Edward Whymper and Scrambles Amongst the Alps

Standing alone. (All rights reserved)

While the literature from the 1900s to the present is rich with mountaineering content, I once assumed that everything from the 1800s all read like something long winded by George Eliot with pages turning over without a period or other final punctuation mark. Then someone in a group of climbing book collectors that I used to belong remarked that Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 by Edward Whymper (1871) was surprisingly very readable. Well, I regret that I didn’t read it sooner.

Scrambles seems to have been the quintessential adventure book for budding mountaineers before Maurice Herzog wrote Annapurna. After reading Scrambles I couldn’t understand why it was out of print; it ought to be like those classics whose copyright long expired and every book publisher knows someone will buy if the edition looks handsome enough.

Of course, there’s a trend, supposedly, where people claim to have read things that they never have read and have no intention of ever reading. This is one book, I suspect, people have lied about reading. With all of the secondary sources and authorities citing it, it’s easy to feel like you read it because you’ve gleaned something from other people’s Cliffs Notes, right? Scrambles contains classic stories that have been retold by Robert MacFarlane and David Roberts, just to name just two other modern storytellers. But if you want to be credible on the subject, this book must be on your reading list.

Scrambles Amongst the Alps. (All rights reserved)

Edward Whymper was an English tradesman making a living as an illustrator and engraver, who managed to have the means to travel to Europe and take-in the wonders of the Alps. He visits obscure towns, seeks out guides, makes first ascents, and is party to and witness to the first attempts on the mighty Matterhorn, including the tragic fall. The ascent of the Matterhorn isn’t quite what Annapurna is in terms of dramatics, however, the travelogue nature of Scrambles puts it in a different category altogether. Whymper is surprisingly conversational and an excitable geek, spending a whole chapter on a train through the Alps and the engineering of tunnels. (His enjoyment of the technical, particularly around the Fell Railway and the great tunnel drilled down to hand drawn illustrations of the train’s brakes and sentences like, “This greatly diminishes the up-and-down motion, and renders oscillation almost impossible.” (I skimmed this chapter, as I read it primarily for the climbing.) He also offers readers recommendations on where to stay the night and places to be avoid, because, as he might say it tersely today, the hosts don’t know what they’re doing in the kitchen.

One sequence I found particularly amusing was when Whymper was climbing Mount Pelvoux. His guide, Old Sémiond, claimed to have been to the top before and knew the way. Instead, they spent an extra night on the wrong part of the mountain and Old Sémiond continued to insist he knew the way, even redirecting the party to avoid the ice, which he had “a strong objection to.” Whymper became his own indefatigable guide, knowing much more by instinct than his hired help.

Whymper’s attitude and language throughout the book is candid and fascinated by the unique (which is still unique today, interestingly, ranging from history of the region to the challenges of climbing,) and at times a little cheeky. While the titles of the chapter, not unlike the title of the book, are matter-of-fact and bland, yet the prose is surprisingly frank, laying judgments about history, terrain, and the company around him.

Crossing a bergschrund. (All rights reserved)

Scrambles tells Edward Whymper’s journey through the Alps and the people and challenges along the way in climbing them, as Whymper goes about peak bagging. The great fall on the East Face of the Matterhorn, after the first ascent, however, does not disappoint. And he does more than an adequate job of showing the reader what it felt like to watch his teammates fall 4,000 feet to the glacier. They paused, unable to move, for fear their steps could repeat the same horrible missteps to the bottom. His final advice to his readers may be applied to life, as well as mountain adventures: “Do nothing in haste; look well to each step; and from the beginning think what may be the end.”

Scrambles Amongst the Alps in the Years 1860-69 by Edward Whymper one of the most charming books I’ve read. It is a combination of period-travelogue and a first-hand account of early climbing in the Alps that cannot be supplemented by secondary sources. It is available through Top of the World Books, the American Alpine Club Henry S. Hall Mountaineering Library (members of the AAC get books shipped for free,) online, and, if you’re lucky, some old dusty copy might even be at your local library.

