Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Lessons Learned: Spotting Techniques on Half Dome (W6/SN-040)

Climbing the cables.  It's a confidence-building experience.  XYL Photo.

Success results from experience.  Experience results from failure.  With that maxim in mind, I'm going to describe both successful and unsuccessful SOTA activations with the aim of reducing the "experience" needed to become a successful SOTA activator for the new-to-SOTA ham.

In summer 2013 my XYL and I (along with some family friends) took a summer camping vacation to Yosemite National Park, with a climbing of the famed Half Dome (W6/SN-040) as the pinnacle event of the trip.  For those that haven't climbed this peak, it's a bit of an experience.  Our hike took us up the Mist Trail, followed by the hike to the Sub Dome, the climbing of the cables, and then the summit.  We decided to return by following the John Muir Trail, not the Mist Trail.

Part of our party moving up the Mist Trail.  XYL photo.

One of the falls along the Mist Trail.  XYL photo.
At the time I was carrying my Yaesu FT-817ND, stock internal batteries, the hand mic, and the SuperAntenna MP-1D portable vertical antenna.  I didn't have an HT at the time.  I also had my 10 Essentials and my iPhone 4.  Take note that I didn't carry a CW key, as I wasn't proficient at CW at the time.  I didn't have an APRS capability.  I only had the '817 with hand mic.  The combination of equipment allowed me phone (SSB & FM) operation on 40 Meters through 2 Meters, plus 70 cm.

This was early in my SOTA career--I had a successful activation prior to this.  Notably, I completed an activation of Mt. Baldy (aka. Mt. San Antonio, W6/CT-003).  Still, this was my second attempted activation.  It was a rather ambitious peak to activate, too!

Baldy / Mt. San Antonio - My first activation!  Not too bad.

The hike up was memorable--indescribable, actually.  The Mist Trail is utterly beautiful, and climbing the cables to the top up 50-degree-steep slick granite is a surreal experience.  I was very excited to get to the top!

A permit is required to climb Half Dome.  XYL photo.

N0PCL and XYL in a photo at the bottom of the cables.  XYL photo.
XYL used a climbing harness and carabiners for safety.  Me?  I don't need safety.  I just carefully climbed.   XYL Photo.
N0PCL pulling himself up the cables.  My gloves are just gardening gloves.  XYL photo.
It's steep.  XYL photo.
After getting there, I set up my station and started calling "CQ SOTA" on 14.3425 MHz--one of the more common phone frequencies used by SOTA activators.  No one returned my call.  I pulled out my cell, and though I had several "bars" of signal strength, I had no cell phone data connectivity.  I didn't know about the SMS-to-SOTA gateway, either.  So I returned to the radio, hoping--praying that somebody would hear me.  I put out an Alert on SOTAWatch with my expected frequencies.  And I was on the summit at the Alerted time.  But still...

N0PCL calling CQ on Half Dome.  XYL was being understanding.  XYL photo.


I tuned up and down the bands.  I heard pileups.  I heard a Boy Scouts special event station.  I tried calling them.  No joy.  Nobody heard me.

N0PCL trying VHF.  No joy.  XYL photo.

I tried 40 Meters.  15 Meters.  10 Meters.  Even 6 Meters, 2 Meters, and 70 cm.  FM and SSB.  Calling frequencies.  Other frequencies.  Scanning.  Everything.

Nothing but static.

My family and friends were kindly waiting for me to complete my quest.  My XYL came up to me after some time (she had gone out searching for USGS survey markers), and she asked "How many do you have?"  She was asking about the number of QSOs completed.

Zero.  Zilch.  Nil.  Nada.  Nichts.  Nothing.

After spending perhaps an 75 or 90 minutes trying, I gave up.

A failed activation.  Completely failed.  Not a single QSO.  Not even a partial QSO.  Nothing.

Looking back, I don't think the failure was of my equipment.  It was a failure of operator skill and poor planning.  Perhaps propagation played a part of it, but I doubt that--I was hearing many stations out there.

I was a new SOTA activator--very new, actually.  I didn't realize how important a self-spot was to a new SOTA activator.

The deck is already stacked against the SOTA Activator.  He or she is almost always running QRP power, using a portable makeshift antenna, carrying his own equipment, and very subject to other considerations (weather, other people, critters, daylight, leaving enough time for hiking off the summit, etc.)  I know that self-spotting is forbidden in most contests--and that's fine and good.  But SOTA isn't a contest--it's an award's scheme.  The SOTA Activator needs every advantage he or she can get.  Self spotting therefore helps a great deal.

