Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Activation Reports: Pass Mountain (W4V/SH-013) and Knob Mountain (W4V/SH-017)

This past Sunday the XYL and I decided to bag a couple peaks in Shenandoah National Park.  We selected Pass Mountain (W4V/SH-013) and Knob Mountain (W4V/SH-017), as they can both be accessed along Skyline Drive, making navigation to the two trailheads simple.

We departed the home QTH at around 0700 local, reaching the Behms Gap parking area (just north of the Thornton Gap park entrance) a bit after 0900.  Pass Mountain is a tree-covered bump between Thornton Gap and Behms Gap, with the Appalachian Trail snaking up and over the summit.  Trail navigation is very easy, as the AT is a wide, well-used, and groomed trail.  From Behms Gap the summit is under two miles away.  Weather conditions were pleasant:  Generally cloudy skies, temps in the 50s, and the occasional raindrop.
Pass Mountain as seen from the jeep.  View from just north of the Behms Gap parking area, looking south.

The summit was rounded, with lots of trees, fall colors, and a few large rock outcroppings sticking out of the soil.

As always, I started on 146.52, followed by 223.5 and 446.0 MHz FM.  No takers.  I then set up my portable HF station and slung my wire antenna.  The HF bands were reasonably cooperative, but with the CQ World Wide Phone contest going on, the SSB segments of the non-WARC bands were very crowded.  I heard Croatian, Polish, English, and German stations booming in on 20 meters. I moved to 17 meters phone to see who I could get, and then moved to 30 meters CW.
Fuzzy picture of my Pass Mountain operating position.  I set up on a log.  The leaf-covered AT crosses between the log and the rock outcroppings in the distance.
Close-up view of my operating position on Pass Mountain.  FT-817ND.  Autotuner.  Key.  Mic.  Logbook.  Notebook.

While I activated the XYL continued hiking over the peak toward Thornton gap, allowing me about an hour to activate.

I worked the following stations:
Not great, but also not bad.  9 stations worked over 27 minutes.

The new batteries continued to hold up well.  On previous batteries I would typically have the radio set for 2.5 watts of output power, but today I operated entirely at 5 watts.  Again, I'll note that, like my last activation, the battery voltage barely dropped even when transmitting the 5 dahs of the "0" in my callsign.  Solid.

AT&T cell service was good for both SMS and 3G data services.  APRS connectivity was also good.

After I worked the small crowd of stations and the XYL returned, we returned to Behms Gap via the same route as the ascent.

We next moved north along Skyline Drive to Elkwallow Gap, where the trailhead for Knob Mountain (W4V/SH-017) is.  Knob Mountain is a bump along a northeast-to-southwest running ridge which is an offshoot of the Shenandoah range.  The specific route we took basically went from Elkwallow Gap northwest and downhill to reach the Appalachian Trail, and then Jeremy's Run.  Crossing Jeremy's Run you climb a steep ridge to reach the Knob Mountain Trail, which heads southwest along the ridgeline that Knob Mountain is on.  The trail is well-groomed and marked.  Printable map here.

Overall, the hike is under 6 miles round-trip for the hike described.  Of course you could easily lengthen the hike to about 13-14 miles if you do the entire Jeremy's Run Loop hike.

Oh--and we saw three black bears near the trail.  Sorry, I don't have good pictures, but they were there.  It was a bear day.

Knob Mountain is the highest bump on the right.  The Shenandoah Valley can be seen to the left.  The peak is a high point on a ridge protruding southwest into the Shenandoah.

Elkwallow Gap has services available--bathrooms and a small overcrowded gift shop.

There were humans at Elkwallow.  Most of these people don't venture too far into the woods, which is just fine by me.

Weather conditions stayed pleasant.  Cloudy skies, slight breeze, temperature in the upper 50s.  There was the occasional rain drop.

Nice fall colors, particularly the red leaves.  This is not an altered photo.

