Thursday, July 21, 2016

Activating SOTA's at Philmont Scout Ranch

Philmont Scout Ranch belongs to the Boy Scouts of America and is located near Cimarron, NM. Philmont consists of some 136,000 acres of rugged back country ideal for backpacking and any number of other outdoor activities. ( Philmont offers a variety of backpacking itineraries that cover 10 days of hiking ranging in distance from 56 miles to 106 miles.

I was fortunate to be able to do a 84 mile backpacking trek with my son, AB5EB, and my grandson, KF5GYD, at Philmont Scout Ranch near Cimarron, NM. It was 25 years ago to the day, July 5th, 1991 that I started a  trek with my two sons, the second, KB5SKN, to July 5th, 2016 that I started this trek. Pretty cool from a grandfather perspective. Aside from the trek experience I had in mind to activate a couple of SOTA peaks, within the Philmont boundries, that we would climb on our trek. Neither had every been activated for SOTA.

Philmont rates their treks by the magnitude of difficulty from Challenging, Rugged, Strenuous and Super Strenuous. The trek I was on was in the Super Strenuous category, for those familiar with the system, our Trek was # 31. I have been training for this trek for over a year and would need all that accumulated fitness to make the trip. We had a crew of eight, two adults and six teenage boys. What you learn, or maybe remember, is that youth covers lots of physical ills, in other words, they recover quickly.

The first summit on our trek was Baldy Mountain, W5N/CM-002, 12,441 ft. ASL. We would summit the mountain on the 4th day of our trek. Trek #31  started at ~ 6,500 ASL, so we would spend 4 days climbing with 50 lb packs on our back toward the summit of Baldy Mountain. There were a multitude of other activities on the way, but the trail was always going up. The day of the final ascent, we arose and 3:30 am, was on the trail by 5:00 am and we climbed ~2,300 vertical feet over four miles of trail from 9,200 ASL to 11,500 ASL with full backpacks to the shoulder of Baldy and hiked the final 1,200 feet with day packs. It was a full day.

Baldy Mountain getting closer
The SOTA activation of Baldy was a bit chaotic. Baldy Mountain is the iconic destination for Philmont trekkers so there was a significant number of scouts on the summit and trying to keep them away from my EFHW was a distraction. I used the KX2, needing SSB capability from my grandson. We made a total of 16 QSO’s in tough conditions, using both my call, AD5A and KX5BSA, a club call that my son is the trustee of. I’ve had my eye on this summit for a while, but the only way to access it is to do a Philmont trek. The descent was satisfying, but when we go back to our packs, we had to saddle up and hike another 3 miles, this time downhill, to our camp for the night. It was a 15 mile day, 12 miles of which was with full packs.

Operating from Baldy Mountain
AD5A In The Middle and AB5EB On The Right
Fast forward six days, the last day of our trek, we camped at ~7,500 ASL, We would ascend almost 2,000 feet again to Schaeffer’s Peak, W5N/CM-016, at 9.413 feet, with full packs. The final 100 ft. or so was with day packs. We had a nice activation there with 23 QSO’s between AD5A and KX5BSA. On this activation, my son and grandson both had sufficient QSO’s to qualify for the points and the scouts gathered around to listen to CW and SSB as my grandson activated. A couple of the boys expressed interest in getting licensed so we will follow up on that.

Baldy Mountain From Scheaffers Peak
Yes, We Hiked That Distance
My Grandson, KF5GYD Operating
From Scheaffer's Peak

After the activation of Scheaffer's Peak, we had to put our packs back on and finish the last nine miles of the trek. Another long day, but at the end, what a sense of accomplishment. Hiking 84 miles in rugged back country and activating two new SOTA summits.

What a great hobby.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Chinese Kit Invasion

I suppose that I might be a little late to the game, so to speak, but I was browsing through the variety of  QRP kits on Ebay the other day and was shocked at what I saw. Many may already be familiar with  this phenomena in the QRP kit world, however it was news to me. A new Pixie 2 kit for $3.54 plus a whopping $1.80 for shipping. Now that's a QRP price. The kits were from China. As I considered this, I rationalized that at that price, something was askew, surely the quality was suspect, the parts incomplete and the instructions resembled some graffiti on an inner city wall. I passed it off as maybe a joke and went about my EBay browsing.