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Why Mountains Were Cool Before Climbers Climbed

The Retreat. (All rights reserved)

We’ve been told that prior to 1681, mankind thought of mountains as unpleasant boils on the surface of the earth or heaps, or at least some unsightly feature that we were likely to avoid or dismiss altogether. We’ve been told that after 1681, opinions began to shift. This was when Thomas Burnet published The Sacred Theory of the Earth, which we’ve been told that this was the moment when mankind began looking at mountains not as inconvenient land on which to farm but as clues to earth’s past. If something in you rebelled at the thought, because something in believed mountains have always been beautiful, then I have something to tell you.

During Christmas break I reread Robert MacFarlane’s landmark and mesmerizing book Mountains of the Mind: Adventures in Reaching the Summit (2003). MacFarlane brought our generation’s attention to the shift initiated by Burnet through this book. My wife noticed that I had underlined passages and had notes throughout in ink. I was rightly chastised. My only defense was that this was how I took notes in college to help me write papers; I didn’t need to copy every line and make a citation, it was just here. She did make me feel a bit guilty, though I could find key passages with ease.

On the last page, I found a note I wrote after reading it the first time. It was a mild dissent, though without any concrete foundation. MacFarlane’s thesis was that how we experience mountains is all in out imagination. I agree, even today, that how we perceive nature is driven by how things are framed, but I didn’t share his conclusion entirely. I never bothered to try to prove it, but I felt like there were many examples of wildness (which mountains are a part) that were necessary components for finding enlightenment. I mean, think of all the times some character in the Bible went into the wilderness and saved whole populations of people… Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and even Paul to an extent. I even think Daniel would have climbed a mountain, except he was such a city kid; it’s all that he knew.

Mountains of the Mind

Robert MacFarlane’s book has been one of my favorites over the years. I regret that I didn’t read it sooner than I did, which was five or so years after it was initially published. MacFarlane tells the recent history of how mankind has looked at mountains and how our contemporary game of mountaineering and climbing has evolved under the lens of previous literature and adventurers. Here’s his thesis statement from the opening chapter:

This book tries to explain how this is possible; how a mountain can come to ‘possess’ a human being so utterly; how such an extraordinary force of attachment to what is, after all, just a mass of rock and ice, can be generated. For this reason, it is a history which scrutinizes not the ways people have gone into the mountains, but the ways that they have imagined they were going into them, how they felt about them and how they have perceived them… It isn’t a history of mountaineering at all, in fact, but a history of the imagination. (MacFarlane, 22-1)

Among retelling his own climbing stories, MacFarlane does a marvelous job at connecting the dots, starting at the end of his book where he recounts in pointillism-detail George Mallory’s intense obsession with Mount Everest (and there is no doubt that the great climber was obsessed, according to MacFarlane or most other researchers,) and tracing back through time contemplating how Europeans, and Britons in particular, viewed mountains. MacFarlane’s key juncture, where his book begins is with Thomas Burnet in the 1680s. While rudimentary, Burnet was the first to suggest how mountains came to be, which kicked-off a scientific look at the mountains. What followed was science, and romantic poets offered wondrous descriptions of the landscape spurred a movement in search of the sublime.

Fundamental to MacFarlane’s view, and retelling of Burnett’s view, is that the mountain landscapes were unwanted tracts of land to be avoided and ignored. A later view offers clues to a conspiracy theory. And we’re all victims.

Mountain Gloom that Wasn’t

Thanks to Alpinist, I discovered Dawn L. Hollis, a graduate student at the University at St. Andrew’s. She contributed to issue 57 in spring 2017. And she’s offered a few reasons why our belief that Burnett was a visionary was wrong.

In the Wired column, Hollis wrote a piece titled “Rethinking Mountain Gloom.” She said that three years ago she gave a speech to the Alpine Club (the original one from Briton,) “to put forth an alternative story — a narrative of mountains that were full of activity and written of in terms of the deepest admiration — long before the development of modern mountaineering.” And this included long before the pivot around 1681.

Hollis demonstrates that there was actually some disagreement around Burnet’s dismal characterization of mountains. Herbert Croft, an aged Bishop, countered Burnet that mountains were great, which Hollis quotes. Others also dissented, and Hollis concluded:

Burnet was an unusual early modern figure… but not because he occasionally found mountains to be wonderful. Rather, he was strange precisely because he shuddered at them, and suggested that they were not God-given.