XYL crossing Jeremy's Run.  There were fish hopping in the run, and the run was a good bit wider than it looks, but the surface was covered with leaves.

N0PCL crossing Jeremy's Run.  Yes.  That's a Lodenhut.  A Lodenhut is to Germany as a cowboy hat is to Texas.  It's the hat of my ancestors.  Considering its Alpine origin, it's ideal for SOTA expeditions.  It's made of Loden (a type of wool), so it's actually quite warm, and is just fine in the rain.  Word.

N0PCL making the final steps up to the ridgeline from Jeremy's Run.  It's about 500' of gain over about 1/2 mile.  Decently steep.  I was working up a sweat so I'm climbing hat-in-hand.  XYL photo.

More nice fall colors.

Almost there!  Knob mountain summit only 250 feet away.  The trail system in Shenandoah NP is very simple to follow.  These posts are at most of the trail junctions.
XYL hiking up the final couple hundred feet to Knob Mountain summit.

The QSOs on Knob Mountain came quick once I set up on HF.  But before that happened I had a pleasant chat with Brian, KE8AZF, in the panhandle of West Virginia, about 40 miles away on 146.52.  I made unsuccessful calls on 223.5 MHz FM and 446.0 MHz FM with no joy.  I then slung my wire antenna, laid out radials, and set up my shack on a nearby log.  I sent a quick spot out on my iPhone--and the calls came fast.  The pileup continued for a solid 20 minutes on 30 meters before picking up a couple QSOs on 10 meters to stations out west.  A few of the stations went into straight "contest mode", sending my "5NN" reports to expedite the process.

Overexposed iPhone pic of my homebrewed EARCHI matchbox.  Used with a tuner and some decent radials, it can put out a good signal on 40-6 meters with a tuner.  With a superb radial system and a perfectly vertical radiator, I've occasionally gotten it to load up (albeit inefficiently) on 75 and 80 meters, too.

Close-up view of the matchbox.  It's contained in a Hammond enclosure, and I use simple alligator clips to make the electrical connections.  The radiating element is the black wire.  The radials are just some #22 speaker wire.  Works great.

My Knob Mountain operating position.  Logs make good places to sit and have some QSOs.

Here's my logbook as it appears on the SOTAData website:
After working KE8AZF I worked 18 CW stations in 30 minutes.  While not stellar at all by contesting standards, this is pretty good work.  Lots of fun!
AT&T cell service was good for both SMS and 3G data services.  APRS connectivity was also good. 

No after-action items for this hike.  It was a very pleasant activation, a great way to spend a fall weekend, and a fun 12 SOTA activation points to earn!

As always, thanks chasers!  No activation is successful without you.  73!

Friday, October 16, 2015

Pilot Knob (W6/SD-435) Activation Report and WLB-817 Battery Pack Review

I activated Pilot Knob (W6/SD-435) back on 11 October..  It's a lowly one-point peak near where the California, Arizona, and Mexican borders meet.  I described a bit about the mountain here.

Some great information on accessing the peak is in this PDF document.

Getting there:  As described on pages 66-68 of the above PDF document.

On a previous activation attempt, I tried to climb using the more direct route along edge of the quarry on the north side of the mountain, but I lost the trail and I ran out of time due to other commitments later in the day.  I decided to instead make an attempt climbing the western slope of the mountain, attempting to use the loop trail described in the book, except I would do an out-and-back hike instead of a loop in order to shorten the hike.  I entered the location of the trail head into my Garmin and went there.
Overexposed pic of trailhead.  Lat/Long:  N32 44.065" W114 45.450, looking east.  Sun was rising, hence the overexposure.

