My First SOTA Activation: Sassafras Mountain (W4C/US-001)

sota1

The overlook at Sassafrass Mountain affords a beautiful view to the west.

Cross one more item off my ham radio bucket list: Activating a peak for Summits on the Air.

When I was first seeking my license, I quickly discovered the cult that is SOTA. I believe it was Jerry, KD0BIK’s podcast that introduced me to the concept, but it could have also been many of the blogs I follow. Certainly, the famous videos posted on YouTube by Steve, WG0AT, probably played a role, as they are a ham radio resource that everyone seems to discover at some point. I was fascinated by the program and couldn’t wait to get started.

Not long after getting on HF, I purchased a Yaesu FT-817 and a Buddistick and started planning my first summit. Well, that was more than 3 years ago. Some while back I actually hiked from Rocky Bottom, to the 1,083 meter summit of Sassafras Mountain, the tallest peak in South Carolina, with the intention of operating, only to discover on the peak that I’d left my paracord home and couldn’t suspend the dipole I’d brought along.

I enjoyed a panel discussion on SOTA at a Charlotte Hamfest in 2013, and that was the day I realized I would need to make a serious effort to learn Morse code, as all the guys who presented operated strictly CW.

So now, some years later, this past Saturday, I finally found myself again standing on the peak of Sassafras Mountain with my 817, a dipole and a vertical antenna. This time around I was accompanied by fellow ham Steve, KI4VGA, who I’ve mentioned here before. We’re both nascent code operators trying to get better, and we both enjoy operating in the field.

sota2

There were once trees up here, but the peak has been deforested to make way for another overlook and trail amenities.

The once lush peak had been deforested since my last visit, so there were no trees of consequence to hang the dipole. The vertical was made for this, so I erected it and got down to business tuning the coil for 40 meters SSB.

I’d planned to use Rockwell’s SOTA Goat app on my phone to spot myself, but cellular reception was dicey to non-existent. I proceeded to call CQ on the phone portion to no avail. Many minutes of calling elapsed with no luck. I clicked up to 20 meters and tried again. Nothing.

Just for fun, I plugged in Steve’s Bencher key and called CQ SOTA. To my surprise, KX0R came back to me. I struggled mightily to copy his code though. He’s a big SOTA fan, so it wouldn’t surprise me if he were transmitting from a peak himself.

sota4

Yep, we’re going to use the Buddistick for this.

About that time my cell phone’s reception picked up and I was able to submit my spot to SOTAWatch, and noted “slow code PSE” in the comment field. Immediately, I had stations calling. It probably wasn’t a pile-up, but it sure felt like it. Between Steve and I, we were able to make out the callsigns of most of the stations. It took liberal use of the question mark to complete the calls, but most guys seemed patient. I was grateful for the 500hz CW filter too.

We had a nice opening to the west and logged Colorado, Arizona, Idaho, Missouri and more. I logged 13 QSOs back-to-back and went QRT. I was twitching with adrenaline and I realized I’d been in a trance-like state for the better part of 20 minutes. I tried 40m SSB once more, submitted a spot, and picked up a single Florida station. Perhaps it was the approaching storm, but the noise levels seemed high on 40, so I turned off the rig and began packing up, confident that we’d activated the four-point peak.

I’m amused at how I’ve come full-circle: I got serious with Morse code because of my interest in SOTA. Then, when all seemed lost on my first activation, using Morse code turned out to be the key to success.

sota5

Straight key, FT-817 and a paper log, a.k.a., “working with stone knives and bear skins.”

I realize now that I couldn’t have done this a few years ago; I needed the additional experience of several years to understand how to manage (if you want to call it that) several code callers, and how to stay cool, get the full callsign, exchange reports, and recover from huge mistakes. And well, I know I made a lot of mistakes. And it’s OK to screw up. After all, I’m sitting on a slab of granite, with a 5-watt radio, tapping out code on a straight key, on a fricking mountain!

