Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Closing in on Mountain Goat

It has been a busy year on several fronts. My day job has kept me extremely busy, my band competed in the International Blues Challenge (IBC), getting to play two nights in BB Kings on Beale St. in Memphis, TN to packed houses and I've been accumulating a lot of SOTA points.

Sometimes my busy schedule gives me opportunities to activate summits that I wouldn't otherwise get to activate. A case in point was travelling to the IBC in Memphis. My drive from San Antonio took me through eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas. Both areas are target rich environments for SOTA activators so I was able to accumulate a lot of points. So many points in fact that, when added to a recent trip to Santa Fe, NM and the Davis Mountains in Texas I am knocking on the door of the SOTA Mountain Goat award which requires 1,000 activator points. I am now at 965 points.

Not just because I am getting close to earning MG status, but I believe this is one of the toughest awards in ham radio if you factor in the physical side of it. Nearly all awards in the amateur radio world require you sit on your derriere for hours or even days at a time. You will never mistake a ham convention for a gathering of tri-athletes. Staying fit enough to do these climbs has me in the best shape I've been in  years. That said, you don't have to be in fantastic shape to participate in SOTA. There are mountains or hills  that qualify that can be driven up or just a short walk will get you there. But it does require that you get outside, which is a good thing. And I promise, the more you do it, the more you will want to do.

I've learned some much about portable QRP operating while working toward this award. It's been said that when you achieve MG status, you have a Ph.D in portable radio operation. When I think about my first activation versus the way I operate now, it's night and day. I travel so much lighter and my station is much more efficient. I can be operating within 10 minutes of arriving on the summit with a station that will generate a pile-up and make DX contacts on multiple bands.

So I am anxious to get the 1,000th point, which hopefully will be within the next couple of weeks. Below is a video and picture from a couple of summits I activated last weekend in the Davis Mountains of Texas. The Davis Mountains are the home of the McDonald Observatory which, as you will see below, is a dominant feature on the horizon in that area. BTW, Mount Locke, where the observatory sits, is a 10 pointer that you drive up, however you have to get of the house to get there. The picture is from Mt. Arabella, a fairly steep 8 pointer that will take the average person 30 -45 minutes to ascend. The video is from Peak 6411 outside of Ft. Davis. It also is a drive-up. I use the Alex Loop on drive up mountains, but End Fed Half Wave (EFHW) on hikes of any distance.

Since beginning my chase for MG my longest hike was doing Santa Fe Baldy, in Santa Fe, NM. A 15 mile roundtrip up to 12,000+ ft. ASL. The tallest mountain I've done is Mt. Sherman in Colorado at 14,036 ft. ASL.

I 'm sure I will make another posting to the Blog when I get the 1,000th point. I can't wait to become a certified Old Goat!

McDonald Observatory from Mt. Arabella


Saturday, February 7, 2015

My Plan for K1N

It's been said that if you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there. Said another way, it's always good to have a plan. As the K1N expedition was approaching, I had a look at my log to see what bands I would need them on. I was fortunate to work Navassa in 1992, so I didn't need this one for and all-time new one (ATNO), but I did need to fill a few band slots. But what did I need? Oddly enough I needed them on 20m. Navassa and North Korea are the only countries I need on 20m to have 'em all on that band. I also needed them on 160m, 17m, 12m and RTTY for a new mode.

My plan would've been relatively simple however I've been on a business trip the past week which has prevented me from chasing K1N. What's worse the trip was to Europe which is six hours ahead of Central Standard time, where I live. When I arrived back at my QTH at 7:00 Friday night, I was worn out. It was 2:00 am on my body clock and my body was ready for bed.

Ah, but I had a plan. However, to make the plan a little more complicated, my wife had foot surgery just seven days before and was basically confined to bed except for the very basic needs. So when I arrived home I relieved some of our family who had filled in during my absence. So, before I dare turn on the radio,  I got her squared away and comfortable then immediately checked the K1N spots. They were on 20m SSB and 160m CW. I figured I would try 20m as I assumed that demand had been worked down during the week. After just a few calls I had them in the log. Next, QSY to 160m for what I would figure to be an extended period. I quickly checked on my wife, all was good, back to the pile. After about 10 minutes of calling I had him in the log. 160m contacts are special to me. I only have an Alpha Delta DX-A attached to my tower at 50 feet. K1N was my 179th country with this set-up. So two bands down, 12m, 17m and RTTY would have to wait until the next day.

