19 January 2017

National Parks On The Air 2016

The American Radio Relay League really hit a home run with their National Parks On The Air program last year.  In hindsight I really wish I had participated in it more.  I worked a few NPOTA activations (including a couple with the Oro Valley Amateur Radio Club gang, which did not count towards my own participation credit), and never really made much effort to chase.  I did enough to earn a couple of nice certificates though.

02 January 2017

Reached a Goal for 2016!

The last few years have been much slower for me in terms of ham radio operations, but I'm gradually finding ways to get back on the air and have some fun.  Earlier this year, I decided I'd like to see my "Total QSO's" count reach 12,000 on the ARRL Logbook of the World (LoTW) system.  I normally only log HF contacts and my LoTW account does not have 100% of all my contacts ever made, but it's a pretty good record especially for contacts from around 2005 forward.

Reaching 12,000 wasn't an easy task without any major contests and not a whole lot of daily activity.  Certainly my SOTA chasing and activations helped, as they have made up the majority of my contacts in the past 6 months.

I did reach the 12,000 mark on December 30th, and with a short NPOTA activation of Saguaro National Park on New Year's Eve, I jumped up to 12,055 for my final year-end tally.  (The screen shot below includes a few QSO's from Jan 1st and 2nd).

Not sure yet what my 2017 goals will be, but I'm sure that my #1 Goal, to have FUN, will definitely be a priority!

28 December 2016

Earning the Winter Bonus - Radio Fun on Chiricahua Peak in the Snow

SOTA has a "Bonus" point feature which rewards operators with a few extra points for activating peaks under less-than-favorable weather conditions.  Usually this is in the form of a Winter Bonus (although in Arizona, we also have many summits that qualify for a Summer Bonus instead).

Chiricahua Peak, W7A/AE-012, is one of the summits that earns the winter bonus.  My friend Paul, K9PM, and I decided to have a go for Chiricahua Peak as a joint activation.  Paul has a 4WD vehicle and we certainly needed it to drive in to the starting point of the hike at Rustler Park!  The road was getting very difficult by the time we parked, due to both snow and mud.

We had two options, either get on the Crest Trail, or walk further up the FS42D "road" for another mile and a half or so.  We chose to walk up the road, but that doesn't mean it was easy hiking!

It was very beautiful with pine trees and animal tracks in the snow everywhere we looked.

Some parts, like in the photo above, were not bad but other parts of the road were quite steep.  After a while we reached the trailhead and left the road.

Paul and I are about equal in hiking ability and this was an area where having a buddy along really improved safety.  (As an aside, I did a backpacking trip here in my college days and we got lost in a blizzard, and ended up being in the mountains for a full week, wandering around.  So it was nice to return under safer conditions!)  The trail is a good one but with nearly 6 miles each way, it's a fairly serious hike for a single day.

There have been some major fires in the Chiracahuas, and some parts of the hike went through some fire-ravaged areas.  One place in particular that made me sad was a place called "Round Park".  When I did the college backpacking trip, Round Park was a lovely forest-surrounded meadow; now it is a barren spot of earth surrounded by dead timber.

There are some amazing vistas further up, with views for many, many miles.

As we approached the summit, I noticed this interesting looking tree.  Mountain conditions are harsh - I suspect that this tree was the victim of a lightning strike.

The summit was snowy and there were lots of trees around.  Although we had read forecasts that predicted high winds, we were fortunate that they did not materialize.  But it was very cold and even the light breeze was enough to give it an extra chill.

There was plenty of room for us both to string out our dipoles.  Paul found a dry tree to use as a seat and got to work pretty quickly on 40m.

We set our antennas up in approximately the same plane (i.e. end-to-end, with plenty of space between) to mimimize interference.  I never did have any interference from his station.  I also found a log to sit on and started my operating on 20m.

I had to put on some warmer gear and it still was very cold.  But, I was loving every minute of it!  Being up high on a summit (Chiricahua Peak tops out at 9,760 ft), operating a radio, free from the daily grind, makes me so happy.  I have to credit SOTA for completely re-invigorating my amateur radio activities and providing an extra incentive to head for the hills.