A few days later I stumbled upon an entry on the SOTA reflector entitled "QRPp Activation with a $3.56 Chinese Pixie..." by Manuel HB9DQM. Manuel had seen the radio on EBAy and couldn't pass up the opportunity to give it a shot. He not only built the radio, which takes the better part of an hour, but he decided to put it to the test in the field.

HB9DQM Pixie Station

Using the configuration above, running 300 milliwatts, he made 16 QSO's from a summit top bench. Pretty cool. 300 mw, wire antenna, battery power and a straight key, ah the magic of Ham Radio.

Of course the radio has limitations, it's crystal controlled, the radio comes with a 7.023 crystal (HB9DQM used a 7.030 crystal) and the bandwidth on receive is very wide, but as Manuel demonstrated, you can have some good, cheap fun with this little radio. He said he was listening to the world news, in English (courtesy of a BC station), while he worked the callers. An interesting diversion.

I did some further research on YouTube and found many happy campers who had purchased and assembled the kit. So I took the big plunge. I even went overboard and bought a couple of extra's as projects for my teenage grandsons who are hams.

There is one thing a little troublesome about this kit invasion however, at these prices, the other QRP kit providers can't compete. What will happen to them? Such is the world these days.

Chinese version of the Pixie 2
The inexpensive kits aren't limited to Pixie's, there are also '49ers, RockMites, etc.. Some even come assembled. I saw and assembled Rockmite, with a case for $35.00.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Mountain Goat Summit Revisited

A little less than a year ago I summited a mountain, known in SOTA terms as 9431 (it's elevation ASL) with a designator of W5N/PW-019, which put me over 1,000 Activator points and thus qualified me for the Mountain Goat award. This award is one of the most satisfying awards I've achieved in ham radio, including #1 Honor Roll. I did the summit that day with a couple of friends of mine, Fred KT5X (aka WS0TA) and John, K1JD. Both are also mentors to me as I learned the SOTA trade so to speak.

So, nearly a year later, the three of us returned to the same summit. Like the previous ascent we would need snowshoes to get to the top. The hike is a little more than 3 miles round trip and climbs 1,100 vertical feet. The hike starts in Black Canyon with a steady ascent to the shoulder, and then two different steep pitches to the top. The drifts on the summit were significant with our snowshoes sinking 1-2 feet into the snow. There were patches facing the south were the snow had completely melted, however most of the final ascent is on the north side of the mountain.

Below is a brief video of my set-up on the summit. I have configured my 3 band MTR (17m, 20m and 30m) so that I can hold it in my hand. As you will see in the video, the battery and paddle are attached to the radio and I use the back of the radio to hold my log. Very compact and very efficient. I certainly can't claim this as an original design since I coped it from Fred, KT5X. My antenna is a linked EFHW into an 81:1 transformer. The actual link connection design was inspired from Frank, K0JQZ.

Below is my log:


Saturday, January 23, 2016


Another small celebration in the shack. I wasn't sure the time was right to spend much time chasing South Sandwich with a QRP signal. I usually save that  attempt for the last day or two of a big expedition and the VP8 guys are still working to satisfy a lot of demand. In fact I did try earlier in the day and just rationalized, after calling for a while, that the pile-up was still too big. The other deterrent to my thinking was that they just weren't that loud. As a rule of thumb I figure the DX needs to be 559 or better for them to hear my QRP signal. However as the sun went down I checked the 20 meter pile up on the Elecraft P3, hmm, not too big on the screen. Their signal was probably only an S3, what the heck, let me have a go, as my British buddies would say. I turned the K3 down to 5 watts, hit the split button and started listening on the second VFO. I found him and followed him up for 4 or 5 QSO's and then he came back to me, just like he does with the big guns, AD5A 599:-) That was when the small celebration broke out.

I love this radio stuff.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

K5P on QRP

I managed a QSO with K5P yesterday on 20m CW with 5 watts out for my 180th country on QRP. I don't know why, but I am always amazed by this, especially when breaking a pile-up. I have a decent antenna, a log periodic up 50 feet, but so do most of the QRO guys. Always fun. I suppose that's what's interesting about ham radio, it's never the same two days in a row.