The next day dawned. First things first. Get some breakfast for my wife. Not hard, cereal and fruit. Make a cup of coffee, check the spots. K1N was on 17m RTTY and if I could log them there, that would be a two-fer, that is it would satisfy the need for the 17m band and the need for RTTY. I called for about 5 minutes and then the operator called for Europe. He would then work Europe for the next 6 hours. I would check back regularly, hoping he would come back to the states, but it wasn't to be.

During the late morning, there was a spot for 12m CW. I pounced on the spot and called for probably two hours off and on. I would periodically check on my wife, retrieve something she needed and then get back to it. The pile-up 20 kc wide and it was hard to find where he was consistently. Finally I found him and followed him up the band and got a QSO. Cool, now the 17m RTTY QSO would close the book on Navassa for me I could just manage that QSO.

Mid-afternoon sometime, K1N started working stateside again, but for the next hour would have software problems and they QRT'ed to fix that. When they got it fixed, worked stateside for about 10 minutes and then listened for JA. This was a little frustrating as most of the stateside QSO time had been used up by the software repairs. Finally. at 7:04 pm local time, 0104z, I was able to get the 17m RTTY QSO....Mission accomplished, all in less than 24 hours.

I haven't followed the entire K1N expedition, but, at least from a stateside view, the pile-ups are fairly orderly. They are still very large however. Whoever predicted the demise of ham radio, missed the boat. DXing seems to be as strong as ever.

One thing I like about the K1N expedition is that they seem to always have a station on 20m. I think that is a must to help calm the crowds who need a country for an ATNO. I also don't believe that it's imperative to have every mode on every band. I believe a major expedition should work the three main modes and operate on all bands, but not necessarily all modes on all bands. If in the final days  the pile-up diminish then start adding band modes. As I mentioned above, the 17 meter RTTY QSO checked two boxes for me, new band, new mode. More thought should be given to this approach.

So I still need them on 6m, but that's asking too much:-)

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bugs: My New Fascination

As many QRP'ers, I'm a CW enthuisiast. Before I earned my license, CW was an imagined barrier. I imagined how difficult it would be to learn and that it would the ulitmate reason for me failing to get my license. However, for me, after I tried it it came to me relatively easy. I went from 5 wpm to 20 wpm in 11 months as I advanced to Extra Class. As most of us do, I started with a straight key and moved on to paddle and electonic keyer.

During my process of learning code, I had read about, and seen at hamfests, these telegraphy devices called "bugs". Interesting looking contraptions these bugs, but could a person really master one of these things. As I was intimidated by the code initially, so I was intimidated by sending code with a bug. You must understand, of course, that I never attempted to send even a dit with a bug, because I was certain it was difficult.

The past Straight Key Night I was in Santa Fe, NM having a New Years Eve dinner at the QTH of Fred, KT5X, and in the company of John, K1JD. It was assumed by both of these experience bug users that I too was proficient with that instrument. As we retired to the radio shack after a fine dinner with our wives, I was introduced to the bug. I was actually able to send my call after a brief tutorial from Fred, although he forbade me to send actual code over the air after a few of my awkward attempts. but I was able to manipulate the bug. How about that, not as hard as thought. Fred also collects and restores bugs and has a lot of knowledge of the time frame of manufacture and the rarity and nuances of collectible bugs. To get to the point, I was quite enthuisiastic about learning this part of the craft and the history of the bugs was quite interesting to me.

So after a trip (or two) to EBay, I am now the proud owner of a Vibroplex Original from 1944. I've gotten to the point that I'm not afraid to call CQ and have a QSO with the bug. I have, however, been calling all my CQ's to date on my KX3 at 5 watts. I want to keep the damage to my CW reputation to a minimum:-) It's quite fun and leaves you with a sense of accomplishment.

As you see from the picture, the bug is almost as big as the KX3, but its lots of fun. I am now certain that using bugs will always be a part of my CW repertoire. If you don't want to get hooked, don't try it.

One word of advice, find someone to coach you on how to set up the bug. As you can see above, there are lots of knobs to turn to get to that feel that you like.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Holiday SOTA Activations

So here we are, another year has past, and it seems, at warp speed. I hope each of you are enjoying the holiday season, however you celebrate it. Our family celebrates Christmas and I was able to spoil my grandchildren, so it has been fun indeed. Happy New Year as we approach 2015, and may you have health and happiness.

I am spending a few days at my Santa Fe, NM QTH for the holidays. There is snow on the ground and its only been above freezing about 3 hours since last Friday. However its a dry cold so its not too bad.

