Ticket to Ride
Doug Donovan hadn't been sleeping much lately. It was 3:30 a.m. on a day in early February -- the darkest, coldest time of the night during the darkest, coldest time of the year. The ground was frozen, the air subzero, and his hands were snowballs with icicle fingers. He wondered what the hell he was doing up here, high on Chief Mountain, separated from his bed 35 miles away in Denver, a place that seemed as distant as a warm dream where everything was comfortable and complete and not going to total shit before his eyes.
But up at 10,600 feet, where Donovan was managing the creation of Echo Mountain Park, Colorado's newest/oldest ski-and-snowboard resort, the night took on a dreamlike quality. The deafening whirr of the snow guns filled the mountain's silence with another kind of quiet, a surreal hum that cluttered Donovan's thoughts as he racked his brain for a solution. The problem was that the snowmaking system's newly installed pump, designed to pull water from the small reservoir a hundred yards uphill with 400 pounds of pressure, wasn't working. Barely a trickle flowed from the pipes, making Donovan wonder if he'd just manufactured the world's most expensive water fountain.
He saw Grady Ham riding toward him, piercing the blackness with the six-wheeler's headlights. A Carhartt-wearing, tobacco-chewing construction guy from South Dakota, Ham was cut from different cloth than Donovan, who'd grown up in Boston and had a background in finance. But at times like this, Donovan was glad he'd picked Ham rather than some office-bound manager to oversee construction.
"Without Grady, this thing doesn't get open this year," Donovan said. Having the hill open sometime during the current ski season was not only an ambition he'd expressed to his construction crews, but it was a goal that Donovan and Gerald Petitt, the mountain's owner, had announced to the public several times over the past year. Built on the long-dormant Squaw Pass Ski Area, the project had attracted plenty of attention as the first resort to be resurrected solely as a terrain park. It was being billed as an entire mountain playground of rails, boxes, jumps and who knew what else. But the target market was getting restless, and rumors of construction snafus had been rumbling through the lift lines and Internet message boards.
This was the third straight day that Ham worked through the night, trying to get the snowmaking equipment running. He and Donovan were the only human beings for miles around as they darted back and forth between the pump house and the snow guns. Ideally, they would have tested all this during the summer, when the ground was soft and the birds were chirping high in the Ponderosa pines. But the schedule kept getting pushed back.
"Everyone always says, 'Oh, yeah, we can finish the job in two months, three months,'" Donovan sighed. "The reality is it takes four to five." That put the most technical parts of the construction in the dangerous territory of December, January and February, when one cold snap had the potential to leave the project high and dry.
Now Donovan and Ham discussed their most recent dilemma. Obviously, the pipe was obstructed, but that was about all they knew. It could be that a rock was blocking the reservoir drain or the conduit was damaged at some point. Most likely, the frost had penetrated six feet into the earth and had seized the pipes with ice, which meant that simply waiting for the morning sun wouldn't do the trick. Frost can linger for months and years -- and sometimes never thaw. The word permafrost tumbled through Donovan's mind. He shivered.
Still, as he stood there on a mountain completely barren of snow on this cold, early-February morning, he was determined to open this season. Goddamned determined.
"Well," Ham said finally, after calling every snowmaking expert he could find. "It looks like we've stumped the industry."
That's when Donovan knew he was in for many more sleepless nights.
Every morning at his office in suburban Maryland, Gerald Petitt spends fifteen minutes or so at his computer, clicking through an e-mailed real estate newsletter. Petitt runs Creative Hotel Associates, a company that owns a Comfort Inn and Suites near Aspen, a Marriot Fairfield in Steamboat Springs, and several more properties in Colorado, Florida and New England.
Petitt usually just skims the headlines, but one morning he saw a link to an article about an upcoming auction of the former Squaw Pass, a ski area built in 1961 by John Creighton in the middle of Arapaho National Forest near Mount Evans. In the beginning, lift tickets there cost just three bucks, and Creighton's wife and four kids helped run the place. There was no big lodge, just a warming hut, some restrooms, a small dirt parking lot and a few beginner and intermediate runs.