Needless to say, I understand why people are addicted to SOTA and I’m looking forward to the next opportunity. South Carolina has very few peaks, but I’d enjoy hiking back up to Pinnacle, or Table Rock someday, maybe in the fall during cooler temperatures.

Two more ham radio bucket list items to go: Talking to astronauts on ISS and EME!

A “clean sweep” of the 13 Colonies

2015CertificateMed

I guess a few years makes a difference. Back in 2012, as a complete ham radio newbie, I worked about 2-3 of these 13 Colonies stations. I think I worked a few more over the years, but never achieved the “clean sweep” — that is, working all of them during the five-day event.

I believe it was Wednesday night when I clicked on the rig and stumbled across the event. I grabbed nearly half the stations that night, and a handful the next night, including the bonus station, WM3PEN. Friday morning/afternoon I closed the gap down to two, and that evening I grabbed the rest. Overall a low-stress, fun event.

I’m fortunate that I can easily switch between digital modes, CW and voice, because all three modes came into play to knock out all the stations, particularly, the New York station, which never came in strong on phone, but was an easy grab on RTTY.

Here’s my final breakdown:

  • K2A – New York – 40M RTTY
  • K2B – Virginia – 40M SSB
  • K2C – Rhode Island – 40M SSB
  • K2D – Connecticut – 20M SSB
  • K2E – Delaware – 40M SSB
  • K2F – Maryland – 40M SSB
  • K2G – Georgia – 40M CW, 40M RTTY
  • K2H – Massachusetts – 20M PSK31, 20M SSB
  • K2I – New Jersey – 20M SSB
  • K2J – North Carolina – 40M SSB, 80M SSB
  • K2K – New Hampshire – 20M SSB
  • K2L – South Carolina – 40M SSB, 40M RTTY, 40M CW
  • K2M – Pennsylvania – 40M SSB
  • WM3PEN – Bonus station – 40M CW, 40M PSK31
  • 20 QSOs total

Just some quick soapbox comments: Two resources were helpful for locating the special event stations, the dxheat.com website, and the 13 Colonies spot page. While I didn’t hear a lot of rude behavior in the pile-ups, there was no shortage of snark on the spotting networks, particularly on DX Heat, where some operators used the service as a chatroom or sounding board for their frustrations. This seems to be happening a lot lately. There is really no excuse for anyone to use the cluster to comment on an operator’s abilities (e.g. “OP is deaf,” “NEW OP PSE,” “Turn the beam,” etc.), or to rant and rave about pile-ups, or to make requests (e.g. “Why no CW????”).

An effort like the 13 Colonies is stressful enough for the operators without stuff like this. I think all the stations I worked did an excellent job in some very busy, very noisy conditions.

DX in the nick of time

I typically try to get on the radio by about 5:30 in the afternoon right after work, make a few contacts, and be out the door on my daily 4-mile walk by 7 p.m., at least in the summer months, when daylight is plentiful.

I was on the rig Friday and couldn’t locate any particularly interesting stations out in the aether. I heard someone on 10 meters blasting away in a foreign accent, but by the time I had them tuned in, they had disappeared and didn’t return. 12 meters was similarly dead and 15 had some action, but nothing worth chasing.

I clicked through 17 and up to the usual watering holes on 20 meters and encountered HB90IARU out of Switzerland with a 59 signal. I believe I’ve worked Switzerland before, but never received a confirmation, so I tossed my call out a few times, got picked up on the second shot and went on my merry way.

Back down on 17 meters, the only station of interest was a fading station out of Kuwait, Ali, 9K2WA. I’ve worked a station in Kuwait before, but didn’t have a QSL for him, so I was keen on grabbing 9K2WA, a Logbook of the World user.

Ali’s signal grew somewhat stronger, a 57 at least, but still rather grainy. I listened for perhaps 10 minutes, waiting for an opening to toss out my callsign. He wasn’t calling QRZ between stations, and I couldn’t hear any of the guys he was talking to owing to propagation skip, so I had to assume they were tail-ending his QSOs.