There are numerous self-spotting methods available:
  1. A cell phone with data connectivity can spot using either the SOTA Goat app, or another app. 
  2. Alternatively, you can load the SOTAWatch website and self-spot that way.
  3. A phone with SMS (texting) capability can assist with self-spotting provided you've registered to access the SMS-to-SOTA Gateway.
  4. A 2 Meter APRS-capable radio can also assist with self-spotting using the APRS2SOTA Gateway, provided you've registered.  The FT-817ND, by itself, does not have this capability.  But it could work using the WolphiLink interface and an Android smartphone.  Or you can just get an APRS-capable HT.  (I now carry a Yaesu VX-8DR.  But the Kenwood TH-D72A performs great.  Or you can pair up the WolphiLink with an inexpensive Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood, Alinco, or one of the new Chinese HTs, like a Baofeng or Wouxun).
  5. A proficient CW operator can self-spot using the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN), provided a SOTAWatch Alert has been posted for approximately the correct time.
  6. Lastly, you can completely negate the requirement for a self-spot if somebody can provide a spot for you.
From this list, it's clear to me that option 3 above, possibly option 4, and almost certainly option 5 could have worked on Half Dome.  Options 1 & 2 would not have worked there because of the lack of cell data access on Half Dome.

To be sure, some prior planning would have been required.

You need to register for SMS-to-SOTA and APRS2SOTA for those gateways to work.  Proficiency in APRS operation can be tricky at first, too.

To make RBNGate work, you also need to register for the SOTAWatch site and post an Alert there, and be proficient enough for CW operation.

I did several training hikes to get ready for the Half Dome trek.  But I neglected to appropriately prepare myself for the radio portion of the activation.

Lesson learned.  I've used all of the above listed self-spotting methods.  It's best to ensure you always have an option.  Then the SOTA chase can begin...

Still, hiking Half Dome was a tremendous experience.  I highly recommend it, and I hope to get the chance to reattempt an activation of that peak.

N0PCL enjoying a beer after the hike.  XYL photo.

Let me know if you have any questions, experience, or advice in the Comments Section below.



  1. The introspection is great and I always do a "post mortem" after each activation successful or not to try and see what I could do better.

    I agree it is somewhat stacked against the activator and that makes for half the fun of it ...its a bit like going to Vegas and when the gamble pays off you feel really good about it. One exciting moment is getting the first QSO and then after that is waiting what seems like eons between the third and fourth QSO if you aren't lucky enough to have a pile up.

    One additional, albeit expensive, spotting technique of last resort is a sat phone. I have one and used it on a peak recently to call a friend and have him spot for me - it worked like a charm.

    1. I agree on the QSOs. Getting the 3rd is the worst. 4th Makes it all worth it.

      Yes...the Sat Phones are becoming more popular. I know of one other ham who has used that technology. I haven't used it for SOTA, but I have lots of experience using those phones in my day job.


  2. Nate, Awesome! On my list to do! Thanks.

    1. Do it. It's a great hike, with or without a SOTA activation.

  3. I have divided opinion about self spotting. I do not say I will not use it some time, but until now I never used it. I think it is not true ham spirit to self spot.

    However, I think your problem was not spotting. It seems, for some reason, you were not able to make contact to anyone, even stations you heard and called. Wild guess is it may be lack of good grounding, as you were sitting on top of very big dry rock.

    For such places, I would rather choose old plain dipole antenna, even if it means I would not have multiband option. 20 meters is usually quite a safe bet. Supported by fishing pole it may work as inverted-v or vertical.

    1. I no longer often use the antenna I carried in this activation, but I will say that I don't think that grounding was a problem. I had activated previously and since with that antenna, and I always laid out 6-8 radials cut for various frequencies. I don't think it was a grounding problem.

      I'm not sure how the propagation conditions were. I think the problem was lack of spotting combined with being only phone capable. I almost exclusively use CW for SOTA now, because it just has a better signal to noise ratio and can really punch through QRM.

      As far as Self Spotting goes--I'm divided on the opinion myself. I'm basically opposed to it during contesting, but SOTA isn't a contest. If you're doing SOTA as part of a larger contesting effort, I don't think that self spotting is appropriate in that case, if it's allowed at all. (I know that self-spotting is becoming more accepted during VHF+ contests, though).

    2. A loaded antenna like that can lose a lot of power. If it is half the full length, about 3dB, a quarter is about 6dB. Poor ground or no radials can cost another 3-6dB. At that point, you could be well under 1W ERP.

      Could have been a bad ionosphere day. Or the few active chasers were in the skip zone. It is good to have a few other bands so you can light up different zones.

