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.