With such a long hike, we only had about an hour of actual operating time up top.  I made 31 QSO's, about 2/3 on 20m, a few on 30m, and a few more on 40m.  Band conditions seemed a little worse than normal but my log still contains contacts across the continental US.

On the hike down, we noticed that the snow was a bit "slushier" - the daytime sun had warmed it up just a bit.  We had a nice hike down.  Although we saw animal tracks at every point of our hike, we only saw an actual animal once - a curious mule deer doing a bit of grazing.

I'm already looking forward to more snow hikes!

26 December 2016

A Little Christmas Snow and a Peak - Activating 5471 Peak

I wanted to do a hike but didn't have a lot of time, so I browsed the mapping project and decided to give one of the lower peaks in the Catalinas a try.  This particular peak is simply called "5471" - there's no official known name in the SOTA database, so they just name it after the height, along with the catalog reference W7A/PE-025.  My friend Paul K9PM had previously activated this peak, so I messaged him for some details.  He confirmed to me that there is no trail to the summit, but that the hike up would be fairly short - maybe an hour from the parking lot at the Gordon Hirabayashi Campground off the Mt. Lemmon Highway.

The Arizona Trail runs alongside the peak, but really isn't helpful for this summit assault.  I was happy to see that a nice Christmas snow covered the ground - this was going to be a fun one!  Basically, my approach was pretty much a scramble up the North facing side of the hill.

It was rocky and steep, and icy in some places so the going was slow.  This wasn't a problem for a herd of deer that I startled though!

Some of them seemed to know how to pose for the camera:

There were some parts where the climbing got pretty steep.  But it was a great workout and since the hike was a short one, I didn't mind much.

Eventually Ireached a saddle next to the summit.  The highest point was atop a very large boulder, which was easy enough to climb up on.  The views from the top were very nice!

I operated for a little over an hour and made 40 QSO's.  Most were on 20m, plus some on 10m, 30m, and 40m.  I was surprised at the noise levels - I guess this peak is close enough to Tucson that it's not immune from all the RF.  There was also continuous loud traffic noise from the highway down below. But the weather was nice up top and I enjoyed it.

There wwasn't anything at the top of the boulder to strap the antenna mast to, so I just leaned it up against the boulder instead and found a few jagged rock edges to hook a bungee cord to.  It wasn't the ideal mast setup but it wasn't terribly windy so it worked ok.

After I packed up, I decided to try hiking out by scrambling down the South side, which was snow-free.  

This turned out to be a mistake, though.  It wasn't really any easier, and it seemed like I would need to hike pretty far to the West in order to get around the hills and back to my car.  I ended up hiking back up on the South side, along a large rockfall area, and through a passage.  It turned out that I came rather close to being right back up to the same elevation that I was at on the peak!

I did eventually make it back down though.  Another fun SOTA activation, this time one that didn't require a full day of hiking.  I expect to be back to activate this one again!

17 December 2016

Wasson Peak SOTA Activation, Short and Sweet

I live in an area surrounded by mountain peaks, but most of them require a full day's workout to climb.  The fact that the optimal season for hiking is during the time of year when days are short makes it even more challenging.  There are not a lot of "drive-up" options nearby, so a "Short" hike for SOTA usually means one that can be completed in 6 hours or so.

I decided to activate Wasson Peak, W7A/PE-052, because I've hiked it (and run it) before and know that it's got an established trail, and can be completed in a fairly short amount of time.  It's a popular trail for Tucson hikers and runners, and you can climb it from either the East or the West side; I chose to hike the East side which meant the trailhead was less than half an hour's drive from my house.

The sign said El Camino Del Cerro Trailhead, because that's the name of the road that ends there.  But the trail itself was called "Sweetwater Trail".  It began at about 2,800ft and climbed to the peak at a little over 4,600ft, over about 4.6 miles.  It was an easy trail to follow, through rocky desert terrain.