As always when I'm here I try to squeeze in some Summits on the Air (SOTA) activations. So far I've been able to do a couple as detailed below.

The Wagon Mound W5N/EL-016  6,930ft ASL  6 pts

The Wagon Mound gets its name from it's appearance. Without too much imagination you can see the outline of an old Conestoga Wagon on the summit outline. I chose this summit primarily because I've never done it, but also because, for the peaks in the area, it is at a relatively low elevation and the snow cover should be much less than higher peaks. When I departed Santa Fe, it was clear, sunny and 19F. I envisioned very thin snow cover, if any, on the mountain.

I was in for a little surprise, as you will see from the video below.


Wagon Mound, NM is 104 miles northeast of my QTH near Lamy, NM. About half way there we encountered fog. Visibility dropped, at times, to about 50 yards and the temperature dropped to 7F. I was beginning to have my doubts about making the climb. It was obvious that the snow accumulations were significantly more here, than back home. However I continued, postponing my decision until I could see the actual conditions at the base of the mountain..

Upon arrival, conditions had improved a little, visibility to 1 mile and the temperature was 13F at the base of the mountain. It wasn't a long climb, but it was steep. There was about 12 inches of snow on the ground. The problem with that is that this climb was a bushwhack over volcanic rocks and cactus. The snow cover completely disguised what might or might not be underneath. I decided to make the attempt. Cris, my XYL, was with me and she was willing to try as well. After all, we had just come over 100 miles.

The footing was treacherous. I had to plant my foot through the snow to discover what footing was below, whether solid ground or slippery rocks.We took our time and turned what should have been a 20 minute climb into about 40 minutes.

We set up about 30 feet below the summit, well into the activation zone. I used my KX3, 31 ft. piece of wire elevated with a 21 foot mast through a 9 to 1 balun, tuned by the KX3's tuner. Despite weather conditions, propagation was very good. I worked 31 stations on 20m CW in 18 minutes, a quick QSY to 40m yielded no results and since it was cold I didn't try any other bands. We packed up and retraced our steps down.

All in all a very satisfying activation given the challenges. We stopped on our way home in Las Vegas, NM and warmed ourselves up with some Mexican Food. A good day.

Summit 6860 W5N/SI-022  6,860ft ASL  6 pts

After my experience heading north, I decided to go south for my next activation. This summit is east of Albuquerque NM just south of I-40 and 67 miles from my QTH. This is a nice summit. Depending on where you start, the hike is 2. to 3 miles round trip. The elevation change is about 800 feet over that distance. There are numerous crisscrossing trails over the terrain, so there are multiple ways to get to summit. The trails are all nice trails, no bushwhacking required on this one.

The weather was near perfect for climbing, about 40 degrees, sunshine and little wind. Very enjoyable. You will see from the video below that the conditions were splendid and there was a little snow on the ground.


I used the same set-up here as described above. Conditions were good, 31 QSO's on 15, 20, and 30 meters.

So 12 more points in the log and some good exercise and, obviously, some stories to tell.

Happy New Year!!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Tromelin, Andamans and SOTA

It's been a while since I've sit down to write down a few thoughts. I've intended on several occasions to sit down and write down my thoughts, but it seems some other priority asserts itself and I can't get the time to write. But not today.

So what's happened since I last blogged.

Tromelin Expedition FT4TA: The expedition team did a great job, making nearly all bands available with good signals, at least in South Texas. I enjoyed both working the expedition, to fill some band slots, but also the event. The daily news, conditions, the complaining, etc.... I worked them on 10m, 15m, 20m, 30m and 80m. All new bands except 20m. My practice, as I have written about here, is to try to work the expeditions, during the last days, QRP. I was not able to do that on this expedition. The pile-ups never really slacked off, which brings me to my point.

Now that many expeditions use Club Log and other online tools to post how many QSO's each caller has logged, the information is leading to much debate. I am on a particular reflector where an individual copied and posted the band scorecard for multiple individuals and berated them for making multiple band/mode contacts when so many needed Tromelin for an all time new one.

My thoughts on this one: As long as an individual doesn't dupe band/mode slots, working the expedition is fair game. If a DXer builds a station that is capable and puts in the time operating to work Tromelin on 20 band slots, why not. Telling him not to is like telling a guy with a Ferrari that he can only drive the speed limit.  If, for whatever reason, a dipole is all you have, you know that working rare DX is a tough proposition. Why should the capable stations be made to wait on those not so capable. In my early days of DXing, not working an expedition motivated me to improve my station, improve my operating skills, improve my understanding of propagation, etc... Failure is often life's greatest teacher.