I will be looking to work VP8STI on QRP. I need some band slots on QRO, but still need them in my QRP log for the first time.The pile-ups will need to die down a little before I jump in.

I like this logo, nothing against the SSB guys, but it only has a morse key on it:-)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

SOTA Rig Reconfiguration

Activating SOTA's, if you do it regularly, is an iterative process. Of course the primary focus is to get to the top of whatever summit you might be tackling on a given day, but another part of the game is how you get there. Of course the right clothing to be comfortable in whatever conditions you face, the right pack to carry your gear and of course the right radio. But then, some of the fun begins. Not only the right radio, but how will I configure the radio to maximize my signal, be as light as possible and how to I package of this so I don't have radio gear all over the ground or digging in my pack to find the battery, paddle, etc.. I have activated 150+ summits and this is a continuous process.

Since I've retired, I've now have the opportunity to have continuous thoughts about things like this without the interference of work or schedule related thoughts, it's great. Consequently, I've had some time to give my rig configuration some thought. What I have done is not totally unique as I have gotten ideas from others and mixed them into my own concoction. I have the 3 Band MTR, with 17m, 20m and 30m. I chose these particular bands so that I would have flexibility on contest weekends. So below is my latest, not my last configuration.

As you can see I am using a backpacking cutting board as the foundation of the setup. I used a product called Scotch Extreme fastener to attache the LIPO battery and the Pico Paddle, it's sort of like Velcro but it snaps into place and is 10x stronger than velcro. I simply drilled holes (this board has seen several iterations as you can see the many holes), and used rubber bands to hold the radio in place. I may decide to use the fastener instead. The "Rite in the Rain" card is for logging. A nice neat package to pull out of the pack, hook up the antenna, plug in the power and off I go.

There are however a couple of further improvements.

You can see I've added a tethered pencil for logging and an optional Elecraft T1 tuner, if you have a non-resonant wire. I can fasten it to the board with either rubber bands or the Scotch fastener.

I've also added a protective cover for the MTR. It's made from sleeping pad foam and protects the face and switches on the MTR when getting jostled in your pack. On the backside of the cover I've cut out recesses where the switches are and added little magnets that are attracted to the four screws on the case. Thanks to Fred, KT5X for this idea.

So there you have it, a light, three band, package that is compact, light and ready to go. So until I reconfigure again.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Retirement and Ham Radio

Last Monday, January 4th, 2016 marked my last official day as an employee. I am now retired. I made the decision a year ago, so I've had some time to get ready for the transition. I had a very demanding job and life was a very tight schedule. Now I get to decide when I get up in the morning.

Basically my last day in the office was mid-December, so I've had a nice taste of freedom from employment already. My schedule, or lack thereof, is starting to gel although I'm sure I will go through numerous "phases", I think the pattern is set. So below are  few things that I've already experienced on how retirement will effect my ham radio pursuits.

  • I've had time actually read the owner's manual for my radios.
    • I've learned to set-up and use the frequency/band memory functions available on the K3
    • I now understand more of the menu options for the radio
    • I can now operate my HT.
    • I'm reading books about antennas
  • Contacts can actually last longer than 10 seconds
    • I love CW and have found that rag-chewing is a very enjoyable aspect of ham radio. I have met some very interesting people and I've started to make a lot of new friends since I've taken time to just call CQ and not append DX to it
    • I joined the local 2 meter weak signal group and I actually check in to their weekly net.. When I'm home I monitor 144.200 on SSB/CW. VHF/UHF can provide a lot of excitement for a DX minded ham. The DX isn't as far, but it's just as satisfying. 
  • Cleaned out my shack
    • I've acquired a lot of new equipment over the years, but I haven't gotten rid of much. There are many avenues to sell gear, EBay,, eHam, etc.... Now that I'm retired I will have a more modest ham radio budget and getting rid of the old stuff provides a little cash for even more toys.
  • Build the kits I've purchased
    • I haven't finished this yet, but I've started
  • Consider more expeditions
    • I love SOTA and can now plan extended SOTA activation trips with no time lines.
    • I've activated 10+ IOTA islands and can now consider planning more trips.
What I have come to learn is that Monday is just as good a day as Saturday and weekend crowds are to be avoided. There are no crowds on Tuesdays.

I'm sure I'll write more as I get settled into this new lifestyle.