The article is well worth seeking out and paying full price for a back-copy if necessary, particularly as she goes back deeper in time to uncover numerous examples of praise and adoration of mountains from literature to art.

Hollis goes on to explain that there appears to have been a sort of cover-up, or revisionist take that used Burnet’s view to promote the value and significance of mountaineering. Through the Alpine Journal, members entered their historic ascents and presented perspective, through a revisionist lens to deliberately cast pre-mountaineering activities in the mountains as antiquity and unenlightened, essentially. More interestingly, Hollis demonstrates evidence that successive writers were influenced by these subtleties and followed suit, perpetuating the myth.

I wish we could take a second crack at MacFarlane’s take. Perhaps we’d have to reach back farther than Burnet’s work to make it complete. The story is still true, but as Hollis showed, there’s more to the story.

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Merry Christmas, AAC

I packed up my books to show the condo, but this is what I kept handy. (All rights reserved)

A select shelf; no knotted wood. (All rights reserved)

Books were stacked high on knotted-wood shelves, which surrounded a lounge chair and a wide table with a lamp and brass-handled magnifying glass. Three tall windows opened to a thick grouping of firs and the shimmer of a lake through the needles. The books, of course, were all about climbing, hiking, kayaking, mountains, coasts, rivers, and features of earth and nature far away. They complimented the collection of maps and photos that were often left scattered on the wide table.

Nothing was from the digital ether. It was all tangible, and most of it was old, dated, and handled by explorers — real adventurers that transcended my fir trees. The collection was as much a lens to view a distant past that still existed far away, but the books, maps, and photos were also something to feel, hold, and even smelled.

That was my dream, which as of 10 years ago, has grown stale because much has changed. Since living in the ever-changing and modernizing Washington Metropolitan Area, and Natalie and I had kids, my interest in making that room a reality is almost as dated as the stodgy notion of it.

I have embraced reading (and writing) on a screen. I have connected with people interested in climbing history, current events, and climbing literature through social media. The digital ether isn’t so mundane; rather, it’s a lifeline.

The books, however, are just as good as ever. But so are climbing magazines and journals. And goodness do we write a lot of them. Not all of them are great, but I like them because they’re all good and all about climbing. Many of the recent great ones were published by Rocky Mountain Books, and they have sent me copies of some of their works to review. I’m grateful that an author you and I know asked the publisher to send her book to me to review. They’ve been sending me beautiful work ever since.

Since Rocky Mountain Books has been so generous with me, I had an idea. I think I’m going to share. I am officially letting go of the old traditional dream of a formal library in my home. While I might have one some day, I like my friendship with you more.

Merry Christmas, AAC Members (All rights reserved)

Merry Christmas, AAC Members (All rights reserved)

So I am packing up the two latest guides from Rocky Mountain Books and (with their permission) am shipping it to the Henry S. Hall Jr. American Alpine Club Library in Golden, Colorado. Pretty soon, if you’re a member, you’ll be able to check out these books too.

The best part is, these books are real. They’ll live on shelves, and visit you in your arm chair. They’ll guide you, explorers and adventurers. Get outside and live. That’s why climbers write, isn’t it?

Saying goodbye to some beautiful new guides. (All rights reserved)

Saying goodbye to some beautiful new guides. (All rights reserved)

Merry Christmas. I hope you enjoy them, and I look forward to sending some more in soon.

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Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies

Martin and Jones book is new again, this time in color.

Martin and Jones book is new again, this time in color.

So I hear that you’re moving to Canada. That’s great! (And I understand that you are dismayed at prospects of the impending Trump administration.) So I jotted down some quick recommendations for you on your move.

If you move to PEI, be sure to live near Charlottetown and go have a Gahan beer, but be careful with those sandy cliffs. If your French is up to snuff, you won’t feel like an outsider in Quebec, and there is excellent water ice north of Montreal. If you’re heading to Toronto, there is some modest climbing in Ontario — oh, and you’ll have to get used to buying milk in a bag. British Columbia is diverse and insanely beautiful.