I glanced down at the clock and realized it was about 6:57. I only had a few more moments to play before hitting the asphalt for the evening walk. Ali announced that conditions were fading, so he was only going to take a few more stations. I needed to make a move, so I tossed my call out once.

His response: “The station ending in sierra-delta?”

Got him. He gave me a 55 report and I sent 57. After we exchanged 73, he announced he was going off-air and the frequency fell silent.

The time was now 6:59 and I headed for the door to walk in the heat with a minute to spare!

Another new one and a couple easy ones

A recent life change has enabled me to get home from work much earlier than in recent years, so I’ve been enjoying that great time between 5 and 7 p.m. when the bands aren’t jammed up and the grayline propagation is fine business.

I added another new DX entity yesterday with J79RZ, a station operating from the island of Dominica in the Lesser Antilles. I heard him on 15 meters with a booming signal and from the J in his callsign and accent I thought I was hearing a station from Japan. The QRZ lookup showed he indeed was from Japan, but operating from Dominica. I was able to get him in the log on the second try despite a growing pile-up.

I tuned around in the CW portion of 17 meters and encountered a very weak station from Azerbaijan — the first time I’ve heard that particular country on the air. While his signal occasionally popped up to S3 or so, it was fluttery and difficult to copy. He was CQing with no takers, but my efforts to make a contact were unsuccessful. Perhaps next time.

For a couple easy grabs I picked up R120K on 17 meters CW, and P40FY out of Aruba on 20 meters CW, both with huge signals.

Looking towards the weekend, I see the European PSK Club is hosting a contest. Not sure what level of activity this one gets, but it might be worth checking out for grabbing some DXCC confirmations.

Had fun in the CQ WPX RTTY contest

I operated in the CQ WPX RTTY contest this weekend over a 5-hour period that included Friday night, Saturday morning and evening, and a portion of Sunday afternoon. All in all, I logged 120+ QSOs during casual operating and, more importantly, added a few new DX entities to my log, including Luxembourg and Namibia.

The bands seemed to be in good shape, despite a relatively low SFI and reports of “poor” propagation on 10 meters, I still managed to make more contacts on that band Sunday that I ever have. I was getting into South America quite well, but also into Europe and the western US.

As usual, 40 meters proved to be money, with DX contacts in the evening much farther than I am used to on that band. Saturday was a playground on 20 meters, and while 15 meters was packed with signals, I didn’t score but a single QSO on the band because of an RFI issue that causes problems with our home theater and other devices.

I don’t recall having any issues or real problems completing a QSO, even at the longest distances. Decodes were all clean for the most part and I think I only had to resend a serial number maybe twice. I owe that more to the contest-grade antenna systems many ops were using. With the audio turned off on the rig and just using software and the panadapter, making contacts was more like text messaging over IP than actual radio. It was just that smooth. My only glitch was an oversight on my part, as I loaded the wrong contest template into N1MM. I caught the issue after two QSOs and was off and flying.

Overall, great contest to participate in, and after this weekend, I’m getting very close to being eligible for the WPX mixed award.

Time to put the microphone away

Big pile-up on 40 meters for EP6T.

I’ve only been an amateur radio guy since 2011, and only started HF operation in early 2012, so I don’t have a lot of perspective on the hobby. However, I can break up my time on HF into three distinct epochs.

2012: Hitting HF and responding to every CQ I heard, many of these contacts were DX stations on 20 meters. DX was all I really cared about. Almost 100% single sideband operation.

2013: Still on HF, but losing interest in SSB and to a lesser extent, DX. Spent more time on digital modes and working on WAS. Began operating in CW.

2014: Mostly all digital/CW, focused on completing the WAS Triple Play. Barely any DX, only occasional SSB, mostly stateside and locally.

