Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Road to Mountain Goat: A Retrospective

I've been working on making Mountain Goat since 2013, having only accomplished that achievement last month.  Many things occurred in that time, including a combat deployment to Afghanistan (N0PCL QRT during that time), re-learning CW, many antennas used and broken, many miles hiked, summits gained, and hours on the radio.
So, this happened.

So, having harvested the data on the SOTAData web site, my own logbook, and my own recollections, here's a bit of a look back.

Total QSOs:  1396
Total Points:  1005
Total Unique Summits where a QSO was made:  99
Total Summits (Includes summits visited more than once): 154
Total Failed Activations without a single QSO:  2 (White Mountain Peak, W6/CD-001.  Great hike, though, and Half Dome, W6/SN-040.  Half Dome was also an amazing hike.)
Total Summits with 1-4 QSOs (enough to activate, but not enough for points):  4

Screen-capture of my SOTA Goat App on my iPhone, showing most of the peaks I've activated.  A couple of the peaks have been de-listed for various reasons, so it's not a complete list.
A view of most of the summits in the Southern California area, from SOTA Goat.
View of the string of activated peaks along the Eastern Seaboard.  From SOTA Goat.
QSOs By Mode:

CW QSOs:  903 (65%)
FM QSOs:  183 (13%)
SSB QSOs:  310 (22%)

Learning point:  I started SOTA with SSB and CW, but my radio skill exponentially improved once I gave CW a go.  After MG was achieved, it made up basically 2/3rd of my total QSOs.  It also tends to be much more efficient at QRP power levels, and is generally much more unobtrusive on busy summits (you can sit there with a notepad, a key, and earbuds quietly hamming away without making noise or drawing attention to yourself).  It's also lots of fun.

Incidentally my longest-distance contact while activating a summit was from Middle Peak (W6/SC-024) in Southern California.  I had a CW contact with OH9XX on 12 meters using CW.  OH9XX was in Finland, 5583 miles away.  My power output:  2.5 watts.  Miles per milliwatt of power: 2.2.

So, from Southern California, I made contact with a man in Finland, by burning long-wave photons off of a piece of metal, bouncing those photons off the a section of the atmosphere that was ionized by the sun's ultraviolet light.  Those photons excited electrons on another piece of metal in Finland, where those electrons were amplified and converted to sound waves sufficient for two-way communications--using as much power as required to power a flashlight.

Amazing.

My shortest QSO was probably with WA6NVL, on Dictionary Hill (W6/SC-366).  He heard me on his HT, climbed up the hill I was on, and met me.  It was probably a contact that was less than a quarter mile.  It was on 2 Meter FM.

QSOs By Band:

80 Meters:  2 (<1%)
40 Meters:  177 (13%)
30 Meters:  136 (10%)
20 Meters:  621 (44%)
17 Meters:  100 (7%)
15 Meters:  44 (3%)
12 Meters:  101 (101%)
10 Meters:  30 (2%)
6 Meters:  3 (<1%)
2 Meters:  165 (12%)
1.25 Meters (222 MHz):  5 (<1%)
70 centimeters:  12 (<1%)

I've had the fortune of making activation contacts on every band from 80 Meters through 70 centimeters, except 60 meters.  My SOTA transcievers, an FT-817ND and a VX-8DR, both from Yaesu, allow exceptional frequency agility, which I have found useful.  The only reasons I haven't made contacts on other bands is because I don't have a radio that will support that (on frequencies above 450 MHz), or I don't have an antenna that allows it (on 60 and 160 meters).  I'll see about rectifying that in the future.

I was surprised at the amount of time I gave to WARC bands (30, 17, and 12 meters).  I actually made more contacts on each of those bands than 80, 15, and 10 meters combined!  This was, in part, likely due to the 12 Meter Challenge, which was popular some time ago in the SOTA world.  I also really, really like 30 an 17 meters, too, since those bands have many similar characteristics to the neighboring 20 and 40 meter bands, but they're never plagued with contest activity.  The WARCs seem a bit more gentlemanly.