Chief Mountain gets an average of 200 inches of snow each year, but in times of drought the snowfall can be as little as 75 inches -- and Squaw Pass didn't have snowmaking capabilities. After insurance costs hit the roof, Creighton shut Squaw Pass in 1974 and sold the 235-acre property not long after. It changed hands several times over the next two decades. In the mid-'80s, it was used by Marines from South Carolina for winter-survival training. In 1987, a Greeley-based investment group purchased the old ski area for $3.6 million with plans to build a Christian-oriented ski resort, then auctioned it off the next year to a Denver real estate investor for $3.25 million. After that, the property sat on the market for ten more years with a "For Sale" sign nailed to a tree off the main road and a $1.5 million price tag. By 2002, the owners were ready to dump Squaw Pass for a fraction of its onetime value: Opening bids for the parcel were set to start at $250,000.
Petitt had been born and raised in Denver. His father, who worked at the Great Western Sugar Company for over fifty years, took him and his older brother skiing at Winter Park. After graduating from Thomas Jefferson High School, Petitt earned an engineering and business degree at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where he also learned "just how bad Eastern skiing is," he says. He eventually found himself in the hotel business and worked his way up to CEO of Best Western Hotels, which he ran for seven years before he and some other partners split off and created Choice Hotels, which he eventually left to start Creative Hotel Associates.
Petitt had never skied at Squaw Pass, so his interest in the place wasn't nostalgic. But the property piqued his business instincts. He'd made forays into sports as the owner of the Coastal Plain baseball league, a summer collegiate club that plays in the Carolinas and Virginia, and he'd also kept close tabs on the ski industry because of his resort hotels. "The hotel business is one of those industries where you have to sell your product every single day. Any hotel rooms that goes empty tonight, that revenue is lost forever," he explains. "And that's the same thing on the mountain. Any potential customer that we can't satisfy today is gone. We can't satisfy him the same way tomorrow."
Petitt called his brother, who runs a Denver marketing firm, and asked him to pick up an informational packet on Squaw Pass. A week later, he was in town on business and took a trip up to the property. He thought it was fantastic, with an amazing view of the Continental Divide. He could even see Idaho Springs at the base of the valley, where his grandfather had once worked in the gold mines. But the mountain was in bad shape. The runs were overgrown with trees and bushes, and the single narrow road and parking lot were rutted out. In fact, the only real indication that a ski area had ever operated there was the single T-bar lift, whose orange poles poked out at intervals up the hillside. Still, Petitt saw something else. "It had a lot of potential," he remembers.
In October 2002, he picked up the Squaw Pass property at auction for $698,750. For the next eight months, he looked at alternatives for the land. He thought about building houses or a hotel, maybe some kind of summer camp or recreation area. He considered reopening the resort as a traditional ski mountain, but that seemed doomed to failure. Over the years, dozens of small, family-owned ski areas like Squaw Pass had found they couldn't compete with large-scale operations funded by big-money investors who now built "resorts" with mountain villages, steakhouses and Starbucks, and bathroom glove-warmers. The ski industry was no longer about filling lifts, but selling real estate and retail.
Petitt started attending ski-industry conventions and heard about the growth of snowboarding -- and the decline of traditional skiing. In 1990, according to the National Ski and Snowboard Retailers Association, 9.4 million skiers hit the slopes in this country; in 2004, that number had decreased to 5.9 million. Meanwhile, the number of snowboarders was exploding: While 1.5 million rode in 1990, 6.3 million riders saw snow in 2004, with the biggest increase occurring in the past five years. And the snowboarding market was young, unlike aging skiers.
Rising costs were also changing the industry. With lift tickets averaging seventy dollars -- and parking adding fifteen bucks to that, not to mention another eight for a bowl of chili -- high prices had pushed snow sports beyond the means of many middle-class families. They'd also eliminated the Front Range teenagers who'd take a day off to hit the slopes. But now resorts were looking at ways to get that youth demographic back, and terrain-park-only mountains seemed like an answer.
In the spring of 2003, Petitt and his son Eric, a student at the University of California at Berkeley, visited Mountain High, a small, 230-acre ski area in Southern California. Ticket sales had been sagging until the owners converted Mountain High to a terrain park and launched a marketing scheme aimed at the youth market in inner-city Los Angeles, located just an hour away. One of Squaw Pass's greatest assets is its proximity to Denver. The property is located west of Bergen Park along Highway 103, with downtown just fifty minutes away. "And the more we looked at it, the more a snowboarding-focused terrain park made sense," Petitt remembers. "Not only because of the environment, but the size and the location so close to Denver."
