27 November 2016

Activating a Congested Hill Overlooking the City - Tumamoc Hill on Thanksgiving Weekend

There's a small hill on the edge of Tucson which is a very popular spot for locals.  Tumamoc Hill is an easy hike, with a paved 1.5 mile trail that leads to the summit, which provides spectacular views of the city valley.  The hill is apparently controlled by the University of Arizona and is closed to the public on weekdays during the day, so the availability for a decent SOTA activation is somewhat constrained.

Thanksgiving weekend was coming to a close and my YL had a friend over on Sunday afternoon, so I decided it would be a nice opportunity to take a walk up and activate the peak (W7A/AW-057).  I parked on the side of Anklam Road, along with plenty of other vehicles.  At the base of the hill was a sign and the peak was already looming close.

The road quickly got steep, and the pavement felt odd under my hiking boots.  Carrying my heavy pack full of radio gear made me stand out from the crowd - the many other people I saw were just out for a stroll and had no gear at all.

It didn't take long to climb high enough to enjoy some spectacular city views.

At the top, there were a couple of signs which both welcomed me and informed me that I was not welcome to go any further.

There were some commercial radio antennae, and a bit further was the true summit, with an astronomical observatory.  (When I was a student at the U of A, I was allowed to use this observatory and we worked on a project to renovate it, but alas those days are long gone).  Although the true summit was off limits, the final public area was very close and easily within the minimum elevation to qualify for a valid SOTA setup in the Activation Zone.

I began to set up, but it was quite windy, which also added a serious chill to the air.  It took me around 30 minnutes to get everything going.

I was a little concerned about being so close to the commercial equipment.  I've learned from other activations in high-RF environments that SSB mode will usually be overwhelmed by noise but CW, with a narrow bandwidth, is very possible.

My first QSO was at 23:17, or 4:17 pm local time.  I decided to start on 30 meters, which seemed to have the least noise.  Other visitors to the peak seemed curious about what I was up to.  One thing that was a problem was that the wind was blowing so strong, it created a high background noise level, making it difficult for me to even hear the signals despite using earphones.

After about 15 minutes of operating, I took a short break to have a snack and try to warm up.  When I started up again, I switched over to 40 meters.  It was already after 5:00 pm local, but more importantly it was a new day in Universal Coordinated Time!  Although I didn't realize it until later, when the day switches, SOTA technically considers it to be a new activation.  While I won't get any points (the rules award points only once per year per summit), the chasers were able to work me a second time and get another 4 points.  As it turned out, I didn't make a ton of QSO's anyway, and the only station who took advantage of this was WB0KIU, Bill from Iowa.  I really desire to make as many QSO's as possible on every SOTA activation, even though the rules only require 4.  But I'm learning that there are often many factors that keep activations short.  On this blustery day, which began close to sunset, I only logged 16 QSO's total, but it was still a great experience.

As I packed up, darkness was rapidly falling.  A guy came up and handed me his business card - apparently he is the Site Director and at first, he questioned my presence in a somewhat unfriendly-sounding tone.  I explained about amateur radio and he became a bit nicer, saying it was fine for me to be there.  However, he did ask me to set up on the pavement next time.

This was a short activation and certainly not the most pleasant.  The environment is one that almost makes you want to just get in and get out, with regards to setting up a radio.  But the views of the city are nice, and the walk down in the dark is safe and peaceful as you can watch the city lights brighten as the night life awakens.

25 November 2016

Thankful for Amateur Radio

Lately I've been on a streak with doing SOTA activations on Fridays.  This week I was in Phoenix, because my YL and I ran a Turkey Day 10k race to celebrate Thanksgiving on Thursday, so I wasn't able to plan a local hike in Tucson.  But, thanks to the SOTA Mapping Project, I was easily able to search for summits closer to Phoenix.  My search criteria also included finding a peak that was easily accessible, preferably a drive-up.  It didn't take long to discover that the South Mountain range was my best bet.  Suappoa Mountain, W7A/MS-048, was only about 20 miles away from our downtown hotel, and there is a paved road all the way to the top.  It's only a 2-pointer, but it would easily provide my SOTA fix.

I left around 9:00 am, and I only had a few hours maximum because I had to get back to my YL and check out of our hotel.  The drive up was uneventful, other than dodging numerous bicyclists who were out enjoying some fresh air on a post-holiday Friday.

Mt. Suappoa is perfectly located to provide wide-range broadcast coverage to the Phoenix metro area, so not surprisingly, it is absolutely covered with commercial antennas.  As I drew nearer to the peak, these antennas dominated the view.

The actual summit is closed to the public.  Apparently the FCC requires registration of any antennas on this site!

