Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Arkansas QSO Party

On May 14th, 2016 the annual Arkansas QSO Party was held. I missed last year due to prior commitments, so I made it a point to go out this year. I got everything packed in the jeep the night before and surprisingly was able to bring darn near everything with. 

My destination was a spot known as 'Crystal Mountain' which was within 3 miles of the Saline / Perry county lines, which per the QSO party rules, counted a 'county line' operation. 

The weather was a little iffy looking at the day started, a big cloud bank moved across the sky.. but the temperature was nice, the view was great, and the rain managed to hold off.

I put my 40m dipole up first and called CQ for a while. The bands were not in great shape though, and with my 50W I only netted about 10 qsos in the first hour. 

My mighty shack did OK though, and any day in the mountains is better than any other day somewhere else. 

After a couple hours of HF, I got my Satellite station out. UT1FG/MM was sailing on the high seas in the Gulf of Mexico, and my view to the Southeast was second to none. Worked him easily, and actually caught N4UFO/P towards the end of the pass in some rare grids in Nevada too... score!

After the Satellite pass I decided to try a little /P psk31. I'd never actually done this before, but I had the equipment, and I figured 'why not'. This was actually the most fun I had. I made 17 QSOs, including some other QSO partiers, using 10W and my dipole. You can hear everything out in the mountains, so it was easy for the computer to pick out the faintest of signals. 

Finally as the day wore on, I relocated to the other side of the mountain, shimmied up a little cliff, and setup my station hoping to catch Alaska on SO-50. I didn't hear them, but I did work a few others other out on the west coast, which is always a good time.

Overall, a great day in the mountains with radio. 

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Springtime SOTA Adventure Part 3 - Sunday

Sunday morning didn't start quite as early as Saturday had.. I had gotten 6 of the 10 peaks that were my goal for the weekend (not including Friday) so I was already ahead of schedule. That said, some family was going to drive out and meet me in the mountains for a late lunch picnic, so I had to pretty well wrapped up by midday. I departed Mena and headed for Winding Stair Mountain (W5O/OU-002) near the scenic byway, and about a mile and a half up a fairly steep portion of the Ouachita Trail. 

After a few hundred yards in the wrong direction (The sign that says 'mountain-top' doesn't really go to the top of the mountain..) I got re-oriented and proceeded up the trail. A short 45 minutes later I was on top and setup my station:

It was a great temperature that morning, but I was slightly concerned by the clouds to the west. The wind was howling more and more all the time, and the clouds were getting darker. I setup my dipole and went to work on 20m, hoping to find some New England QSO partiers to get me started... Once again, early in the morning I found the bands to be slim pickings, but there was something else... signals were all over the place, tremendously up and down.. I checked all my equipment and everything looked good, I couldn't figure out what was going on. Finally I got thru to one of the contesters and he promptly informed me I was one of the only people he had heard that morning. Apparently there was a G3 magnetic storm going on, and the bands were garbage.

I briefly considered what to do... I normally operate SOTA using between 15-20W, but since I have the 857, I *can* go QRO if I so desire, all the way to 100W if need be. My LiFePo4 battery will easily handle the voltage pull, but it will suck the amps out FAST at full bore, and I really don't like doing it. I compromised and turned the power up to 50W.. that helped.. I grabbed 3 more QSOs from contesters and got enough for my activation... phew.. I managed to get a spot out on the cell phone too (which was also acting wonky) and had a brief pileup of SOTA chasers. After everything subsided, I looked west again... clouds still not good, and now that my phone was working, I was able to see some hits on the radar too. I was planning on hiking out to Rough Mountain from here, but it would likely be 2-3 hours before I got back to the Jeep if I did, and I just wasn't in the mood to get rained on... I decided to postpone Rough Mountain for another time.

Before I left though, I did grab some quick video from the top:

After the hike back down, I jumped in the jeep and decided what to do next... I still had a few hours before I had to meet my family for lunch, but I had pretty well exhausted the peaks in the area. There was one more off to the west that I had missed the day before, Lenox Ridge (W5O/OU-021), and it looked like it was close to the road, so I could run for cover if the rain started. I headed west to the turnoff, and down a surprisingly pleasant forest service road until I reached the spot. 