DX-peditions can control this somewhat by limiting the number of bands they operate on, but those guys paid their money, why shouldn't they have all the fun they can.

Andamans VU4CB and VU4KV:  This team also did a nice job activating a pretty rare place, that from my part of the world, is difficult to work.  I was able to get QSO's on a few bands and was impressed with the operation. I was not able to work these guys on QRP either. VU4VB operated from a rare IOTA which I also chased. So, please all around on this one.

SOTA Activations: I did find time to get in four SOTA activations near my Santa Fe, NM QTH during November. I activated three peaks, along with Fred KT5X and John K1JD, southeast of Albuquerque, NM.

Summit 8455 W5N/EL-002

This was a full day of activating. The first peak was a 100 mile drive, but well worth it. All of the three peaks were in excess of 8,000 feet. The picture above is of the first summit we activated, about a mile hike to the top. You can see from the pictures that a wildfire some years ago delineates our path to the top.

View from 8455

The reward, besides activator points, from being involved in SOTA, are the views.

More Views

The additional points achieved from these activations moved me to a total of 719 points in my quest to get to a 1,000 and earn the esteemed title of "SOTA Goat"

I love this radio stuff.....Until next time...73

Thursday, November 6, 2014

My Band's New CD

Sorry for a little off topic personal promotion. I've been busy the last few weeks managing the release of my band's (No Refund Band), second CD, Current State of Blue. No Refund Band is a contemporary blues band. The CD is being released worldwide and is already being played in the US and will be heard globally within the next couple of weeks. The band recently won the Houston and Texas Gulf Coast regional competition of the International Blues Challenge (IBC). This is a big deal. We will be playing in Memphis on Beale St. in January competing for the IBC title. In addition, the CD, Current State of Blue, won the "Best Self-Produced" award in the IBC Regional competition as well.

So if you are a Blues fan, give the CD a listen. It is available on iTunes, Amazon and most digital outlets.

Twitter: @norefundband

Back to regular programming.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Smoky Mountain SOTA Adventure

I've documented in this space before what I love about the Summits on the Air program. I love the mountains, the views, the exercise, the fresh air, the sense of accomplishment and the planning and executing of a successful radio operation. All of those elements came into play these past few days as I took a quick trip to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina.

The bulk of the trip was spent on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a target rich environment from a SOTA perspective. The drive along the Parkway is beautiful all by itself, especially this time of year with the leaves starting to change. The Parkway is a winding road, with a speed limit of 45 mph, but because of the scenery you are tempted to drive slower. I highly recommend it.

From a SOTA perspective I wanted to activate as many summits as I could in a 2 1/2 time frame. I had been wanting to do this trip for over a year and finally found a hole in my schedule and some decent weather to make the trip happen. I wanted to activate summits in both Tennessee and North Carolina as these would be new SOTA Associations for me to activate. I had some frequent flyer miles on Delta Airlines that needed to be used so we flew into Knoxville, TN. The Smoky Mountains are just a short drive south from there.

I was able to activate eight summits, seven of which were 10 pointers with the other being an 8 pointer. In order of activation they were:
Greentop                                   W4T/SU-076
Clingmans Dome                      W4C/WM-001
Bunches Bald,                           W4C/WM-013
Waterrock Knob,                       W4C/WM-004
Black Balsam Knob                   W4C/CM-005
Mount Pisgah                             W4C/CM-011
Mount Mitchell                          W4C/CM-001
Richland Balsam                        W4C/WM-003

My XYL accompanied my on this trip. She is in great shape and is very helpful setting up and tearing down. Because she was with me and could carry the Alex Loop, my station consisted of Yaesu FT-817 with the 3000 MAh rechargeable battery, Pico Paddle and Alex Loop. The Alex Loop is easier to manage on crowded summits and worked well.

My operating strategy was simple, start on 20m and run the pile-up until I get several unanswered CQ's, move to 40m and get the local guys and then go to 15m to look for some DX. I had some decent DX on 15m. My typical activation takes around 25 - 30 minutes. Since these activations were during the week, I figured QSO counts would be down, however I would say they were better than I expected with 130 QSO's over 8 activations.

Greentop Mountain W4T/SU-076

This is a drive-up summit with radio towers on the top. I didn't have any trouble with RF in the radio however and had a nice activation, 16 QSOs including CU3AA and OE8SPW.