However, right next to the summit is a nice large parking area called the Gila Valley Lookout.  The elevation of this area is only about 35 feet below the true summit, so it's within the SOTA Rules Activation Zone.  It was only when I reached the Lookout that I realized I had forgotten to bring along my push-up mast!  I panicked for a few minutes until I realized that in my car's trunk, I had an old 20 meter vertical portable antenna that I had purchased at the local hamfest for $10.  The reason I bought it was that it used a fiberglass push-up pole to support the antenna wire...so bingo, I had a mast available by pure luck!  I set up as quickly as possible, knowing that my YL was waiting for me and time was of the essence.

My little OCF dipole looked a bit out of place amongs the giants in the background.  But it performed nicely for me.  I operated mostly CW, as the heavy RF overpowered the wider bandwidth on phone.  I did, however, make a couple of SSB contact on 10 meters, when I realized that the timing of my operation coincided with the daily 10-10 International Net on 28.380 MHz.  I was able to work my friend, 10-10 Director Bob N6OPR, and another local Phoenix op.  Other QSO's included CW on 10 and 20 meters.  I only made 18 contacts total, once again I would have loved to continue operating for hours but was on-air for only about 30 minutes.  This time it wasn't the pending hike, rather I needed to get back to check-out from our hotel before the deadline.  But I did have fun while there.

As I was packing up, a local law enforcement officer stopped by to make sure I wasn't doing anything illegal, and I had yet another chance to share the hobby with the police.  Another guy stopped by and introduced himself as a fellow SOTA enthusiast; NJ7V wasn't there to activate that day, but it was nice to meet him in person as he has been recorded in my log a few times.

On my way down, I stopped to snap a pic of this interesting structure which is at the base of the mountain.  This certainly is a low desert environment, so I suspect there are plenty of scorpions, as well as snakes and other scaly, spiky creatures, but fortunately I didn't make any contacts with them on this day!

18 November 2016

Window Rock Peak - A Tough Hike and a Fun Activation

November in Arizona is an excellent time of year for hiking.  I've been craving a serious hike and decided to take advantage of the cooler weather and slightly less stressful work schedule and take a hike up to Window Rock.  I've hiked there before, but it was over 20 years ago.  My main memory was that it was a rather steep, challenging hike.  This time around, I wanted to take my portable amateur radio setup for a Summits On The Air (SOTA) activation.  My target destination would be Window Rock Peak, W7A/AW-018.  An added bonus for me was that this would be a "First Activation" of this summit, meaning I would be the first amateur operator to activate this 8-pointer peak.

I set out on the Ventana Canyon Trail around 8 am, which was a bit later than ideal.  The hike up took about 5 hours, with plenty of stops for photos.  This trail is very scenic with a good variety of desert landscape and some amazing views.

As I began the hike, the "Super Moon" was setting (actually it was a couple of days prior but still almost full).

The trail in the early stages of the hike was easy to follow.  At one point it went directly beneath an old Saguaro cactus.  A few miles later, I passed the Maiden Pools, and noticed an interesting rock.  Supposedly this rock was a Matate used by native Americans for grinding grains.

As I climbed higher, the expansive views down Ventana Canyon were quite spectacular.

After around 5 miles, the trail had become much less clear, and it connected to the Esperero Trail ,which in some places was almost invisible.  But my confidence that I would reach the summit began to grow, as I saw the jagged peaks off in the distance.  On the other hand, I began to wonder how I would ever be able to reach the top!

Along the ridge is the geological feature that gives this range its name.  Window Rock is a natural "window", and apparently there are places in the city of Tucson where you can actually see the Window if you look carefully.  For purposes of SOTA, Window Rock was not my destination as it lies too far below the summit.  But since the trail passes so close to the Window, I felt compelled to stop to enjoy a few minutes exploring the Window and it's incredible views.

Pushing onward, I found the trail was significantly less obvious, and significantly more challenging, once I had passed the Window.  I suppose most people probably don't hike past this point, which is already a fairly solid day's hike.  But I was determined to reach the summit and get on the air!

Unfortunately, I reached a point where it seemed that it would be impossible to go any higher.  SOTA rules allow you to set up within 25 meters of the peak's highest elevation, and I was just at the edge of this limit, but I was also was surrounded by pillars of rock...setting up an antenna in this area was not an option.  I tried calling my buddy Quinton, NU7Y, on a repeater, and the rocks made that virtually impossible too.

I was discouraged, but then I realized...I had just hiked for almost 5 hours, climbed over 4,500 feet, and I came here to operate my radio!  I was not going to give up.  There were some trees, and I realized that with some creative scrambling/tree climbing, I might be able to get higher.

It worked!  I found my way to the top, and was rewarded with a nice rock summit!