This season, Boreal Mountain Resort -- home to the original Jibassic Park in the '90s -- became the first ski area in northern California to convert to an all-mountain terrain park; other small resorts like Bear Mountain have set themselves apart from nearby areas by filling their runs with kickers and rails. But Petitt's project would be the first to be built from scratch -- or close enough.
Six months after Petitt bought Squaw Pass, his son introduced him to Doug Donovan, a thirty-year-old graduate student at UC-Berkeley. Donovan, who was getting his MBA with a focus on the ski industry, recommended some trade books for the Petitts to read.
While he was growing up, Donovan went on annual ski trips with his family, but he wouldn't have characterized himself as a "big skier." It wasn't until he went to college in Virginia that he fell in love with the sport. "There's nothing more athletic and social and outdoorsy, all at the same time," he says.
After college, he worked at a New York finance company for three years. "I was at the point in my career where I was just about to make really big money," he remembers. "And I knew if I took that next step, I would be there for the next ten years."
Instead, he moved to Tahoe, California, hoping to ski but also looking for other opportunities. He found them in 1999, when he partnered up with a software designer and moved to San Francisco to get into the Internet boom. "Next thing you know, we raised about seven million in venture capital. We had thirty employees, an office," he says, then laughs. "It was totally crazy." But the fun ended soon enough when the market burst and Donovan's company disappeared. He decided to go back to school, this time to focus on something that really appealed to him: the ski industry.
In the spring of 2004, Petitt hired him to get Squaw Pass off the ground. Donovan flew to Colorado, reviewed the site and met with snow-park designers to discuss the pitch and size of the hill. While the wide, mellow slopes might make for a ho-hum day of skiing, they were the perfect angle and steepness for a terrain park. But as with any development in Colorado, there was a bigger concern: water. Since Squaw Pass was not connected to the public-works grid, any water for snowmaking would have to be trucked up the mountain or come through wells.
"Every geologist told me, 'Yeah, you can get maybe four or five gallons per minute out of a well up here.' Well, you can't sell a ski area on that," Donovan says. "But then I met some more of the mountain-men-type drillers who said, 'Plenty of water up here; don't listen to the fancy geologists.' And, of course, the guys who have been in the mountains forever know. They were right. The wells have been incredibly productive."
That summer, Donovan drilled wells and began the long process of rezoning the property. Clear Creek County didn't even have zoning codes until 1964, and had Squaw Pass stayed in operation, it would have been grandfathered in. But during the years of inactivity, the site had been zoned as "mountain residential."
"There was a huge fear in my head trying to get together all the pieces for this," Donovan says. "It's not like there's a handbook. If you're building an office development or you're building an apartment, there's pretty much rules, right? You've got to get the regulations; this is where you go. With a ski area, it feels like a blank slate."
The tabula rasa approach also had some advantages. "All the other resorts already have an established model that they are forced to work within," he explains. "So any changes that they make are going to be very surface. I knew that if we were going to make this snowboard mountain work, it would have to be something totally different."
Epiphany came one day when Donovan was sitting at the Denver Skatepark near his home in the Highland neighborhood. At any time of day, the free skatepark is packed with riders grinding on ledges and riding in the bowls -- a diverse group, with Latino kids from Five Points skating alongside white kids from the suburbs. Looking at the crowd, Donovan realized that his objective wasn't to build a ski mountain with snowboard features, but to build a skateboard park on the snow. The place should be the exact opposite of a traditional ski resort in every way, he reasoned. For starters, a lift ticket would be no more than $35.
And then there was the name, which was soon changed from Squaw Pass to Echo Mountain -- not just because of nearby Echo Lake, but also to recognize the "Echo Generation," a term social scientists had come up with to tag the children of baby-boomers.
Back in the days of Craig Kelly signature boards and bitchin' day-glo uni-suits -- you know, the '80s -- many resorts didn't allow snowboarders on their hills, and others enforced bans on any kind of aerial maneuvers. In its infancy, snowboarding was one trend shift away from becoming a wacky memory on an extreme sports blooper reel. Breckenridge caught on early, though, hosting such events as the 1986 Swatch World Championships of Snowboarding. Borrowing a concept from skateboarding, the contest featured a half-pipe with hand-shoveled walls no higher than seven feet -- pretty makeshift, by today's standards.
