away from the hills.  Fortunately  it felt ok the next day, well enough to head out on the hill again, with my mate Heavy Whalley.  Heavy has spent a lifetime in the Scottish hills and in Mountain Rescue..  He is certainly a character and once met, he is never forgotten! 
David 'Heavy' Whalley - Living Legend of Scottish Mountain Rescue
Our hill for the day was the mighty Ben Rhinnes, a great wee hill to the North East of the main Cairngorm massive and a relatively easy hill for a short day.  The forecast was for the wind to increase in strength throughout the day, so we started early.  It had been very cold overnight and, although the main roads were clear, the minor approach road was covered in sheet ice, which meant slow progress.  Eventually we arrived at the small carpark and set off up the hill.  With all our various ailments, it was slow progress. The ground was frozen and the wind had stripped back a lot of snow, and although we didn't wear crampons on our way up, we decided it would be safer to put them on for the first part of the descent, as the wind had begun to pick up considerably. Walking over frozen ground is hard enough, but when combined with strong winds, it can be easy to loose you footing.  Crampons help by biting into the ground, therefore giving the wearer purchase on icy/slippery ground.  The winds were very strong (50-60mph) and it was hard work to stay on our feet.  The summit arrived all to quickly, but fortunately there are some big summit rocks, where we could find shelter from the wind and grab a bite to eat.  Strong winds and cold temperatures causes Windchill where exposed skin can freeze, causing frostnip, and in severe cases, frostbite, so it is important that you cover up as much as possible.  Ski goggles are another winter mountaineering must.  There are a few worse things in life than having windblown snow stinging your face and eyes!  Heavy and I beat a hasty retreat back down the hill, just as the wind increased in strength.  We were glad of our crampons on and our walking poles. 
Winter Mountaineering - Ben Rinnes
My foot felt stronger after our day out, and I was keen to get out on the hills again, but the forecast is looking grim.  I am sat in Heavy's house on the Moray Firth, listening to the winds howling outside.  It's due to be worse tomorrow...I hope nobody is out in it. Stay safe folks!
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