But Alberta… ah… Alberta. That’s where you should go. Settle into Calgary or even Edmonton for a “real job” with lots of benefits and paid vacation time, embrace a hockey team, and drive to the Rockies (the real ones) in a couple of hours. There is ice climbing and several amazingly well developed sport and trad climbing areas throughout the Bow Valley.

Never heard of the Bow Valley you say? Well, have you heard of Lake Louise, Canmore, or Banff? That’s the neighborhood.

So once you have your visa or immigration papers, you’ll need just two books: 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies by Bill Corbett, which I recently reviewed, and Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies by John Martin and Jon Jones. Both have been updated with new editions in full color this year.

When the Weather is Warm

Now, let me tell you about Sport Climbs in the Canadian Rockies...

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There are other guidebooks for the area, but this one has been updated most frequently and most recently. In October 2016 the 7th Edition was published. It also covers the biggest territory; not only Banff National Park of Bow Valley, but that and more in the neighboring and contiguous valleys. In total, it covers over 2,300 routes including climbs in Banff, Canmore, Lake Louise, Kananaskis Country, and the Ghost River region.

It’s a genuine techincal guide to the region and the routes. Most of the content are illustrated through topos, rather than photos. There is a reason for this and some practical benefits: First, the valleys are narrow and portions are blocked by other nearby features. Properly descriptive photos are broadly impossible, however, there are photos wherever they were practical.

Secondly, with the majority of the images in topos, the guide lets you see in clear terms what might not appear in a photo, such as belay stations, or a chimney that might only be viewed as a shadow. The minimal descriptions in prose make these maps something to get lost in just in planning.

Martin and Jones have updated the guidebook with this 7th Edition to account for the radical changes brought on by the 2013 rain-on-snow floods. Some routes start lower, due to excessive erosion, while others are starting much higher because of deposited rock and soil. This has complicated some approaches and the start of some climbs. The authors recommend a long stick clipper in these areas, which the guidebook points out.

It’s a beautiful guidebook whether you’re moving to Canada permanently  just visiting, or live in the area. Regardless who you wanted to win America’s 2016 presidential election, you can forget all about it here in the corners of the Bow Valley.

Appreciative Note

I also want to thank my good friends in Alberta, Joanna and Jason, who separately extended an invitation to Natalie, the kids and I if we had to flee the states after the election. (And they offered way back in the summer before election day; that makes some good friends!) We appreciated the offer, but Natalie and I decided to stay; the American crags, parkland, and climate needs more voices to weigh in loudly here.

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The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies 2nd Edition

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Bill Corbett’s latest book. (Szalay, All rights reserved)

Until now, Jonathan Waterman’s High Alaska was only practical climbing guidebook that I would consider suitable for a long flight or for pleasureful beach reading. It told the first ascent stories, as well as the technical aspects of the routes, of the Alaska Ranges’ three most significant peaks, Denali, Beguya, and Sultana. But Bill Corbett updated his earlier guidebook of the Rockies with a new edition. It’s exquisite and practical.

Corbett’s The 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies 2nd Edition is rich with the history and stories of the climbers that made the first ascents. With Rocky Mountain Books, Corbett produced a beautifully illustrated book with the maps required of a top-notch guide, with well-chosen color photographs of the mountains, and insightful commentaries that goes well beyond the route.

Steep

Mark Twight, with his terse ways, said that if you have to train in North America for high altitude climbing and the hardest climbs elsewhere in the world, you must train in the Canadian Rockies.In fact, when I was a boy, it was Twight’s elitist assessment of North American climbing, in general, that made the 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies stand out in high relief. The Canadian Rockies are not the tallest, but they were cold and were begrudgingly steep.

Corbett’s book doesn’t attempt to make a claim of the Canadian Rockies like Twight’s, but he illustrates over and over again how unique these mountains are, and perhaps more technically challenging than many other mountains throughout the continent. It certainly lends fodder to Twight’s point.