So now, 2015. I’m trying to get back into DX so I can officially get the DXCC wallpaper. Digital modes don’t thrill me any more; my CW is awful right now. For some reason I’m in the mood for SSB. But sometime between 2012 and now, DXing on SSB has taken a turn. I haven’t been able to make a single SSB QSO outside of the US as of late. Sure, it could be my antenna or another issue, but CW seems to still work just fine.

It’s the pile-ups. Basically, I don’t have the patience for them anymore. If I can’t get my QSO completed in 30 minutes, then I move on to something else. If it were just a matter of waiting for my turn, or rugged tenacity, it would be one thing, but honestly, the SSB DX/pile-up experience is just so unpleasant now. Jammers, rude behavior, people who don’t understand split, people who repeatedly toss their call out over and over and over (these guys drive me insane, especially when they start turning around the pile-up with their voice keyer on repeat), whistlers, yodelers, screamers, people who start sending CW over callers, and the list goes on.

This is nothing new, but it just seems so much worse than I remember it.

Jeff, KE9V, explains it much more eloquently than I can. I’ve been listening with amusement at some of the piles for EP6T the last few nights, and I don’t want any part of it. I don’t want to sound like I’m hemming and hawing because I’m bitter over not getting Iran in the log. I’m not — in fact, I can’t even hear EP6T. I’m just saying, that it’s not fun for ME anymore. Fortunately, the hobby offers other avenues for making contacts, hence I’ll be brushing up on my CW and pulling out the digital interface again.

Learning how to be a ham again

I logged my first QSO of the new year tonight, and it was a CW contact.

I missed all the action with the North America QSO Party (SSB) this weekend, although I did have the radio on for an hour or so and listened to the exchanges. I managed to clear some time Sunday evening around twilight in hopes of catching some grayline propagation.

I started on 17 meters USB and discovered the band was open. My first target was a station in Guadeloupe, FG4NN. While he was +10dB over S9 here, he wasn’t hearing me. To be fair, he had a lot of JAs calling him and was grabbing them over weak stateside stations like me. I don’t blame ’em.

While waiting in the pile-up, I heard N0UN boom in at 40 over, one-shot the QSO and get out. I’m a fan of N0UN’s blog, so it was cool hearing him live.

Anyway, life’s too short to sit in an endless pile-up on sideband, so I dialed up 20 meters, didn’t hear anything fun there, and made my way to 40 meters. There was a lot of SSB action, but mostly ragchew, so I decided to check the CW portion of the band and see if I could make any sort of QSO before heading to dinner.

Tuning around, I heard a CQ call and paused. It was FG/F5HRY, a French station, apparently operating out of Guadeloupe (the Caribbean again?). At first, the code sounded like gibberish to me. I realized just how long I’d been away from the rig. Fortunately, he was keeping the exchanges as short as possible: 5NN TU. I can understand that just fine. I like that.

I placed the rig in test mode and tested out my key for a minute or two. Yep, I can still send my call and 5NN. Once he ran out of takers, I fired off my call and (of course) botched the “S,” sending an “I” instead. I’m used to making this mistake, so I tried to keep cool. He came back with KK4DID, so I resent my call. He came back with a partial and “?” for the suffix. Excellent. I fired my call off again, didn’t muff it up, and he repeated it back with a report. Then I realized my hand was shaking I was so nervous. I barely managed to key out “RR 5NN TU” and that was that. My first QSO of 2015 was in the log.

I have a couple informal goals for the year:

  • First and foremost, I need to get interested in the hobby again, even if I can just set aside and hour or two several times a week to operate. SPAR Winter Field Day is coming up this weekend, and while I won’t be operating solo, I sure hope to make a few Qs with my club.
  • Secondly, I want to officially complete DXCC. I have more than 100 unique countries in the log, but I’d say only about 60 of them are confirmed via Logbook of the World. It’s time to get this one sorted out.
  • Finally, I want to activate a Summits on the Air peak. I’ve wanted to do this since before I was licensed. I have the gear to do it; I just need to make the time.