As snowboarding progressed, other Colorado resorts began to set aside small areas for jumps, but Breckenridge continued to lead the way. It added log rides, rails and bigger features, and became renowned for attracting snowboarding's elite. That image not only filled the lift lines with snowboarders, but the entire town of Breckenridge soon took on a youthful, cutting-edge vibe as riders from around the world moved to Summit County.
In 1997, Vail Resorts purchased Breckenridge, along with the Arapahoe Basin and Keystone ski areas. Ron Burke had worked as a terrain-park designer for Breckenridge before going to Keystone to build its features. "Back when we started making stuff, everything was by hand," remembers Burke, who used shovels and rakes to carve out jumps. "Now the snowcats are designed to put stuff in. It's such an evolving thing. It really went from very simple features to very extravagant ideas. The jumps are huge now -- I mean, kids are just getting so good. The more advanced stuff gets, you can just see it in the riders."
Last season, Keystone added a quarter of a million dollars of improvements to the park; Burke's annual budget for fabricating new handrails alone is $15,000. A twelve-man crew now works on the terrain park in shifts, constantly grooming the runs and jumps and maintaining the superpipe with its eighteen-foot-high walls.
Today, almost every Colorado resort features a terrain park. "And you're always losing park-design employees now," Burke laments. "This industry is crazy because people are transferring, they're in different countries, they're doing special events. Other resorts will snag somebody away like that."
One of the resorts that has moved to the top of the snowboarding world is Winter Park, which rated fourth-best on TransWorld Snowboarding magazine's list this year. (Breckenridge rated eighth.) Only three years ago, if a snowboarder were asked to describe Winter Park, he might have conjured up images of five-foot-high moguls on Mary Jane or grandmothers in black thermal stretch pants. But that was before Bob Holme was hired as Winter Park's terrain park and youth marketing manager. Not only does the former Olympic ski-jumper oversee the design, construction and maintenance of the Rail Yard terrain park, but he's also is in charge of events and any marketing efforts directed at the under-thirty set. Terrain parks are the "marquee asset of the youth," Holme says, "and how you determine how to position it is always really critical."
Along with hiring local emerging pro snowboarders Pat Milberry and Chris Avantaggio to ride Rail Yard, Winter Park increased funding for its terrain park threefold, introducing unique features like the "replica rails," which include scale models of both the stair railing on the south side of Coors Field and one at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. "It's almost like practicing for a street rail," says the 26-year-old Milberry. "It feels very similar to what you're going to be expected to do when you go filming in the city."
The resort's largest jumps and most technical rails are located in Dark Territory, a controlled-access concept new to Colorado that requires riders to pay a one-time fee of twenty dollars for an entire season's access. "You don't have to feel sketchy with people floating around the park, and it also keeps the jumps nice and fresh and super-solid," explains Milberry.
Terrain designers at the bigger parks have been following Echo Mountain closely. "It all comes down to who's building it," says Burke. "The idea is great. It's close to the city. Everybody is jibbers these days. They want it all: hips, spines, pipes. That place is prime-time."
Holme believes Echo Mountain will help build the industry by catering to riders who otherwise wouldn't head to the mountains. "I think it's going to make the pie bigger, it's not necessarily going to cut another slice in it," he says. "These are people who wouldn't have gone to Summit anyway, so that's basically making more terrain-park visits."
But everyone's withholding final judgment until they see the finished product.
Doug Donovan spent the fall of 2004 preparing for the Clear Creek County commissioners. "There are about fifteen pages of zoning regulations that one has to satisfy," he remembers. "You've got to have a water report, a sanitation report to deal with waste, a traffic analysis, a geologist report. Those things take time."
And the commissioners weren't the only ones who had to give approval. Donovan needed the support of local snowboarders, too. Ed Wickholm, a 24-year-old rider who lives in Evergreen, attended the county hearings after seeing a sign posted by the road. "When we heard about it, we couldn't believe that this was actually going to be built pretty much up the road from our houses," he says. "So we were like, 'Hell, yeah. We've got to get out there and support this.'"