The views were absolutely amazing up there.  I quickly set up and got on the air.  It was already past 1:30pm and I knew time was going to be short if I was to make it back down before sunset.

I would have loved to just sit up there and run the rig, but sadly I only made 17 QSO's before I decided it was time to pack up.  I'm learning that while operating from summits is supremely fun, my time up there always seems to be quite limited.

Here's a 360 degree video view from the summit.  I had my HT on a local repeater and there were a few locals planning the next day's public service ops for El Tour de Tucson, a big bike race.

I really had to hurry on the hike down.  The views of the mountains were quite stunning as the sun set, with hills taking on a golden hue and shadows growing longer.

I finally made it back to the car just about 10 minutes after sunset, tired but happy.  The total hike distance was 13.2 miles, according to my GPS, with 4,779 feet of elevation gain.  This was a beautiful hike and a successful SOTA activation, and I'm looking forward to doing it again!

12 November 2016

OVARC Hamfest 2016 and Ten Meters Presentation

The Oro Valley Amateur Radio Club held their annual Hamfest on November 12, 2016.  This is a nice event, a large one for a local hamfest.  This year, I had a busy agenda as I was attending as a Speaker for a forum session, an Exhibitor for Ten-Ten International Net, a Volunteer for the club, and a Flea-Market Socializer the rest of the day.

The morning began very early, as I had volunteered to staff the entry booth from 5:00 - 7:00 am.  This turned out to be an easy job, since the only hams allowed entry during that period were vendors and exhibitors.

Once the gates opened, and the sun rose, things began to get a little busier.  There were many hams from Tucson and even some out-of-towners who drove in for the fun.

My presentaion was in the first time slot for forums at 8:00 am.  I gave a talk called, Ten Meters - An Ideal Band for ALL Hams.  It went very well and I gave lots of real-life, current examples of successful 10 meter QSO's.  It's my belief that many hams are under the mistaken impression that 10 meters is a dead band, but there is plenty of technology that easily proves otherwise!

After the talk was over, I returned to the parking lot, which is a great one for an Arizona hamfest because it has solar-panel covered parking spots which are used for the vendor area.  This gives both sellers and buyers some nice shade - although it was cool, the sun is still strong here in the Southwest.  Our booth for Ten-Ten International was staffed by myself and Bob Farrow, N6OPR, who is a Director of 10-10.  Bob drove down from Phoenix just to promote 10 meters and as always provided plenty of entertainment.

It was a nice day, thank you OVARC!

11 November 2016

Amateur Radio in the Great Southwest - QSO's, Cactus, and Shotguns

I miss the days when I had a nice beam and a home station that was always available to operate.  My current home QTH does not have that luxury, so I'm forced to seek opportunities to engage in my ham hobby in alternate ways, one of which has been the Summits On The Air (SOTA) program.  As my interest in SOTA grows, I am learning that there are a great many peaks in Arizona just waiting for an intrepid ham.

My work schedule occasionally requires me to visit clients, and on Friday November 11th I had arranged a meeting in Casa Grande.  It seemed like a lot of driving for only an hour's meeting, so I checked the SOTA Mapping site to see if any peaks were nearby that I could activate afterwards.  I was excited to discover that there was a 2-pointer peak very close to where I would be!  Further investigation took me to the Casa Grande Mountain Trails Project website, which seemed to indicate that there were plenty of trails meandering through a pleasant desert landscape.

So with great anticipation I decided to activate Casa Grande Mountain HP, SOTA W7A/ PN-125.  I packed my gear and threw it in the car along with some hiking clothes.

  I was done with the meeting before noon and headed over to the parking area off Arica Road.

It didn't look too bad!  I set off on the trail and even had a simple map that I printed from the website.  It all seemed quite simple - make my way on to the Ridge Trail, head a bit North, then take a short off-trail scramble to reach the summit.  My planned route appeared to be less than a mile to the top.  At the beginning, the trails were nice and easy.  I even found a sign after winding around a bit, which let me know I had made it onto the Ridge Trail.

It was a rather warm day, as I expected at mid-day in low desert elevation.  The desert has a stark beauty to it, and often shows signs of life under harsh conditions.  Cactus are thorny, rocks are jagged, critters are dry and scaly, and sometimes death lies exposed as if to remind one of the challenging environment.

Oddly, the Ridge Trail does not actually go along the ridge, but rather it goes below it.  I had gone a little too far South at the beginning, and after about 1.7 miles I decided it was time to forge up the mountainside to reach the summit.  I knew this was not going to be an easy scramble as soon as I began.