If you can operate as W1AW, do it!

While the W1AW/4 operation is still fast and furious on it’s fourth day here in South Carolina, I was finally struck with the enormity of the undertaking this morning, and why it’s just exciting to be a part of this endeavor. My role in the operation has been very small, but I’ve dedicated what little time I’ve had to the effort. I don’t want to come off as one of these overly-optimistic millennials (I’m too old to be of that ilk), but damn this has been quite an amazing experience!

I’ve been so fortunate in this hobby to meet the right people and perhaps be in the right place at the right time. That good fortune paid off when I was asked if I wanted to do some W1AW operating. I realize that not every amateur radio hobbyist — particularly someone who has been licensed for the short length of time as I have been — gets invited to participate in these operations. But my advice to any ham is this: If you get asked to help with or operate as W1AW, you should do it, no exceptions. Just commit to do it. Here’s why:

  • It’s an historic event celebrating 100 years of the ARRL, and to a lesser extent, the whole hobby of ham radio itself. How often do we get a chance to participate in something this significant?
  • It’s a way to give back to the hobby. Particularly if you happen to be a “rare” state. It’s a way to help those new hams get their Worked All States or even the Triple Play.
  • It’s a way to improve yourself in the hobby. If you accept the challenge, you will improve your skills, in operating, dealing with people, logging, contesting, propagation, everything!
  • It’s a way to test yourself. How many times have you heard a busy DX station and thought to yourself, “I could do that.” Or maybe you thought “how terrifying must that be to have that many stations calling.” Well, this is your chance to see if you can handle it! When it’s busy, it’s a real test of concentration, endurance and skill.
  • It’s fun, and it’s addictive. Set a goal of QSOs/per hour, or total QSOs and try to beat your own high score.
  • You get exposure to some famous hams and some locals that are at the top end of the game. How thrilling was is to work RTTY guru AA5AU? Or to learn that one of the guys on the W1AW/4 team was an EME (moonbounce) guru and lives just 50 miles away!
  • You are representing your state to the world. You are in the spotlight!
  • Your “little pistol” station becomes the rare DX. If you enjoy radiosport, or fast-paced exchanges, there is nothing better than this.
  • Realize that what you are doing is amazing. With a rig I assembled myself, and a length of wire in some trees behind my house, I’ve worked more than 400 stations not only across the US, but as far away as New Zealand and Japan in just a matter of days. That’s some ham radio voodoo my friends.

With that, I’m about to fire up the rig and get to work again.

Managing a pile-up as W1AW/4

I operated as W1AW/4 again on RTTY last night, this time on the 40 meter band, which is generally a great band for me during RTTY contests. Last night was no exception, as I managed to create an utterly evil pile-up that apparently spanned nearly 6 kHz at its widest.

I’ll let this tweet from my pal KN4QD do the talking. The “hot” areas near the center of the waterfall show the pile-up:

I started my shift at 8 p.m. and I actually had the rig ready to go this time, but with one hiccup: Since I dual-boot Windows 7 on my iMac, I use my Mac Bluetooth keyboard, which maps some of the [F]unction keys to various control such as volume, screen brightness etc. I needed to hit ALT-F10 to force the N1MM logging program to remain in “run mode” while I tuned around looking for stations. But hitting the F10 function key accessed volume controls… sigh.

With only minutes until it was time for me to start, I didn’t have time to work out the issue. Fortunately, it didn’t cause any problems, but I did have to make sure I was in run mode before responding to callers, and this probably slowed me down a tick.

I spotted myself on the cluster at dxheat.com, and within two CQs I had a wall of stations to deal with. Many, many more than I had on 20 meters the previous night. I tried to work my way through the pile-up, but I had the best success sniping off stations at the edge of the pile. The center was jammed and so loud that I couldn’t get a decode.