After the county planning commission approved the rezoning, Donovan had to deal with the development review, which carried more requirements. "It's nerve-racking," he says. Then a county health-department official complained about the septic system for the future lodge's restrooms. Since the official felt the facility needed a wastewater system that could supply a whopping fifteen gallons of water for each person, it was too big for the county system, he said, and would have to be bumped up to the state system -- a permitting process that would take about eighteen months.
The project couldn't go before the development review board without the health department's approval, so Donovan and Petitt appealed the septic-system requirement to the board of county commissioners. Ultimately, they got the county's approval, but they were months behind schedule. They'd hoped to begin construction in the spring of 2005, but it was July before they could put their shovels in the ground.
"Everyone thought we were crazy to start," Donovan admits. "But we knew we could either struggle with it now or race against the clock next year. Plus, we were determined to open this season."
While they were still waiting for the county's final approval, they bought a lift from Heavenly Mountain and had it trucked to Colorado. The old T-bar equipment was removed, but by the time they were ready to install twelve new lift poles, rebuilding demands after Hurricane Katrina had created a major concrete shortage. The lift was finally finished -- but it still had to be approved by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, which regulates any lift in the state.
"They're not casual," Donovan says. "It's a big deal." The test, conducted in January, required loading 25,000 pounds of sandbags on the lift and running it for inspectors. The lift passed, but Donovan was still having trouble with the snowmaking equipment.
His crew had already built a one-million-gallon reservoir on the middle of the mountain and buried the pipes beneath the ground, but they couldn't put the big pumps in until the pump house was finished. Once that was constructed, the snowmaking team worked for two weeks to set everything up. And then the pipes froze in early February.
That's when Donovan quit predicting an opening date. "I'm not saying anything," he told Westword after another cold night on the mountain. "Could be a month, could be more." They finally solved the freezing problem the hard way: They rented an excavator designed to cut through granite, then used heating and an industrial hot-water blaster to unfreeze the problem areas of the pipes.
"You need it all to come together," Donovan said. "It's like Thanksgiving dinner. You want it to come out all warm at the same time, but it's hard to pull off."
One night in mid-February, Donovan was in his bed in Denver when the phone rang at 1:43 a.m. He let the answering machine pick up.
"Doug, I've got news about the snowmaking system," Ham said to the machine.
"Oh, fuck," Doug muttered, still half asleep. If this was bad news, he knew that Echo Mountain would not open this season.
"It's fully functional," Ham said. Donovan jumped up and grabbed the phone.
"If you were here, I would hug you," he yelled.
The county's inspection for the lodge was slated for March 1, two days before Echo Mountain's official/unofficial unveiling party, when some eighty ski-industry people, media representatives and snowboard retailers would show up to check out Colorado's newest terrain park. But as late as February 28, there was no park for them to check out. The snow guns had been spraying all week, but only about 20 percent of the thirty acres cleared for runs had been covered with manmade powder.
On the last day of February, Ham stood in the pump room, explaining the intricacies of the snowmaking system. The amount of snow that can be produced depends on the "wet bulb," a formula that measures the balance between air temperature and humidity. A month earlier, they'd been praying for warm weather -- now they wanted it cold. During three days of subzero air, the five guns had each blown up to 110 gallons a minute. But the last few days of 60-degree weather had melted a lot of that snow away, and now the output was closer to 50 gallons per minute. "But the temperature is dropping," Ham noted. "So we're going to bring in some more guns from Utah and really get this thing cranking."
He left the shed and walked up the hill to meet Mike Langdon, a snowboard instructor from Portland, Oregon, who'd moved to Colorado to help set up Echo Mountain's version of a ski school. Langdon was staring at Knuckles, a seventeen-foot-tall obstacle -- essentially a cross between a tree trunk and a wall ride -- fabricated especially for Echo. He was worried that Knuckles's position on a large mound of dirt might be too close to nearby trees. "We need to grade this side of the pile down and shape this side so it doesn't toss people into the woods," he said.
Once the terrain was complete, Langdon could concentrate on the ski school, which will be modeled after programs at Oregon's Mount Hood snowboard camp that allow instructors to "really develop a relationship with that person, like with coaches you had in high school," Langdon explained. "The focus is a lot less on getting everyone at the same goal, instead focusing on the individual's particular needs."