It did rain on me a bit just as I got on site, but not enough to be a problem.. I setup my dipole and waited for the rain to completely clear, before getting out my radio. Once it did I managed to get a spot out and started calling CQ. I actually had a pretty good little pile going there for a bit, and picked up a very respectable 27 QSOs over the course of about 30 minutes. By this time it was approaching noon, and I had a meeting with the family a couple mountains back to the east to attend too. I cleaned up my gear, jumped in the jeep, and updated my APRS message to state my weekend was over.

All in all I made 120 QSOs over 10 different summits, and pulled in 76 points. Not a bad weekend at all for SOTA. Thanks to all the chasers that stuck with me - it was a blast :)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Springtime SOTA Adventure Part 2 - Saturday

Saturday morning started early... even earlier than I had planned. I was on the road from Mena at 1030UTC, and my destination was Polecat Peak (W5O/OU-003). After a grueling 2 hours drive, over some very gnarly forest service roads, I arrived at the foot of the mountain.

I promptly scurried the 100 or so yards thru the brush to the top, got the 40m dipole up, threw out a spot, called CQ... and nothing.... hmm... that's not good.. I spun the dial a bit, didn't hear much, finally came across some people lower in the band. I think I was too early for everyone to be awake. It was 730AM CDT on a saturday morning, everyone must have been sleeping in. After a few minutes of calling CQ, I finally picked up AC7P, and that was it. Worried about getting my 4, I switched to 20m... it was still pretty dead too.. I did manage to scare up 3 more QSOs though after another 15 minutes calling.. phew... Packed up and jumped back in the jeep, headed to the next one.

Next stop was Lynn Mountain (W5O/OU-001) which unfortunately was back down the horrendous road I had just driven up, across the 50 yards of decent road, and then straight back up a different nasty rock road to approach from the West. I made it to the top after some time, and found a pull-off near the high point. While I was unloading the Jeep I heard XE2JS calling CQ on 50.125, so I promptly answered him and picked up another 6m contact on the mobile, woohoo! After setting up, I made 4 quick 40m qsos, and 8 20m qsos, and headed back to the jeep.. and ran into a minor snag as the right rear tire was obviously low on air. A quick check found a small hole, luckily I keep a full plug kit and air compressor in the back when I'm off-roading, so 20 minutes later I was aired back up, and on the trail towards Pigeon Benchmark. 

Pigeon Benchmark (W5O/OU-013) was my first real hike of the morning. It's about 1.5 miles from the road, so it required slightly more than just brief bushwhacking close to the road. There was a decent trail though, and it wasn't a whole lot of up and down, so even with the big pack, it was a fairly enjoyable out to the high point. Once there I setup just my 20m dipole (since I was having better luck with it this morning) and proceeded to call CQ. By this point in the day there were several other activators out there, so I managed one quick S2S, and then told the pile where I was going so I didn't have to put my own spot out. 20 minutes later I had 17 QSOs, and paused for a quick selfie.. cause why not.. 

I wrapped up the activation and hiked back to the Jeep. 30 minutes later I was back on the road, heading west. I knew the road would continue until I crossed highway 259, where I'd have a quick pavement break, and then begin the climb up the infamous 'K-Trail' to the top of Kiamchi mountain. 

The 4x4 trail is 11 miles from start to finish. The first 7 or so is pretty typical for a forest service road in this part of the country, and most normal high clearance vehicles will do ok. Mile 7 thru 9.5 get rougher, but any SUV or truck should still be OK. The last 1.5 to the top is where things get sketchy. Most folks actually park here and hike the rest of the way... but with the Jeep? Hah! Forward! Several rock crawl sections, and at least 4 very long and deep mudpits still full of water later, I was up on top, and cruised the rest of the way to the summit. 

Up until this point, I hadn't actually worked any Satellites on my trip. I was hoping Kiamchi (W5O/KI-001) would have a good view to the horizon in all directions, and I was coming up on AOS time for an SO-50 pass. Unfortunately there were little scrub trees that obscured the bottom few degrees of the horizon, but it still wasn't bad. I walked the requisite distance from the Jeep and setup my station, making sure to be using battery power and a completely self contained station to meet SOTA rules. SO50 popped into view and I quickly cranked out 8 QSOs in about 10 minutes, finishing off with K4T - in the Dry Tortugas. 