If you zoom way in, you can see a tiny flagpole near the top of this photo - that is the peak.  So I set my sights on that as a goal and headed on up.  The rocks were crazy hard and cactus were everywhere!  In fact, I managed to lodge a nasty piece of jumping cholla deep into my calf muscle.  This is one of the hazards of desert life, and those of us who live in Southern Arizona know all too well what it feels like.  You can't simply remove a cholla by scraping it away either :-(

The climb became quite steep nearer the top.

I did finally reach the top (and also found a small trail leading in from the sides that I didn't know about!)  There was a flag that someone had left up there, along with about 6 dirty old tins that people had left full of summit registers and miscellaneous trash.

The hike up had taken much longer than I had expected so my operating time was not nearly as long as I had hoped for.  I worked mostly cw.  I made a couple of contacts with Tom, NQ7R, who lives right near the base of the mountain - we even had my first 2m SOTA QSO using FM simplex from my HT.  There is a shooting range to the West and during the entire activation, loud gunshots were blasting and I was nervous about ricocheting bullets!

I made 29 QSO's on 40m and 20m before packing it up.  On the way out, I decided to attempt a different route back, which took me along the true ridge.  This turned out to be a mistake, as it took a very long time before I was able to descend.

The route rolled up and down along various sub-peaks.  At the top of one, I found some rocks arranged in a tri-pattern, all pointing inward towards this marker which apparently was placed there in 1966.

Finally, late in the afternoon, I reached a point where the only way to go was down - and it wasn't too easy.

I did make it out alive, with a swollen calf and legs that were far more exhausted than the original plan had called for.  Maybe that's why this particular summit had never been activated before?  Anyway, I was happy to add another summit activation to my log and a couple more points to my activator total.

04 November 2016

Working the World from Oracle Ridge Summit

There are quite a few summits to climb around my home QTH in Tucson.  I was ready for another hike and my buddy Quinton, NU7Y, was off work so we decided to do a SOTA activation on Oracle Ridge, W7A/PE-004.  Quinton had researched possible summits and another local ham, K6HPX had activated Oracle Ridge a week ago, so we had some good info about how to approach the summit.  We decided to drive up the Mt. Lemmon Highway and start hiking along the Arizona Trail from a parking lot near the fire station on the ridge below Ski Valley.  On the map, it appeared to be a moderately long but fairly easy hike.

The trail was beautiful, and the weather was cool when we began hiking a bit before 9 am.  The trail started just under 8,000 feet and was net downhill towards the summit (until the final climb), but it went up and down over several peaks along the way.

The terrain was rocky and bushy, with lots of interesting weather-worn trees.  For some reason we could not determine, there is a fence running much of the way along the ridge.

About an hour into the hike, we could see our destination far off in the distance.

We also saw some ominous clouds moving in!  One fast-moving one had a vertical wall that was rapidly sweeping across the sky and eventually obstructed our view.  We began to be concerned that we might be hiking into a rainstorm, but we kept moving ahead.

After about 3 1/4 miles of hiking, we were close to the summit.  Unfortunately, the trail does not lead to the summit.  We were already getting weary, but the only way to the top involved a "bushwhack" up some steep, crowded terrain.  The pace of our hike became very slow as we climbed up.

When I finally reached the top, I took a short break to have a sandwich and take in the view.  Actually, there wasn't much view, as I was pretty much in the clouds.

We had planned to operate two independent stations, but when Quinton set his up he discovered some antenna problems.  So we both worked with my KX2 and OCF dipole.  Conditions were good on the bands but we were tired from the long hike!

We worked CW for a while, on several bands.

One of my favorite QSO's of the day was when I worked ZL1BYZ, John from New Zealand, on 15 meters.  He actually sent me an email with an mp3 recording of my calling after our QSO, and I was amazed to hear how strong my signal was - 5 watts to NZ was plenty!

I also worked a few stations on phone before we wrapped things up.

Since the hike in took so long, we knew we could not stay long so I only ended up with 29 QSO's for the day, including one Summit-to-Summit contact.  We packed up quickly and began the trek out.  Going back was a little faster but we chose the right time to leave - the sun was nearly set when we finished up the hike.

I ran my Yaesu FT-2D in APRS mode on the hike and it recorded a somewhat accurate track - my experience with RF-based APRS tracking using only an HT hasn't been very good, it tends to not make it in to the digipeaters very often due to the high volume of APRS traffic.  Here's the track result:

I'm really happy we did this hike, but I'm not sure I will be too eager to do Oracle Ridge anytime again soon.  It was an awesome way to spend a day with my friend, and we made some nice QSO's and enjoyed perfect weather conditions.  But, it was a difficult hike (off-trail bushwhacking seems to be a trend in reaching SOTA peaks?).  We'll see what comes next!