SOTA #1

I have been a licensed amateur radio operator since 1974. My activity has waxed and waned over the years but I have always kept my license active. Recently an email from Kevin arrived which piqued my interest in the hobby again. I got to doing some research online and found an aspect of the hobby previously unknown to me. SOTA is Summits On The Air, a group based in the UK which promotes mountaintop portable radio communications. You gain points by getting to the tops of mountains or hills and achieving at least four contacts with other ham radio operators. The summits are selected by local administrators for each region of the world, who assign points based on altitude. Your setup must be independent of any vehicle i.e no power or other connections to a car’s battery. Most summits require hike-ins, carrying everything on your back. Obviously these will be low power operations since portable rigs can’t generate more than 5-15 watts usually with the size batteries one could carry up any reasonable hill. You must of course bring an antenna, too, and set it up. This activity could combine my love of hiking and my interest in amateur radio.

So I got intrigued. I had in my possession one of the classic QRP radios, a Yaesu FT-817, though I hadn’t used it in years. I pulled it out and immediately discovered that the inboard battery pack was dead. Therein began the odyssey. . .I won’t bore you with the details though it involved getting a new battery, finding a multiband HF antenna (more on that below), and some accessories. As summits can be “activated” only once a year by a single operator, I wanted to get my first activation done on the last day of 2016. I also had to ramp up my Morse Code skills (called “CW” in our lingo for “continuous wave”) which had lain dormant for many years. Surprisingly I was able to resurrect my ability there reasonably quickly (at least on the receiving side), with the help of the wonderful website LCWO.  My FT-817 is multimode (CW, SSB, FM, AM, and digital modes) so I wanted to get at least 3 of those operational. To gain the points awarded to this summit I had to make a minimum of 4 contacts.

My summit of choice (in SOTA-speak W4G/HC-024) was nearby, just a 3 mile hike from my house. Altitude was 720 m, about 300 m of ascent from my house. I packed all my gear, put some warm clothes on, and started off before dawn, using a headlamp to find my way in the dark though I knew the trail well. The temperature was about 35℉ but there wasn’t much wind. I quickly got overheated and had to ditch the heavy sweater I was wearing.  I got to the hilltop without any trouble and started to set up. On top the wind was a lot worse, whistling briskly across, and the downwind side of the summit was mostly a sheer cliff, so it was tough to shelter. As I stopped moving I quickly got cold. Putting the rig and gear together I tried to find some stations to contact. I did manage a mangled CW contact in Indiana with one fellow, but it was tough: cold finger, portable paddles, and wind howling around your ears do not make for ideal listening or sending especially with my rusty technique. Next I attempted SSB for a phone contact on 40 and 20 m bands with no luck, calling CQ multiple times there with no response. Frustrated and starting to get cold, I took the easy way out and got on 2 m FM simplex and chatted with 3 or 4 of the local hams in the nearby neighborhood to complete the minimum number of contacts for the activations points . I was starting to shiver so I decided to call it a morning, packed up my gear, and hiked off the mountaintop. My frozen toes and fingers rapidly warmed up. The final dregs of the coffee from my thermos were gratefully gulped and I went home happy but humbled.

Things that went right:

  • I successfully activated the summit
  • I got the required number of contacts for award points (barely).
  • I got in the SOTA database for 2016
  • My portable setup worked, and my radio used two different modes for contacts with other hams.
  • I was able to change frequencies, zerobeat, change antennas, select modes, adjust mic gain and perform other radio related adjustments under difficult conditions.
  • It was good exercise (6-7 miles of hiking with 15 lbs on my back).

Things to improve

  • Need better antenna (stay tuned for updates)
  • Need better CW sending skills (best to practice on air)
  • Optimize audio (earbuds save weight but fall out at inopportune moments)
  • Need better ergonomics (hard to concentrate on radio and audio when body is uncomfortable).
  • Want to complete some  HF SSB contacts, too.

In any case, I gave myself a little challenge and completed it. In our convenience culture, we middle aged farts need to keep doing some hard things occasionally.

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