There IS a fire tower on top of Kiamchi as well, but there was not enough room to operate from it, with missing (and in some case rotting) boards and steps. I went up most of the way and promptly decided it would not be safe to hang out in.. I did grab a quick video while I was up there though.

I knew Kiamchi would be the apex of my adventure, as everything else I had on my plan was accessible from much better roads, so it was good to be at this point. It was 3pm local, and I still had about 5 hours of daylight left, so I decided to buzz one mountain range north and try and get a few more of the 'easier' summits over there. I headed back down the 'K-Trail' - aired my tires back up at the highway, and jogged north thru the valley to the 'Winding Stair' mountain range. Once on top, I headed west for the unnamed Point 2290 (W5O/OU-006).

Even though I felt pretty good, the Adrenaline of the day, and the fact I had started nearly 11 hours before was starting to wear on me. I got to the pull-off for 2290, and the wind was absolutely HOWLING now, as I think a front must have come thru during the drive. Instead of the dipole, I grabbed my tripod, tossed up a 20m hamstick, put out a few radials, and started calling to see who I could raise. I was back in cell phone reception land again, so a quick spot netted me 8 contacts without a whole lot of effort. Content with the activation, I buzzed west to 'Sycamore Lookout' (W5O/OU-005). I was approaching exhaustion, so I check my Satellite tracker and saw there was an AO-85 pass coming up in about 20 minutes. I got on the site, setup my satellite gear, and had about 10 minutes before AOS. While hanging out I figured I'd blindly call CQ on 146.520 and see who I could find. To my surprise I managed two quick contacts from a husband and wife ham team only about 20 miles away. Awesome! This turned out to be a very good thing, cause once AO-85 came over, I only managed 3 QSOs on the bird... had I not has those simplex contacts, I wouldn't have had enough for the activation.

Since I was so far west, I drove down the mountain into the town of Talihina, OK for a snack before the trip back to Mena. On the way I passed the zero mile marker of the Ouachita trail in Talimena state park.

I thought this was a fitting end to the day, so I paid my respects to the trail, and headed back east for the night. Satisfied with my day.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Springtime SOTA Adventure Part 1 - Friday

So this past weekend, I finally got my tail outside and did some serious radio work. I started a new job about 6 weeks back, and have understandably been busy with it. The weather hasn't really been cooperating this spring either, but all of these things were just excuses to keep me out of the mountains and off the air. The time to remedy this was now. The Goal was to activate 10 SOTA peaks in 48 hours, and get some much needed points on the board for 2016. The kiddo was secured at grandmas, the XYL was tied up with homework, so I grabbed the dog and we headed west.

The plan was to come into work early friday, get everything done, and scoot out before rush hour. The first stop was HickoryNut Mountain, W5A/CS-013, just west of Hot Springs. This was a new peak for me, but it wasn't too far off my path to Mena, AR (where I was spending the night) so I figured it'd be a good first stop. I got on site at 2030 UTC, grabbed my backpack and did the short 300 yard hike to the top of the mountain.

Once on top (lacking a good view) I tossed up the dipole, made a quick spot, and grabbed 14 quick contacts between 40m and 20m. I finished up a smidge after 4pm local, and jumped back in the jeep and headed west. Next stop, Buck Knob (W5A/OH-006). On a side quest to SOTA, Sporadic-E had popping up and down that afternoon, so I had my 857 tied into the jeep, monitoring 50.125 while driving. Just shy of the turn-off on to the forest service roads to Buck knob, I got my first 6m contact of the year, while mobiling down the highway. Score!

Buck Knob is technically a "drive-up" however the last 2 miles only barely qualifies as a road. I've been up it a couple times in the Jeep before, but lesser vehicles risk damage just looking at the trail. Took me about 30 minutes to do the two miles from the main forest road, but I made it in time to get my gear setup and enjoy the sun starting to get low in the sky. I made another 15 contacts between 40m/20m, and also just for kicks put up my 80m pocket inverted-v, and checked into the Razorback Net QRP portable.. which is always fun. After the net I piled back into the Jeep and started the trek back down into the valley. I got to my sleeping spot about 830pm, just as it got fully dark, and packed it in, preparing for the big day on Saturday.