All of my SOTA activations on VHF and up were FM or SSB.  All QSOs on 2 meters and up were via FM.

I'm becoming more and more interested in VHF and UHF operation, particularly weak signal and satellite work.  In the future, don't be surprised to see me try to activate some summits on those higher frequencies.

QSOs by Countries/DXCC Entities:

96.7% of all QSOs were with other stations in the continental United States.  1.93% were with Canadian stations.  The remainder were countries spread out in 11 other DXCC entities.


From Southern California, I managed to reach Canadian, German, and Finnish stations.  The rest of the DXCC entities were contacted from mountains along East Coast of the US.

Activators:

Phil, NS7P, Gary, W0MNA, and his XYL, Martha, W0ERI, were my top chasers.


Associations:

Here's a list of the associations and regions I've activated in:

890 QSOs (64%) were from the W6 association.  421 QSOs (30%) were from W4V.  6% were spread among K0M, W0C, W1, W3, W7A, W7W, and W9.

543 (54%) of my points were from W6.  394 (39%) were from W4V.  The rest, 68 points (7%) were from the other associations.

Personal Notes:

  • Favorite QSO:  Mentioned above, with OH9XX.
  • Favorite Hikes:  There are many.  My favorites are, in no particular order:  Mt. Badon-Powell (W6/CT-004), Alabama Hills (W6/SS-442), Robertson Mountain (W4V/SH-011), Rocky Mount (W4V/HB-035), San Gorgonio (W6/CT-001 & W6/CT-043), San Antonio (W6/CT-003), Thomas Mountain (W6/CT-016), Cahuilla Mountain (W6/CT-103), Knob Mountain (W4V/SH-017), and Pilot Knob (W6/SD-435).
  • Least Favorite Hike:  Pt. 6020 (W6/SD-017).  This peak was a bushwhack through thorns and scrub.  It was barely doable.
  • Easiest Hike:  Probably La Cumbre Peak (W6/SC-086), but there are others that are incredibly easy.
  • Most Challenging Hike:  Pallett Benchmark (W6/CT-058), or maybe San Gorgonio (mentioned above).
  • Most points earned in a weekend:  48.  From 18-20 April 2014, I activated Onyx Peak (W6/CT-044), Keller Peak (W6/CT-013), Delamar Mountain (W6/CT-050), Bertha Peak (W6/CT-054), Mount Williamson (W6/CT-011), and Pallett Benchmark (W6/CT-058).
My wisdom learned from the whole thing:

  • Persevere.  Don't Give Up.  Mountain Goat is one of the most challenging amateur radio activities in existence.  It's very physical, demands, high levels of operator skill, is technically challenging, and can be frustrating.  Just keep improving.
  • Analyze your failures, and be objective about them.  Need to improve your hiking shape, or learn CW, or find alternative methods of spotting?  Do it.
  • Have fun.  It's immensely satisfying.
N0PCL and the XYL, on the summit of Alabama Hills, with Mount Whitney, in the background.


Look what arrived in the mail!

Check this out...

Sunday, December 3, 2017

SOTA Trip Report: My Goat Activation of Blue Mounds (W9/WI-010)

It's been quite a long journey to Goat, a quest I set out for back in the summer of 2013.  Maybe the longest portion was these past few months.  I had been sitting at 999 points, literally one single point away from reaching Mountain Goat status.  I had plans to potentially reach Mountain Goat this past summer during an attempted thru-hike of the Superior Hiking Trail, a trail which has a handful of K0M SOTA peaks.  (As some people can probably vouch for, it was an exceptionally wet year on the North Shore of Lake Superior, which made travel on the trail much more challenging.  I didn't complete the trail, but I did hike well over 100 miles of it, as well as activate a few peaks along it, bringing me to 999 points).

So I returned to Virginia, but, here, too, I had problems, as I had already activated basically every peak in Shenandoah National Park this past year.  I suppose I could have gone out further afield in the state, but I didn't.