At that location I noticed two trails:  One of the left/north, and one of the right/south.  Given that I was going to do the out-and-back route, I selected the left trail and started climbing.  The climb was steep but the well-defined trail made the route simpler, until I reached the crest of the first ridgeline.  Here the trail disappeared.  I ended up shifting to the left (north) a bit, and ultimately found a draw which led to a false summit.  This false summit was at the far end of the east-west ridge which makes up crest of the mountain.  From this spot the going was a bit easier, with numerous trails visible and with the summit in view.
The mountain was made of a mixture of sharp granite and a softer conglomerate (I think).  The softer rock eroded away in places, leaving holes and small caves.  Bats, which I had noticed on my first attempted climb, probably live in many of these small caves.
This cairn was located at the false summit.  My APRS capable handheld's packets were first picked up at this point.
The ridge from the location of the false summit, leading to the peak.  Yuma, Arizona can be seen beyond the mountain.
The hike on the ridge was a good bit easier.  Less steep, and the ground was a firmer granite than the softer rock leading to the false summit.
Getting closer to the summit.  A Gipfelkreuz!--although not as ornate as those in the Old World.
The Summit Cross was made of wood, and appears to be installed into the foundation of the old KIVA television transmitting tower.

Having reached the summit, I quickly deployed my end-fed wire antenna and commenced making contacts using the FT-817ND and the VX-8DR.  Propagation was actually not too bad, given the conditions.
Even with conditions only so-so, I commenced making numerous contacts throughout the US, using both SSB and CW.  I also attempted contacts on 50, 144, and 222 MHz, but no takers.  I did make contact with a ham in Yuma on 446.0 (K7ACS), who also ran an APRS digipeater that received my packets.
My Pilot Knob activation log on SOTAData.

As for my spotting technique, I self-spotted using the web browser on my phone.  I could have easily self-spotted using APRS, SMS, SOTA Goat, and likely the Reverse Beacon Network.  AT&T cell signals were plentiful, and APRS coverage, once on the summit and out of the draws, was fine:
My APRS breadcrumbs from the false summit leading to the summit.
At the false summit, by APRS packets were received by the BAJA digipeater, perhaps 50 miles away.  I am N0PCL-7.
At the summit, my APRS packets were received at the K7ACS digipeater.  I worked K7ACS on 446.0 during the activation as well.
The view into Mexico from the summit.  The US-Mexican border is very visible.
Having completed the activation, I started my hike down.  Having more of a bird's eye view while on the summit made route selection a bit easier.  I simply picked a prominent trail that headed west down the mountain.  Given how easy the descent was, I recommend that future activators use the following coordinates as your trail head:  N 32 44.050", W114 44.090".  That will place you approximately one draw to the north of the trailhead I used for this activation, and it will make navigation to the summit much easier!  Simply go to those coordinates and hike up the well-defined and well-ducked trail.

A few other notes for a future activation:
  • You are operating very close to the Mexican border.  The place is crawling with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers.  I recommend you carry identification on your person in order or alleviate suspicions that might ruin your activation attempt.
  • It's a short hike, and not too strenuous, but I still recommend you bring a good amount of water.  On the day I hiked this peak, it was in the mid-80s before the sun came up, and there's not much shade (no shade, actually).
Lastly, I promised a review of the WLB-817 battery pack that I had installed in my FT-817ND.  The battery performed marvelously.  Battery voltage barely dropped, even when transmitting a full 5 watts of power on CW during the five long "dahs" of the "0" in my callsign.  I suspect that there's power for several more activations in a single battery charge.  I'm very happy with this purchase.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Upcoming Activation: Pilot Knob (W6/SD-435)

Pilot Knob, just a few miles from the Arizona, California, and Mexican borders.  Image captured from the SOTA Goat App.
I'm planning on activating Pilot Knob (W6/SD-435) next Sunday.  Look at SOTAWatch Alerts for updates.  Wikipedia article about Pilot Knob here.

It's a volcanic plug, which makes sense given that the Chocolate Mountains to the north are volcanic in origin.  Other volcanic plug mountains I've activated include Bishop Peak (W6/SC-339) and Black Hill (W6/SC-378).  These two peaks are a part of a series of peaks between Morro Rock (itself a volcanic plug) and San Luis Obispo.  But enough about that...