When I can fire off QSOs in rapid succession, RTTY is a beautiful thing. When I have to tune around for a minute or more trying to find a decode, it’s headache-inducing.

I finished my shift with more than 100 QSOs in the log, but there were so many stations still trying to contact me that I decided to work another hour. I eventually put 208 QSOs in the log and shut down the operation with many more still calling.

I’m definitely picking up some good RTTY experience. In doing some research this morning I discovered several things:

  • I should be running with the K3’s dual passband filter off. This is probably making it more difficult to tune in stations. Some folks suggest the 500 Hz or even 200 Hz filter should be employed.
  • I need to be running the 2Tone decoder. Apparently it does a lot better than MMTTY.
  • I would really like to start using call stacking. I had many opportunities to use stacking last night, but I didn’t have my macros setup properly to handle it. Some have suggested that with W1AW operations, that stacking adds too much complexity, but many of the guys I worked last night are veteran RTTY contesters and would expect stacking.
  • I should start with my RF gain rolled back a bit to cut the weaker stations, which would allow me to work the big signals first and get them out of the way. When you have a big, persistent Italian signal bearing down on you, you definitely want to work him and get him out of the way.

The K3 and P3 have always been great to work with, but I am getting concerned with the P3, as it seems to completely lose all but the biggest signals at times. This is unsettling if you are trying to tune specific stations in the pile-up.

I can reboot it and that sometimes fixes the issue. However the problem seems to be with either the coaxial cable that connects it to the output from the radio, or with one of the BNC jacks on the rig or the P3 itself. When I lose reception, sometimes wiggling the cable will fix the problem. Hopefully it’s just a bad cable; there have been reports of this over on the Elecraft boards.

CQ Centennial QSO Party

I decided to try something new on Friday night and called “CQ Centennial QSO Party” on 40m phone to see if I could generate any response. And indeed it did.

I had a heck of a time finding an open section of the band, but I finally settled on 7.249 mhz, asked if the frequency was in use a few times, then proceeded to call CQ. I had nearly instant success, with W4RCJ coming back to me almost immediately.

I next worked WM9I, W4PUD, KK4COZ, KD8VMD and KK4ZDK in fairly rapid succession. I was logging using a general contest template on N1MM, and settling into a nice rhythm when hateful sounds splattered my frequency. Checking the panadapter, I noticed very strong signals exactly 1 kc down the band. I tuned over and found a local guy and a Georgia station, both booming, engaged in ragchew about dogs, food and antennas. No callsigns were being used of course.

Because they were only 1 KC down, their signal was overlapping into half of mine. There went my nice Centennial QSO Party run. Here are a couple guys who don’t believe in listening before transmitting.

When it comes to single side-band, I’m going to admit something sad and/or shameful. I don’t really like talking on the radio. Until Friday, I’d never called CQ on voice and actually had anyone respond back to me. I’m not going to count the time I called CQ at 5 watts to test the SWR of my 6-meter moxon and the guy living just outside of my neighborhood came back to me.

So yeah… After achieving Worked All States, the Triple Play, and logging more than 100 DX entities, I’ve never had QSOs originating from my own CQ calls on voice modes, until Friday.

Going Mobile

I saw a very nice install of a dual-bander in a Ford Focus posted at Reddit, and it’s inspired me once again to consider placing a mobile rig in my Focus hatchback.

The gentlemen who installed the radio used the MT-7 seat bolt mount to position the control head inside the cramped interior. I’ve often considered using this very same mount for an HF or dual-band mobile solution, as the Focus has virtually no flat surfaces or extra space for any sort of rig. It’s good to know this solution will work in the Focus. Now to figure out the hard stuff: Where to run a power line through the firewall, how to route the cables for the control head to the radio itself (and where to locate it), antenna options, etc.

I really don’t need a mobile rig for the small amount of repeater/simplex VHF/UHF I do, but it would be nice to have in there for working events and talking to some bros around town.