At about 3.3 miles up, Sweetwater intersected with Kings Canyon Trail, which leads up from the West side of the peak and is a bit more popular.  As I pushed on towards the summit, there were sections that became steeper and more rocky, and I also passed numerous other hikers, some of whom were taking rest breaks and moving slowly due to the tougher climbing.  It was a great workout and I was feeling excited because I knew the summit was drawing closer.

Just below the peak was a summit register.  The valley below would normally give some nice views of the City of Tucson and the Santa Catalina Mountains, but there were some clouds.  The weather prediction for this day included forecasts for rain and winds, but other than a moderate breeze it wasn't bad at all, and the clouds kept things cool.

On reaching the summit, I set up my station as quickly as I could.  There was a large group directly at the peak, so I set up about 10 years to the East.  I had expected to see other hikers on this peak, especially since this was a Saturday activation and close to the Christmas holiday.  I was up there for about 1.5 hours and probably saw at least 30 other people there.  A few did come up and ask what I was doing, including one who asked me, "Do you know what all this stuff is?"  (Huh?  I was using it!), and then proceeded to tell me he "used to do that stuff a long time ago".  I try to be friendly and I love to share my ham radio hobby, but to be honest I prefer doing SOTA activations on the more remote peaks.  It can be frustrating to try to complete a QSO while someone is standing behind you asking questions!

I did have fun though and some of the conversations I had weren't so odd.  I made 38 QSO's total, on 20m, 30m, and 40m.  One thing I noticed was how noisy the bands were - perhaps I've become spoiled by the quiet noise floor that I often experience when I'm up on the higher peaks?

The wind eventually picked up a bit, and a few minutes before 2pm local time it was starting to gust.  I had stuffed my antenna mast into a creosote bush for support, which was fine when the breeze wasn't too strong, but one gust came along and blew it over!  That was my sign to pack up, and I had planned to complete my hike by around 4pm so that I could get home to my YL anyway.

Fortunately nothing was damaged and I actually did squeeze out a few more contacts, including one into Canada, despite the fact that part of the antenna wire was laying on the ground!  I packed up and started down the hill.  My hike up took just over 1.5 hours, and the hike down took just over an hour - I was pushing the pace on this one.  It was another fun day, not a crazy hard activation but certainly worth it.

13 December 2016

Ten Meters is Awesome

My favorite band has always been 10 meters.  While I have not been able to spend as much time on 10 meters lately that I'd like to, I was able to get on the air for a small amount of operating during a couple of recent QSO Parties from Ten-Ten International Net.

I was surprised to receive these awards today in my inbox!  Thank you 10-10!

12 December 2016

Climbing Mountains...10% of a Goat

I recently passed the 100 points mark for SOTA Activations.  My goal is to achieve "Mountain Goat" status, which requires 1,000 points...at current rates, I estimate that will take me at least 5 years and probably more!  It's not easy, but actually it's nice to have a long-term goal.  You cannot rush your way to the Summit!

I also recently reached the 500 point level as a SOTA Chaser.  Points as a Chaser come much more rapidly.  My goal as a Chaser is to achieve "Shack Sloth" status, again requiring 1,000 points...at current rates I will likely be a Shack Sloth by early spring, 2017.  I really enjoy working other operators who have made the effort to reach the highest peaks, some of which are very challenging.

09 December 2016

Tanque Verde Peak - A Wonderful Hike and SOTA Activation

Some SOTA peaks are easily accessed, and others are very challenging to reach.  When I plan an activation, I usually start by deciding how much time I have available.  Some of the activations I've done involved only a short car drive and left me with plenty of time for other activities the same day.  On the other hand, the challenging peaks may require a strenuous hike, and they also may leave me sore and tired afterward.  Interestingly, the point value for peaks in Southern Arizona does not always correlate to the level of difficulty in reaching the peak, with some 10-pointers being drive ups.

There are several 8- and 10-point peaks surrounding Tucson, and on December 9th I was able to take a day off from work and decided to look for a peak that might also require a good long hike.  I settled on Tanque Verde Peak in the Rincon Mountains, East of Tucson.  The total hike distance was about 18 miles round trip, and it appeared that adequate trails existed to make summit access likely.  Since Tanque Verde Peak, W7A/AW-023 had never been activated for SOTA before, this would be a "New One" for chasers.