I also wanted a way to conduct this activation with my intrepid hiking partner and XYL, Marit, and if available, her friend, Christine, both of whom have accompanied me on several activations.  Marit and Christine are awesome hikers in their own rights, having completed several challenging hikes around the country:
  • The Southern California Three Peak Challenge, where you summit San Gorgonio, San Jacinto, and San Antonio (aka "Baldy") in under 24 hours.
  • The Four State Challenge (48-ish miles), hiking from Pennsylvania, through Maryland, West Virginia, and into Virginia along the Appalachian Trail in under 24 hours.
  • The Connecticut Challenge, hiking between New York and Massachusetts along the AT in Connecticut (approximately 56 miles) in under 24 hours.
  • Many other day and thru-hiking adventures.
These ladies are serious hikers, and they have accompanied me on many hikes.  No--neither of them has any interest in radio, but they put up with my antics nonetheless.  It would be nice to have them around for the Goat activation.

A few weeks back I found that Christine was visiting her family in Wisconsin over Thanksgiving, while my wife and I were visiting my family in the same state.  I had also never activated any peaks in Wisconsin before, so this was my chance to get Goat, in a new association, with my XYL and Christine.

I selected Blue Mounds (W9/WI-010), which is southwest of Madison, WI.  It is located within Blue Mound State Park (not to be confused with Blue Mounds State Park in Minnesota).  Blue Mound was the name given to the large hill by the original French traders who inhabited the area in the early 18th century.  The "peak" itself is a large, steep hill with an elevation of over 1700 feet.  It's geologically interesting because it's made of dolomite, a limestone which used to cover the Great Lakes from Wisconsin to Niagara Falls.  Indeed, the Niagara Escarpment was caused by unequal erosion of various types of rocks, one of which was dolomite.  In any case, much of the dolomite was removed by erosion over the eons, excepting Blue Mound and other similar formations, but more importantly, the area of southern Wisconsin was the only area that was not covered in glaciers during the last ice age.  Glacial ice covered Minnesota, most of Wisconsin, and all of the Midwestern states as far south as Kansas, but this piece of Wisconsin, called the Driftless Area, escaped glaciation, allowing Blue Mound, as well as several other similar formations to continue to exist.

Blue Mounds is fundamentally a drive-up peak, with a large parking area at the top of the peak, and two observation towers on the east and west sides of the peak.  There is a small fee to access the park, payable to attendant or via envelop.  To make this peak SOTA-legal, the three of us did a circuit of the park, beginning and terminating at the parking area.

We agreed that the Friday post-Thanksgiving would be the best time to attempt this.  The weather was chilly, in the upper 30s Fahrenheit, with very stiff winds.  We climbed the Western Observation Tower.  I began the activation at around 0800 local time (1400 UTC), first by attempting VHF and UHF FM contacts.  I was able to self-spot with SMS and with the SOTAGoat iPhone app.  APRS coverage is also abundant.  But no joy on any of my calls, which was a bit surprising.  While not a metropolis, Madison, wasn't too far away.  I expected to maybe roust somebody on 146.52.  I also attempted contacts on 223.5 and 446.0, all with negative results.  While I was working on this, the ladies continued on their hike, and I climbed down to get set up on HF.

N0PCL sitting at the top of the tower, trying to stay out of the wind.
N0PCL working the HT with a view to the west.
Photo looking down the center of the tower, with the circling landings and staircases.
I found a picnic table not far from the western observation tower, with a few nearby trees to sling a wire antenna into.  I bungeed my homemade EARCHI UNUN to a tree trunk, ran radials along the ground, and slung the radiating wire into a neighboring tree.  A length of RG-174 coax fed the antenna.  On the table, I set up my FT-817ND, my LDG autotuner, and my Palm Mini key.  I cracked open the logbook, put the earbuds in the ear, and tried to think warm thoughts as I called CQ SOTA on 14.063 MHz.