      VHF is hard in that part of the Sierra. It is mostly north-south ridges, which block propagation to the plains. At Emigrant Pass, I couldn't hear the nearest NOAA weather station because it was blocked by a big ridge.

      I've had a 3 QSO activation, but it was a much shorter hike than Half Dome, only seven miles round trip.


    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Hi Walter-

      Yeah, I don't disagree with you on the antenna. I've shifted most of my QRP antenna work to an EFHW variant, although the loading coil issue you describe is most apparent on 30 and 40 M. On the shorter wavelengths the coil is mostly shorted and therefore is slightly better. I like the end fed wires.

      I ALWAYS use radials, probably more than I need, actually. I can't speak to the quality of the ground, but it probably isn't great given the nature of the earth.

      All that said, 1 watt ERP is only slightly more than 1 S-unit off of 5 watts. We all know how that math works. Granted, at QRP levels, 1 S unit is sometimes enough to make a QSO an impossibility, but it often isn't, particularly on CW.

      VHF frequencies are difficult in that part of the Sierras, but sometimes doable. I've had more success on the far western slope of the Sierras (Mammoth Mountain, etc.)

      This was my second attempt at activating anything, over two years ago. I've come along way, but still, I thought it was worth bringing up as a learning point.

      Thanks for the comment.
      Nate N0PCL

    5. Thanks for the report.

      I saw in a comment that you do use radials. With radials, the ground doesn't matter much.

      I only have a few activations myself. Most recently, it was on a one-night backpack in Henry Coe with my KX3. I used non-resonant wires and worked everyone. I guess the ionosphere fairies were smiling on me that day.

    6. That KX3 is a great radio. Very impressive receiver.

  4. Hi Nate

    Thanks for the excellent report and 'post mortem'...nearly been in that situation. Please can you put a link to my blog on your blog list ..I will do likewise for yours. Have fun with your future SOTA activations and maybe we might hook up s2s one day. 73 Allan GW4VPX

    1. I'm happy to. Thanks for the link.

      Cheers, mate. 73.

  5. Nate:
    Excellent Article. Thanks for taking the time to share the information. Hoping to do my first activation here in NM within the next week or so before the weather changes. I guess in my mind I was over thinking the process since the place I'm looking at is out of Simplex range. Also, thanks for the tools recommendations.

    1. Sorry, my call didn't show up. David, N5DGC, NM

  6. David-

    Kind thanks for the comment.

    Not sure where you're planning on going in NM, but I will say this. "Simplex Range" is a very squishy thing, particularly when you're on a peak with several thousand feed of prominence.

    Using just an HT I've had contacts that were over 120 miles away. That is not uncommon. Of course it's dependent on the shape of the surrounding terrain. But still. From Pallet Benchmark, on the ranges just north of Los Angeles I was reliably hitting stations in Nevada. So there you go.

    Good luck out there when you activate. If it doesn't go as well as you hope--as it often doesn't when you first start out, please don't give up. Keep with it. You'll make it happen.

    Nate N0PCL

  7. Nice article and I loved the pictures! I have done a couple of "HT only" activations in the remote Arizona desert and was able to have someone spot for me at the pre-arranged time. It was still quite difficult to get many responses on my spotted frequency of 146.52. There's just not a lot of people around out there and I don't think any of my contacts were as a result of the spots. It's not the same using an HT in a remote area as activating with an HT in crowded Southern California ...which is fairly easy. So, I happened to program in all the repeaters in Western Arizona prior to my trip and was able to contact several people on one machine and ask that they try and contact me on the simplex frequency. A couple were able to make it and it saved me on one peak. Even though effectively self spotting through a repeater is allowed, I would prefer not to have to resort to that tactic; but it did work.

    I use a 15 foot run of coax into a dual band N9TAX slim Jim antenna that I hang off a 12 foot pole. A couple of chasers have helped me test the difference between using the slim Jim verses the rubber duck and they both reported a signal strength gain of 2 S units when using the slim Jim on 2M. I suppose that's not too surprising. I want to build a hand held 2M Yagi to try out on my next remote activation. The VHF FM challenge is fun, but unfortunately it does severely limit the opportunities for chasers.
    73 Mark (AG6UK)

  8. Nate,
    great pics and your points about self spotting are well made. However phoning a friend, using a VHF repeater, using APRS or SMS to SOTAwatch all amount to the same thing, and as you say, a SOTA activator has the odds stacked against them in the first place. The award permits self spotting, so it is fine. I always post an alert and will self spot if possible. RBN spots are also very handy. Good move to start using CW.
    73 de Andrew VK1DA/VK2UH