Greentop Mountain

Clingmans Dome W4C/WM-001

Clingman's Dome is a tourist attraction. While it is mostly a drive up, there is about a 1/2 mile hike to the top. Walking past all of the out of shape tourists, I felt rather fit. The trick for the operation is to avoid the crowds. I went to the left of the observation deck and down a path to a clearing next to a air monitoring station and some solar panels. Nice and quiet, away from the crowds and as you can see below, a very nice operating position. 14 QSO's from here.

Operating Position at Clingman's Dome

Bunches Bald W4C/WM-013

As much as Clingman's Dome is a tourist attraction, Bunches Bald is not. It's off the beaten path on the backside of a campground. Got to SotaWatch for more details, but at the back of campsite #14 there is a faint trail to the summit. The hike is probably less that a 1/4 of a mile, but it is through some fairly dense woods/undergrowth, however the trail makes it easier. The summit is very small, so I wouldn't count on two different stations if you do it with someone. I made 27 QSO's from here including EA2LU and F5UBH.
Benchmark on Bunches Bald
Operating from Bunches Bald

Waterrock Knob W4C/WM-004

Waterrock Knob has a visitor center, toilets and a nice trail to the summit. While the trail is nice its a challenging little hike, not too long, but steep in places. Wonderful views from here. 16 QSO's from here including EA2LU, EA2IF and CU3AA.

View from Waterrock Knob

This finished off the first day. As you can see from the pictures, the weather was glorious and the scenery fantastic. The XYL and I finished off the with a nice pizza pie.

Black Balsam Knob W4C/CM-005

This is a unique summit for the area in that there are no trees on top. I'm sure there is some reasonable explanation but I didn't talk to anyone who knew. I would have guessed that this summit would have "bald" in the name since it has no trees, however, it's a "knob". Bunches Bald, is anything but bald as it has lots of trees and undergrowth on the summit. Go figure. From the trailhead this is probably a 2 mile roundtrip but not a bad hike at all. Because there are no trees on the summit you can see for miles and miles. Beautiful!! 22 QSO's from here including EA2LU and DJ5AV.

Operating from Black Balsam Knob

Mt. Pisgah W4C/CM-011

This is a classic hike in the region. It's 3 miles round trip and gains 750 vertical feet, however the first third of a mile is relatively flat, so most of the vertical gain comes over the last mile. The trail is well shaded, but the trail is rock laden, be sure to wear supportive shoes. Pisgah is a summit that will, at most any given time, have 5 -10 people on top. There is an observation deck, however, based on N1EU's recommendation, I crossed under the tower and operated from the other side of the tower opposite the observation deck. I made 15 QSO's from here including a couple of EA's.

Operating from Mt. Pisgah
My XYL Cris on the trail to Mt. Pisgah

Mt Mitchell W4C/CM-001

Mt. Mitchell is located in Mt. Mitchell State Park. The mountain is the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. There is a nice road to just below the summit, which is just a short walk away. This is another summit with an observation deck and as before I walked to opposite side of the summit from the deck. I found a nice flat rock to operate from. I made 16 QSO's from here including CU3AA.
Mt. Mitchel Benchmark
Operating from Mt. Mitchell

Mt. Mitchell Summit
Mt. Mitchell finished the second day. We were tired and had dinner at the restaurant just down from the summit. The restaurant food was delicious and the views incredible.
Friday morning, the third day of the trip was forecast for 80% chance of rain. I had a plan to do Richland Balsam if I could get there before the rain did.
Richland Balsam W4C/WM-003
Visibility on the Blue Ridge Parkway was near zero in places and a rain storm was approaching from the west. I was racing the weather to get this one in before it got too bad. It took a little time to find the trail head because of the fog, but we finally found it. The trail is probably .6 miles one way through some dense forest.  We arrived at the summit with only the wind and foggy mist to deal with, but after the first QSO, the rain started. My XYL, what a trooper she is, was holding the umbrella while I hastily tried to qualify the activation. So I was sitting in the rain after 3 QSO's in log, N7UN, NE4TN and W2CKL. It was around 1245z, a little early for the chasers in the west and this was a work day as well. I called CQ for what seemed like an eternity trying to get that 4th QSO. I switched to 40m from 20m, called a couple of CQ's and then the golden answer, de N4EX. Hallelujah!! Another quick QSO with N4MJ and I QRT'ed as the rain intensified. We packed up and happily, at least me, headed down the mountain in the rain.
Operating from Richland Balsam just before a rain
Departing Richland Balsam in the rain
What a great trip, lots of SOTA points and lots of beautiful scenery and even some adventure.