My HF station:  Ft-817ND with numerous aftermarket modifications, LDG Z-817 autotuner, mic, and my Palm Mini key. Pen, earbuds, a small notepad, and my ARRL minilog round out the station.
Base of my antenna:  Homemade EARCHI matchbox bungeed to a tree, with radials and a radiating wire.  RG-174 Coax can be barely seen.  My operating position to the right of the photo, about 25 feet away.

Body of a deceased snowman near my operating position.  Wisconsin had received some snowfall in the weeks before my activation, but it had mostly melted.  The matchbox can be barely seen on the tree in the upper right.

N4EX, Rich, was the first to answer my call with a 569 report.  I worked a total of six stations on 20, and then shifted to 7.043 MHz, where I worked twelve more stations.  Total time activating was 27 minutes.  By this time I was getting quite cold.  I put away my station (mostly), and returned to the Jeep to where I awaited the return of the XYL and Christine.
My logbook as it was updated to SOTAData.

Goat was Achieved.

After completing this activation, I realized that I had forgotten something.  I left my EARCHI matchbox bungeed to the tree.  So, if you're hiking up on Blue Mounds, help yourself to an UNUN.  And if it's not there any longer, I'll consider it poetic.  The mountains gave me much pleasure.  I may as well leave a piece of homebrew radio gear in return.

This journey to Goat wasn't always easy.  While I have been licensed for many decades, I wasn't an active ham for much of that time, and SOTA was my reintroduction to the hobby.  I had to learn the ins and outs of QRP operation, relearn morse code, learn how to manage pileups, and learn how to build and optimize antennas. I also learned much about myself in the process, like how to hike, manage expectations for my hiking/SOTA success, and, probably most importantly, to make sure I persevere and just not give up.

Many deserve thanks and recognition for this milestone.  My XYL accompanied me on many of these SOTA activations.  Christine also put up with a great deal of waiting around on peaks while I got my contacts.  I also did some hikes with several hams in the Southern California SOTA community, including Gary, K6YOA, and Tim, K6TW.  The SoCal SOTA group--you know who you are--also deserves some mention.  And there are number of fellow Marines whom I have had the pleasure of making Summit to Summit contacts with (Dan, NA6MG and Mike NS1TA/ex-W6AH, and others.)  And, of course, many thanks belong to the numerous chasers.

Many thanks are due for helping me to this achievement!

73.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

November Shack Update

Greetings, all.

Things have been continuing in the N0PCL ham shack.

First, on the award front...

While I haven't submitted my official applications for the following awards, I have sufficient confirmations for the following:
  • Worked All States (mixed band and mode, CW, phone, digital, Triple Play, and 40 meters.)  I'm three states away from WAS on 20, too, needing only Maryland, Delaware, and Connecticut.
  • DXCC (mixed band and mode, CW, and 20 Meters.)  I've got 91 total countries on digital modes, and 86 on phone.  And I've got 84 countries on 15 meters and 79 on 40 meters.  So I'm getting there.
In addition to the above, I've got 96 Maidenhead locators on 6 meters, using only a dipole in the attic and 100 watts.

And, perhaps my biggest near-achievement is SOTA Goat status.  I'm currently sitting at 999 points out of a necessary 1000.  My conundrum there is that I've basically activated all the peaks in my local area this year, so I need to go further afield.  I should be visiting my parents over the upcomin holiday season, so I may attempt an activation of Holy Hill (W9/WI-031) or one of the other "mountains" in southern or western Wisconsin.  Holy Hill will put me at 1,001 activator points.

In other news, I've built an APRS fill-in digipeater and iGate at my home QTH.  It doesn't get a huge amount of traffic--I'm mostly filling in APRS packets along a 25 mile stretch of I-95 between Fredericksburg and Woodbridge.  I'll do a write-up on that in the near future.  I used a rarely-touched FT-2900R, a TinyTrak4 from Byonics, and some free software.  Pretty simple stuff.

73

Saturday, February 25, 2017

February Update

Greetings, all.