I once attempted to activated Pilot Knob before, but my time was limited and I ended up hiking up a dead-end trail without making it to the summit.  I had to give up for lack of time.

I should have more time available for me to do this activation.

I'm using the helpful "Hiking Guide to Trails in the Yuma Area," by Geo Montopoli to assist with planning the ascent.  See pages 66-68 of the PDF for more info on Pilot Knob.

I'll be APRS-capable, so watch for my breadcrumbs as N0PCL-7.  I'll be phone & CW capable on all bands from 40 meters through 70 centimeters (including 222 MHz.).  I'm also going to try out a new counterpoise for a portable HF antenna, so I may be able to load it up on 60 or 80 meters, albeit very inefficiently.  This will also be the first time I try using the WLB-817 battery system in the field.

We'll see how it goes.


Sunday, October 4, 2015

WLB-817 Initial Review

Last week I mentioned that I was having some battery issues with the W4RT battery pack that I had installed in my main SOTA radio, the Yaesu FT-817ND.  I opted to purchase a lithium polymer (LiPo) battery system from HamSource, a small side hustle of John, N1OLO.

This past Thursday I the new batteries arrived.  WindCamp is the manufacturer.  Total price:  $80.00 + $12.99 shipping and handling.  It turns out that the $12.99 of shipping and handling purchased a 2-day priority shipping via the US Postal Service.  I would have been happy for a slower shipping option to save a bit on S&H.

The small box contained the new battery pack, a small wall charger, and a new battery bay door for the FT-817ND.  There was also an invoice, but no instructions.  I admit I was a bit miffed at that.  At work on Friday, I sent an email to John about that issue.  Within a couple of hours he replied, apologizing for the lack of instructions, which he said should have been included.  He attached a PDF file which had a single page of instructions (this is also available at his website.)

The HamSource WLB-817 Battery Kit
That minor problem solved, I commenced to assemble the new battery system into the FT-817ND.
First, I removed the W4RT batteries from the FT-817ND and dropped in the new battery set, being careful ensure that the wiring harness from the batteries will reach to the battery bay door (which contains a tiny circuit board.
Dropping in the lithium ion battery pack.
The new batteries are smaller than the W4RT batteries.  Fitting batteries into the FT-817 battery bay isn't too difficult.  Some jostling is required, but it worked out ok.
The new battery pack (top) vs. the W4RT NiMH battery pack.
The replacement battery bay door has a nifty feature:  A switch.  This makes a positive disconnect of the battery from the rest of the radio during charging, and for periods of storage.  (Some FT-817ND owners have experienced failure of the final power amplifier, apparently due to batteries discharging through the power amplifier bias circuit.  I'm not sure how much truth there is to this, but it's a common reason given when the FT-817 finals fail.)
The new FT-817ND battery bay door.  Chinglish:  "Choose the specifically charger..."

Underside of the battery bay door contains a board which connects the switch and charging jack.
Connecting the wiring harnesses up.
Replacement battery bay door installed.
All finished.  Radio is propped up with the Palm Radio Peg Leg kit.
Charging appears straightforward.  Simply turn the radio over, flip the battery door switch to "Off", plug in charger, and wait.  The charger has a dual-colored LED which glows red when the battery is charging and green when it's fully charged.  Simple.
Charging configuration.
The instructions say to never allow the battery voltage to drop below 9 volts.  This matches similar advice I've seen elsewhere regarding lithium polymer batteries.

So, that's it.  I'm reasonably happy with the installation.  I have a business trip to SoCal and Arizon over the next couple of weeks.  I'll try to knock out a SOTA activation or two out there.  After the trip reports I'll let you know how the batteries held up.

The batteries ship mostly charged.  11.3 volts indicated.