By comparison, Corbett compares the 11,000ers of the Canadian Rockies to the 14,o00ers of the Colorado Rockies. Here’s my paraphrase: While Colorado’s are sloped, requiring some advanced upward relentless hiking, the northern high peaks of the Rocky Mountains were cut by receding glaciers leaving great walls and exposed alpine ridges, demanding technical skills, equipment, and more courage. Corbett also observed that the guy that “ran up” all of the Colorado Rockies in 2015 was a mere 10 days. Meanwhile, the speed record for climbing all of the 11,000ers “is more than seven years,” and only 11 climbers have completed the circuit.

A Quest for a Lifetime

The new edition lays out a plan for adventure, similar to the heralded Fifty Classic Climbs of North America by Steve Roper and Allen Steck (1979), but seemingly more stirring to the imagination.

Corbett updated the book, in part, because the list of 11,000ers have changed, at least at the bottom of the list. I learned a great deal, without getting stumped with mysterious technical terms, about why this is and why the highest mountains are undisputed. In fact, the story of the initial and successive measurements were part of a good introduction (and perhaps the beginning of the allure of these mountains, if you’re familiar with the legends of Mounts Hooker and Brown.) In the end, the “original” list of 50 peaks at or over 11,000 ft. (3,353 m.), has expanded to 54. In fact, there are 13 on the fringe based on modern measurements, with Mounts Murchison (10,997 ft.) and Cromwell (10,994 ft.) in the zone for error.

The book lays out the challenge of each peak first with a color photo of the objective and Corbett’s own commentary of climbing the mountain, which is particularly useful, as he might share that waiting for the route, like those on Mount Alberta 11,873 ft. (3,619 m.), to come into shape requires patience. Next Corbett shares the unique history of the mountain’s earliest and most important ascents. He closes each passage on these mountains, which can go on for several enjoyable pages, to the route, including the approach, and some details about how much time one might expect to take in decent conditions.

Like High Alaska, you do not have to be planning an expedition to the Canadian Rockies to enjoy this book if you love mountains, adventure, and have some interest in climbing them. In fact, I imagine one day when my children are bit older, I would come home from work and things would be quiet. I would find one of them having discovered this book, drawn in first by the photos, and now reading about Conrad Kain, Don Forest, and Nancy Hensen. If nothing else, they might get a sense of adventure and the sense of being committed to a long, big, rewarding endeavor.

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‘Alpine Warriors’ by Bernadette McDonald

 

Alpine_WarriorsBy 1979, the summit of Mount Everest had been reached by every major ridge, yet a large expedition from Yugoslavia arrived to top their last achievement of making the first ascent of Makalu South Face. The West Ridge of Everest was a long unconventional line to the top. It was first climbed by the Americans in 1963, and is still well celebrated in the United States today. Except the Americans climbed only the upper half. The Yugoslavians came to traverse it all starting at the base, low in the Lho La pass.

Like many national expeditions in those days, it was huge. It included 25 Yugoslavian mountaineers, 19 Sherpas, three cooks, three kitchen boys, two mail runners, 700 porters and 18 tons of gear. The ascent had to overcome a steep and severe gap, which required a winch to overcome so it was possible to haul the gear over the broken portion of the ridge. All efforts and ingenuity combined, the Yugoslavians positioned three Slovenian climbers at Camp V who were close to each other, Nejc Zaplotnik, Andrej Stremfelj, and Andrej’s brother, Marko Stremfelj.

Shortly after starting out from Camp V, however, Marko’s oxygen apparatus malfunctioned. After some jostling with the regulator, Marko was forced to turn around. Andrej was conflicted  and frustrated about ascending without his brother; it was so unjust. Andrej went on with Nejc, but they weren’t free of issues, however; both their equipment failed and only Nejc had enough tanked air to get him to the top. Andrej said he’d go on and as high as long as he could.

The summit was far, and the day was getting late. Nejc was determined to reach to top on this push, so he steeled himself mentally for a cold, dark high-altitude bivouac, which likely meant losing toes, fingers or limbs to frostbite and possibly death. Except when they radioed base camp, they realized that it wasn’t as late as they had thought; they still had plenty of daylight ahead. Buoyed, they plodded upward. But upon reaching the Chinese tripod on the summit, elated, the question was daunting: We can’t go down the way we came, so what the heck do we do now?