It's been a while since I blogged here.  I suppose I'll give a quick update on things.

The march to SOTA Mountain Goat continues.  For the most part, I haven't activated very many peaks that I haven't visited before.  The Shenandoah Range is the closest range by a long shot.  And given that I've activated most of the peaks near Skyline Drive several times, it doesn't make much sense to blog about new ones.  Still, I've been quite active with SOTA in the last few weeks.  I've been doing mostly CW work--it's just more effective.  In the month of February alone, I've had CW QSOs on 40, 30, 20, 17,15, and 12 meters.  I've attempted CW QSOs on 80 and 10 meters, but no luck.  I've heard some stations on 80 (KG3W and a couple others), but evidently my QRP signal couldn't make it through the daytime noise levels, even in the "winter."  (Truthfully, there hasn't been much of a winter here.  Some rain, and a couple dustings of snow, but it's felt more like April or May here in Tidewater Virginia).

Typically I start my activations using the Yaesu VX-8DR HT.  I do this for a few reasons.  I do it to get the APRS beacon out, so that any followers can see my location on the peak.  And I also see if there are any locals about on 146.52, 223.5, and 446.0, the FM calling frequencies.  Occasionally I can scrape together four contacts on those bands alone, which is great if I need to get off the peak quickly.  More often, I just like to use those bands because, frankly, they're not used enough.

Only then will I set up my HF station, typically working CW, but occasionally SSB.

In any case, my activations have been effective.  Since 2017 started, I've logged over 100 activation points.  I currently sit at 938 total activation points.  1000 is the goal, so it's coming.

I've also given some thought about which peak I'd like to earn Mountain Goat status on.  I'm leaning toward Mount Badon-Powell (W6/CT-004) in Southern California.  The only problem is that it's buried in a lot of snow, so I'll have to wait.  That's probably OK.

I've also been asked why I continue to linger in the W6 SOTA Association while I live in Virginia.  There are several reasons, but chief among them is that I really like living and hiking in California.  Virginia is OK, but it's just not my favorite place.  I've also earned more activation points in California than anywhere else, so W6 is where I am, and it's where I intend to stay.

As far as the home QTH goes, things are fine there too.  The K3S is doing well.  I've added a Telepost LP-Pan 2 panadaptor, which is connected to the computer by a Xonar U7 external sound card.  That allows me to use various software to "see" the band.  I've been experimenting with several software packages to do that.  So far, PowerSDR IF Stage and the Win4K3Suite seem to be the best.  PowerSDR has the most attractive-looking interface, but Win4K3Suite offers much closer control of the transceiver.

In terms of paper-chasing, I've made progress, too.  For DXCC, I have 120 total entities confirmed.  96 via CW, 75 using Phone, and 42 on digital modes.  I've confirmed with 294 band-entities for DXCC Challenge.

I'm very close on the Triple Play award, too.  I only need Alaska via CW and Wyoming via phone.

So, what's next?  I think I'm going to try to experiment more on 6 meters.

It's all great fun.

I have a few posts planned for the near future.  I'll likely do a quick post on my home QTH antennas, and probably a post on my SOTA-related equipment I use.

That's it for now!  73.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

N0PCL Home QTH Shack Update: Part 2

In the previous post, I neglected to post a picture of the operating position of my shack.  I'm fixing that now.

So, here you go.

73!


Monday, October 17, 2016

N0PCL Home QTH Shack Update

It's been a while since I've posted here, and it's not for want of news.  It's mainly because I haven't been doing a whole lot of SOTA activations of late.  I'm just not built for the heat and humidity of the "humid subtropical" climate I'm stuck in while I'm here in tidewater, Virginia.

But...

I have been doing lots of work on the Home QTH Radio shack.