I left the house early enough to enjoy the sunrise over the peak during the drive to the trailhead.

The hike began at the trailhead of the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail inside Saguaro National Park East.

The trail began to climb fairly quickly.  It was typical desert trail - rocky, lots of cacti, with a stark beauty that offsets the dusty dryness.

As I hiked along, my cell phone was buzzing and ringing with business messages, but I chose to ignore them and enjoy my hike.  The freedom of the wide-open desert and the amazing vistas in every direction, the blue sky, and fresh air are what keep me coming back to the trails.

As I reached higher elevations, it was obvious the trail was less traveled.  At some points, the terrain became too rocky for a true trail to exist, and it was necessary to carefully look for rock cairns to follow.

I didn't see any large wildlife on the way up, but at one streambed crossing, I did notice some fresh evidence that I was not the only living creature on the mountain that day!  I'm fairly certain this was a bear print, and it was quite large.  I looked around but didn't linger for too long - maybe he was watching me!

Higher up, after passing the Juniper Basin Campground (which appeared to have no visitors when I passed), I noticed quite a few cactus with bright yellow fruits, which almost looked like candy (but I didn't taste them!)

There were a few sections of rough scrambling before I reached the rocky formations that included the peak, but nothing too bad.

I reached the summit after about 4 hours of hiking and was greeted by some patches of snow!

At the base of the rocks that form the true summit is a Summit Register.  The peak is about 4,000 vertical feet higher than the starting point of the hike, and about 9 miles of hiking distance.  There were not a lot of entries in the Register.

I climbed up the rock and claimed victory!  It was a beautiful view in every direction and I was quite happy to have reached the top by noon.

I quickly set up and made my first QSO with my friend Quinton, NU7Y.  It didn't take long for the pileup to begin and I was really having a lot of fun!  As usual my Elecraft KX2 and Begali Key made the operating a joy.  My antenna is an Aerial 51 OCF Dipole and I've really appreciated how well it works and how nice it is to be able to change bands instantly.

I operated for a little under 2 hours total, making contacts on 5 different bands (7, 10, 14, 21, and 28 MHz), all CW mode.  I worked 63 QSO's total.  A few of my favorites contacts were with my friend Karen, W4KRN, as well as 10 meter contacts with Canada and New Hampshire!

I would have loved to keep going but it was only a few hours to sunset and I had 9 miles of hiking to get back down the mountain.  So I packed it up and started out.  One thing I love about mountains is how the weather and air changes throughout the day.  Hiking in the late afternoon felt very different from hiking mid-day, with a coolness that wasn't there before even though the sun was still up.  About an hour into my downward hike, I was startled by a flash of white, and looking up I realized there was a large young deer next to the trail, who was equally startled by my presence.  He stayed nearby and watched me, and I stopped to watch him.  He was a healthy young buck, curious but remaining at a safe distance.

Watching him brought back fond memories of hiking and observing wildlife as a child with my family, especially my mom who is a wildlife artist and has painted many beautiful deer.

I could not dawdle too long as shadows were lengthening.  (As it turned out, maybe I dawdled just a bit too long).  I continued my hike down, and eventually it was nearing twilight and I still had about 3 miles to go.  I was cruising along at a good pace, but somehow, I managed to walk myself right off the trail.  For a few moments I found my heart rate quickening as fear tried to take over; this was very steep, very dense desert foliage terrain and hiking in the pitch dark through this would be very slow and risky.  I wasn't concerned at all about getting lost, as this is on the East side of the hills and I could easily see down towards the city, and knew exactly where I needed to go.  But scrambling through cactus and sharp rocks is tough enough when it's light, and in the dark could easily become a major problem.  As the sun set in the West, I decided it was simultaneously trying to be both beautiful and terrifying.  The beauty won, and I will never tire of seeing our amazing Arizona sunsets, regardless of the circumstances.

I used my GPS to navigate back towards where I believed the trail might be.  It took me about half an hour, during which the sun had set and darkness was rapidly falling, but fortunately I did manage to eventually get back on trail.  I had packed a small flashlight for emergency purposes, and I put it to good use.

