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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

Slow weekend

I had all day free Saturday and managed to complete a whopping four contacts. Several events were happening on the bands that I wanted to participate in — the Straight Key Century Club Weekend Sprint and a Summits on the Air event in the northeast part of the US, New England SOTA Day.

I hooked up my straight key in anticipation of participating in my first SKCC event and headed to the K3UK Sked Page to try and hunt down some of the participants. They were out there, but for whatever reason, I couldn’t hear any of them. When I finally did get a lock on one guy, he QSYed before I could call him and I never found him again.

I decided to check out the SOTA action via www.sotawatch.org and found a handful of activations in progress. The only one I heard was Jeff, NT1K on SSB, stationed on Mt. Tom in Massachusetts. I completed a QSO with him on 20 meters, even though he was buried in the noise. He gave me a rather terrible signal report, even though I was running 100W. I’ve worked Jeff three times before (two of those times were SOTA activations on 20 and 40 meters) and we’ve always had a good signals. The bands were not in my favor on Saturday.

The most satisfying SOTA contact I’ve had to date came on 40 meters Saturday afternoon. Tommy, W4TZM, had a loud signal on Apple Orchid Mountain in Virginia operating CW. I called him on the straight key and we had a textbook QSO. It felt good using the old key to accomplish it.

Another fun contact came later in the day when I managed to work Randy, KX1NH as part of the SKCC sprint. The exchange is a little long for the the sprint — Name, QTH, RST and SKCC number — but I just took it slowly and carefully and got through it. Randy’s code was very legible, both in signal strength and in terms of spacing and timing, and for that I was grateful.