In no particular order, here's what I've done:
  • Paint.  I painted the room.  My shack is in a spare second-floor bedroom which the previous homeowners had painted a bright pink with a Disney "Frozen" motif.  It's now a calming "Lighthouse Shadows" color.
  • Bought a new shack computer.  I purchased a Dell Inspiron tower, with Radeon R6 Graphics.  It's a fine AMD Quad-Core computer with an adequate, low end graphics card.  All in price:  less than $500.
  • Bought an LP-Pan 2 from Telepost.  It's an aftermarket IQ Panadaptor for use with my Elecraft K3S.  The KS3 already has an IF Out port, so it's an easy connection to the LP-Pan.  I run the LP-Pan with the ASUS Xonar U7 external sound card, which basically acts as a analog-to-digital converter for the shack computer to decode the I and Q channels and produce a beautiful, and very functional display of band activity across up to 192 kilohertz of spectrum.  It's very nice.
  • I bought another monitor.  Previously, I had been using a 28" Viewsonic monitor.  I purchased a second one, so now I'm able to run a combination of radio-related programs through one display, and I have a spare display for general purpose use.  Typically I run Ham Radio Deluxe, PowerSDR/IF Stage, and the Ham Radio Deluxe Logger, DM780, and WSJT-X on one monitor.  On the other display I usually have a web browsers open with tabs for SOTAWatch2, SOTAData, LOTW, DXSummit.fi, aprs.fi, QRZ.com, WA7BNM Contest Calendar, the VHF Propagation Map, and email.
    Now that I have two monitors side-by-side, my right monitor assists with running rig-control software, logging, and basically handling QSOs.  Here's the configuration I use when I run SSB and CW on the Elecraft K3S.  Ham Radio Deluxe handles the actual interfacing between the radio and the computer, with the HRD Logging and PowerSDR/IF Stage running on top of that.
    Here's my right monitor when it's running "Joe Taylor" digital modes, mainly JT65 or JT9 using WSJT-X.
    Here's my right monitor when I use DM780 for the other digital modes I run.  My favorite digital modes are probably Olivia, PSK-31, and occasionally RTTY.

    I use the left-hand monitor for displaying other websites and running other programs.  Here, I'm displaying web browsers that have tabs for SOTA, a DX Cluster, APRS, VHF Propagation Maps, Contest Calendar, and LOTW.
  • As mentioned earlier above, I'm using Ham Radio Deluxe (along with the Logger and DM780), WSJT-X, PowerSDR IF Stage (panadaptor software).  I'm also using Dimension4 to keep my computer clock synched very closely to a time server (important for the JT65 and JT9 digital modes).
  • Some months ago I purchased a West Mountain Radio (which hails from my hometown of Waukesha, Wisconsin) RigBlaster Advantage digital mode interface for use with the Elecraft K3S.  Yes--I'm aware that the Elecraft K3S has a built-in interface, but I really wanted to take advantage of the direct FSK keying feature that the RigBlaster Advantage has.  I did, but I found that for the limited RTTY operating I do, I found that the AFSK variant of RTTY was perfectly adequate to my needs.  For simplicity's sake, I removed the RigBlaster Advantage from the K3S setup, and it's currently with my QRP and Portable shack (the FT-817ND).  No--I haven't configured it for operation with the 817 yet, but I will.  I intend to use it when traveling, mainly.
  • The remainder of my shack is the same.  I'm still using a W1AB Killer Antenna hidden on my property.  Yes, it's a major compromise antenna, but it works good enough, and is very frequency-agile, able to function from 160-6 meters just fine.  I also have a dipole in the attic cut for 20 meters.
  • I'm still using the K3S/100, pretty much all the options except the 2 Meter board and the subreceiver.  I'll get those another time.
  • My key is still a Kent iambic paddle.  I love it.
  • I use the Heil ProSet headset with the K3S.
  • An Astron RS-35A powers the whole thing through a West Mountain Radio RigRunner 4008 DC Power Strip.
  • I'm still using a Yaesu FT-2900 2 meter radio with a home-made J-Pole antenna in the attic.  This is for local 2 meter FM communication.
  • My SOTA/Portable shack is still the same, too.  I'll do another post on exactly what I bring for SOTA and portable operation another time.