It's an interesting dilemma we face in the desert.  The optimal season for hiking is late fall and winter, yet that is the very time of year when days are shortest.  For hikes of this length, the probability of hiking in the dark is high.  I was fortunate to get back on trail!  I made it out safely and made mental notes to myself to be better prepared for darkness hiking in the future.

This is the downward hike only.  I normally save the up and down portions separately for easier comparison.

02 December 2016

An Easy Activation in Northern California - Pine Hill

As I've gained experience with portable operations, I'm finding myself including amateur radio gear as a standard item in my luggage during out-of-town travels.  My YL and I had planned a trip to Sacramento, CA to run the California International Marathon, and as the trip approached I decided I should search the SOTA Mapping Project site to see if there were any nearby summits that could be added to the trip itinerary.

The main purpose of the trip was the marathon, and my YL does not share my amateur radio passion, so any "plans" I made had to be very flexible, achievable in a very short amount of time (no long hikes), and subject to change.  I located 3 candidates for SOTA activations, all of which were reasonably close to the Folsom Lake area.  These were all low hills - the classic high peaks of the Northern Sierras would have to wait for some future visit.  Of the 3, Pine Hill (W6/NS-357) and Pilot Hill (W6/NS-426) seemed to be the best options.  

We arrived in Sacramento on Thursday and for a variety of reasons, it looked like my best bet was going to be Friday morning.  So with trepidation I suggested to my YL that I rise early on Friday and go spend a couple of hours with radio stuff.  I had printed off directions using both Google Maps and Mapquest.  I actually thought that if things went very well, I might do a brief activation on Pine Hill, then head over and activate Pilot Hill as well.  The maps estimated a total drive time for this plan at around 2 hours, but since there was not a lot of hiking I thought it would be possible if things went well.  Unfortunately, they did not.  My first leg of the journey brought me to a location that seemed correct, yet did not match the descriptions I had seen of the Pine Hill Preserve.  I saw numerous Deer and other wildlife, but not a single sign, and the roads did not lead me to anything resembling a pathway to the top.

Look close, there is a deer!
I pulled out my maps, and realized that one of them had different directions.  So I backtracked and drove to where they said I would find the Pine Hill Preserve.  Instead, I found myself in front of a BLM office in a valley...clearly not where I wanted to be!

This is NOT where the Summit is.
Frustrated but not willing to give up, I drove all the way back to the other location to see if I had missed something.  By the time I reached it, I had been driving for about 1.5 hours instead of the half hour I had expected.  But, I did realize that I had in fact been in the correct location the first time.  There is a gated "Private Road", but apparently it is OK to park outside the gate and hike up the road to the summit.  What I had missed the first time was the small pedestrian gate next to the road gate.

I measured a 0.8 mile hike up the steep road on my Garmin 64cs GPS unit.  I like to obtain the data, partly because I'm just a data junkie, but also I like to upload it to the "Tracks" section of the SOTA Mapping page, in hopes that perhaps it will help others to plan their own summit adventures.  At this time of year, the road was lined with plenty of pretty red berries and mistletoe hanging in the trees, adding a Christmas sort of feeling to the scenery.

When I arrived at the summit, I quickly set up, knowing that this was going to be a short one.  The views were spectacular in every direction, with Lake Folsom to the West and snow-capped peaks of the Sierras to the East.

My first QSO was with my friend Quinton, NU7Y, back in Tucson, at 1737 UTC, on 40 meters.  His signal was surprisingly strong and I later learned he was running QRP power.  I stayed on 40 and operated for only 28 minutes, logging 22 QSO's.

I wanted so badly to stay longer, and work other bands, but after the mapping fiasco I was already running late.  So I packed up and practically jogged down the road to my waiting car.  I made it back to our hotel around lunch time.  Pilot Hill was out of the question for this trip, but maybe I'll be back.  The rest of the weekend went well, and my YL and I ran the marathon together, finishing in 3:24.  This was my second SOTA activation from W6 - both were brief, simple, low-point activations, but I'm glad to have done both and I'm looking forward to many more!