This was a mere moment of one of the dozen-and-a-half stories Bernadette McDonald retells with prose sometimes bordering on poetry and with the courage to cuss when the tension required it in her latest award winning book, Alpine Warriors (2015).

Writing from the Top

Bernadette McDonald has been in a unique position to uncover some of the hidden stories among European climbing communities. She oversaw mountain culture programs, including the Mountain Film and Book Festival, at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, and she has published (or edited) over eight books. Perhaps most notably Tomaz Humar (2008) and Freedom Climbers (2011), both of which won the grand prize in the Banff Mountain Book Competition when they were written.

The best climbing and mountaineering literature doesn’t just list the characters, the route, and the accomplishments, but tells a non-climbing story through the challenge of the climb. McDonald has done this with biographies, and in Freedom Climbers and Alpine Warriors she talks about a national story of a people (the Poles and the Slovenes, respectively.)

Surge of Himalayan Ascents

I spoke briefly with McDonald after she won at Banff in November, but before I started to read it. So I knew premise of the book and that it was similar to Freedom Climbers, in that it was a national history of climbing. But she emphasized that it was about the Slovenian accomplishments in the 1970s and 1980s. I didn’t understand why that was so significant until halfway through the book. She sums it best at the start of Chapter 12:

Although Yugoslavian climbers entered the Himalayan arena late, the international climbing community was stunned by their accomplishments on Makalu and Everest and awed by their near successes on the South Faces of Dhuahlagiri and Lhotse. There were many more: Kangbachen, Trisol, Cho Oyu, Shishapangma, Gaurishankar South Summit, Annapurna, Gangapurna, Yalung Kang, Ama Dablam, Lhotse Shar — the list of ascents went on and on. As their triumphs accumulated, confidence grew. So did national pride.

Alpine Warriors tells a story about Yugoslavia after World War II and the dozen-and-a-half alpinists from Slovenia that changed Himalayan climbing. These climbers were from a war torn country, with religious, political, and ethnic fragmentation reduced to poverty. These conditions, arguably, and combined with the location near the Tatras, produced a hardened group and several leaders that brought these hardened men to the Himalayas, not in the heyday of the 1950s and 1960s when the 8,000-meter peaks were being climbed by their major ridges, but later, when the new challenges had to be spotted and seized before anybody else.

To name a few of the great alpinists McDonald writes about, Ales Kunaver was the leading visionary and teacher, Nejc Zaplotnik was their spokesperson and spiritual leader, and Francek Knez is the quiet outsider that climbed big walls with a grace and ferociousness the likeness no one has ever seen. These three alone are worth an English-language biography.

Lots of Competition in 2015

It was a difficult field for any mountaineering book competition, in 2015, whether it was Banff, the Boardman Tasker, or the American Alpine ClubBernadette_McDonald Award in Literature. Alpine Warriors was up against Kelly Cordes’ The Tower: A Chronicle of Climbing and Controversy on Cerro Torre, Barry Blanchard’s The Calling: A Life Rocked by Mountains, and John Porter’s One Day as a Tiger, just to name a few. Of course, it helps when you have a good story to tell, which all of them do, but these folks can all write.

I’m not privy to what the judges at Banff discussed (I wasn’t even one of the book category pre-readers), but I know from reading Cordes’ and Blanchard’s books, McDonald might have had her closest competition yet. They all had the ability to make their prose dance like poetry, but McDonald had the touch and a perspective. She didn’t just tell a story about a life. She didn’t just tell about the lives that came to a temple. She told the story of a people through the lens of climbing.

Reading Alpine Warriors I learned more about Yugoslovians and Slovenians than I was taught in 20th Century European Politics and Soviet History in college. I read about 20 or so mini-biographies about Slovenian alpinists in Alpine Warriors. I learned about Nejc Zaplotnik’s Slovenian classic book, Pot, which means “the path” or “the way”, and I read the first passages translated and widely distributed in English, thanks to McDonalds’ painstaking work over the phone with an interpreter. It opened my world to a people and an experience that is unique and was previously hidden from me.

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