The school will reflect the "progression park" aspect of Echo Mountain's design. Created by Idaho-based Planet Snow Design -- the crew that also designed the 2002 Olympics Superpipe -- the terrain park is divided into sections catering to skill levels from beginner to expert. The mountain will be fully lit at night, too, so that kids can hit the park after school. Langdon envisions creating some type of interscholastic league through the school districts, "like a one-night-a-week thing where kids would come up for training and competition," he said, looking at the barren hillside. "Like a club sport, students could letter in it just like they would for football."
Other plans call for large-scale contests, private parties and an Echo Mountain Academy Boot Camp. But Eric Petitt, now director of marketing for Echo Mountain, recognizes that they have to be careful not to oversell the brand to a generation jaded by cheesy X-treme advertising. "You look at the X Games now, and Campbell's soup is one of their main sponsors," he points out. "That doesn't speak to the customer there at all."
That's why Echo intends to keep all of its marketing efforts relatively low-key. "Basically our vision is that we will do no traditional marketing here," Petitt continued. "No broadcast advertising initially, just focus on the product and be really targeted toward that rider. It's time now. If you look at the industry, it's shrinking every year. The only part of the industry that's growing is the snowboarder and the freestyle snowboarder."
But on February 28, Donovan wasn't as worried about who the park would attract as he was with getting it open at all. Standing up the hill from Langdon and Ham, he spoke with the health-department official who a year before had given him so much grief about the park's septic system. Now everything seemed to be going smoothly, though, and he and the official shook hands.
"I think we're actually going to get it," Donovan said.
"You mean he signed off?" Ham asked.
"Not yet," Donovan said, looking up at Knuckles. "But it's coming."
The 4,400-square-foot main lodge was finished, but the cabin building, which will house the ski and snowboard rentals and eventually a bar and lounge, was still a couple of months from completion. Both were designed in industrial-chic, with corrugated metal exteriors more reminiscent of a hip auto-body shop than the hunting-lodge style found at most resorts.
The two parking lots with room for 180 cars were ready; the old Squaw Pass T-bars serve as light poles. And that's not the only recycled feature at the park. The M.A.S.H.-like medical gurneys in the first-aid trailer were salvaged from an old Berthoud Pass storage shed. The desks and cubicles in the upstairs office came from Petitt's brother's office. Much of the restaurant equipment was purchased at commercial auctions.
But while part of the objective was to save money wherever possible, Donovan also wanted to create the perfect image. "We want our customers to feel like this is their spot," he said, motioning to the couches pointing toward an old RCA TV mounted with an Atari in the lodge. "Like this is a buddy's basement. Why would you need anything else?"
Still, it will take a lot of $35 tickets ($25 on weekdays) to cover the $5 million that Petitt has invested in Echo Mountain thus far.
On March 4, Echo Mountain opened to the public with little fanfare. Donovan and his crew had managed to blow enough snow to create one run winding from the top of the mountain to the bottom, and had done a last-minute placement of some rails and jumps along the way -- but for all the hype that had been generated on Echo Mountain's website and its myspace.com page (which already has some 200 friends), it seemed that snowboarders and freeskiers seeing the place for the first time might be a little disappointed.
Not to worry.
"This place is awesome," said Mike, a junior at Evergreen High School who came with three friends, all members of the Hobo Crew. "I kind of expected that they wouldn't be done with everything, but it's still fun that it's not crowded at all. There's, like, nobody here."
As Mike Jones blasted from speakers mounted alongside the run, snowboarders and skiers periodically stopped at the mid-mountain lodge to chug free Red Bulls and talk with friends before pushing off toward the base. Without the stop, a run took no more than seven minutes. But at Echo Mountain, the objective is not speed, but style. And the six boxes, rails and small jumps seemed to provide more than enough entertainment for riders looking to fine-tune their tricks.
Tom and Rich, who'd driven up from Colorado Springs, had first read about Echo Mountain in snowboarding magazines last year and had followed its progress ever since. "It's got some serious potential," Rich said.
Tom agreed: "There's no gapers, no suits. After that it only gets better."
And it has. Between opening day and early March 13, Echo Mountain got 36 inches of real snow. So this weekend, Donovan promises, all of the runs will be open, complete with 24 hittable features -- including a quarter-pipe, some slippery mailboxes and the big, bad Knuckles.
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