Sugarloaf & QRPTTF

French Bread Loaf, Copyright © 2004 David MonniauxThe weekend was the QRP TTF event, and this year’s rules favored stations that did double duty as SOTA (summits on the air) stations. The Vienna Wireless Society made its annual pilgrimage to Glyndon Park in Vienna, Virginia, and I was sorely tempted to hang out there and partake in the barbecuage. However, the SOTA bug still had its fangs in me, so I headed to Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland, or in SOTA terms peak W3/CR-003.

Sugarloaf Mountain is in private hands, but the land owners have opened it up for public use. The lone peak rises prominently above the surrounding farmland. Access is not bad at all — there is a road that runs up the mountain, with three parking lots providing views to the West, East, and South (towards the Potomac River). I had downloaded a trail map from the Sugarloaf website and decided to approach the summit from the Western Overlook.

The path up is well maintained, and consists predominantly of stone stairs. There’s a handrail at the steepest parts. Little kids were running up and down the stairs, impatient for the adults. I took a few breathers on the way up, but it wasn’t too bad a climb, even with equipment.

When I got up there, I found a slanting rock at the very top and made it my base. Being on the edge of the Washington Metro area (and perhaps the Southern edge of the Baltimore region), there were lots of visitors, some who watched with amusement as I tossed soda bottles with strings into the trees, and others who asked me questions about the hobby.

I set up the 20m station first, a TenTec 1320, which I had built from a kit three years ago, plus a longwire antenna and the Hendricks SLT+ tuner. The usual. Later in the day, I put up a longer wire antenna and brought out the 40m Rockmite.

Once at the top, I checked into the club via the 2m repeater, but found that the 440 was quieter. I had brought along a homemade yagi that I had used on the FM sats last year; I’m not sure it helped that much. Ian, N0IMB spotted me on the SOTA site, and that led to a short flurry of contacts on 20m.

Shortly after the first contact, there was a brief hail storm with tiny pebbly hail. I covered everything in the plastic that I had brought along, but luckily the storm did not convert to rain, and weather remained cool but clear for the rest of the day.

I set up my VX-8GR hand held on the summit, and used it to post my current frequency and coordinates via APRS. I heard confirmation tones from at least three digipeaters, but I’m not sure if anyone actually used this information to find me on HF.

My first contact, W7CNL was nice enough to spot me on 20m, and later N4EX did the same on 40. I was pleased to work three members of the Vienna Wireless Society, including Kevin WB0POH, who was operating the club station K4HTA at Glyndon Park. He later told me that he was trying out Tom N4ZPT’s new KX3. The signal was paperthin and went in and out, but we managed to complete the call. Later, I had a clear QSO with Jake, N4UY who was using an attic antenna and putting out 2W on a GM20 transceiver.  Finally, I worked Ray Albers, K2HYD from his home in North Carolina on the Rockmite.

My longest distance contact was G4ELZ Jeff from the UK. The rest of the 20m contacts were west coast US, TX/OK, or Florida. The total for the day was 22 worked on 20m QRP, and four more on 40m QRPp.  Looking over the log, I worked the following states: NJ, OH, NC, PA, NY, AL, OK, TX, FL, MI, MD, VA, OR and ID. Florida was disproportionately represented in the log because I worked a few FQP stations. I also worked a number of QRPTTF stations, plus one summit-to-summit contact with AA5CK on W5/QA-008 in Oklahoma.

I was glad to get the rockmite out for some exercise. I’ve now worked about 30 station with it, corresponding to six states. It was a rough ride with the rockmite due to lack of selectivity, and I appreciate the work of the other stations in pullings its signal out.

I stopped working on 40m when the clouds grew dark, and on my way through the parking lot back to the car, the storm broke. I avoided getting drenched by about ten minutes.

Signal Mountain Activated

some rocks
The peak of signal mountain. Photo taken from our operating position, looking north.

Our visit to Signal Mountain, Virginia was successful, and summit W4/SH-049 has been activated for the first time (and perhaps the only time for the forseeable future).  We made a total of 19 QSOs, which we thought was reasonable for our first  SOTA activiation (and not really knowing what we were doing).

On the morning of April 14, 2012, I met up with Ian N0IMB and we drove out to the site. A Google Map query for “Signal Mountain, Virginia” puts an arrow right on the summit, and there is a road all the way to the top. That road is silky smooth, but the residential road that leads to it is a couple miles of gravel and dust.  We drove in and parked about just after the sharp bend in the road. According to the terrain feature on Google Maps, this put us a couple hundred feet from the summit.

I unpacked Dolly, who in this case was not a cloned sheep, but an old furniture dolly that I have used since college every time I change dwellings. Most of the equipment went into a milk crate that was bungeed to Dolly. Given the road access, we didn’t pack particularly lightly — folding camp chairs, some folding TV tables to work on, and a couple bags of equipment and snacks. As peaks go, this was a pleasure cruise.

I led Dolly up the slope, pulling on her leash, and Ian lugged the rest of the equipment. The road continues past the peak to a fenced government facility, but we stopped at the peak and headed eastward up a gentle slope into the woods. When we got to the actual stony peak, Ian found a nice place to erect the buddipole tripod, and I set up the radios.

The buddy pole went up quickly, and we played with the counterpoise until we arrived at a 1:1 SWR on 20m (Ian made me take a picture of the MFJ tuner as evidence!). We tuned around on 20m and quickly came to the realization that our stated operating frequency was just wishful thinking. The band was humming from one end to the other with QSO Party activity. We tried working a few of the NM QSOP stations, but although they were thundering in, they could not hear the 5W the Yaesu 817d was putting out. CW was a bit better, but the stock filtering on the 817d was relatively wide.

We decided that before we really set up shop, it would make more sense to put the antenna on 17m and see if we couldn’t get out better without all the background chatter. The buddipole retuned quickly, and we were soon on the air. Our first contact was Mike KE5AKL from NM, which is quite fitting since he was the first station that I had worked as a chaser, the day before.

After that, we worked a succession of stations, some with callsigns that I recognized. The TenTec 1320 sitting next to me in my bag had, for instance, been modified according to instructions that I had found on the website of our third contact, Scott W5ESE. Two contacts, Bob WB4KLJ and John AF4PD, were from our local club, the Vienna Wireless Society, and must have been working us direct from 25 miles to the east.   Jonathan AK4NL was also a very close contact, being located on Bull Run Mountain. Our stateside contacts on 17m included VA, CO, ID, NM, TX and OR.

We were very glad to make contacts with England (G4OBK), Scotland (MM0USU), and Germany (DJ5AV).  We are particularly grateful to Phil G4OBK, who stayed on frequency after working us, followed us up frequency when we had QRM, and warned off a station who was about to transmit on top of us. The other station likely could not hear our puny signal, but could copy the solid transmission coming from across the pond.

Around three in the afternoon, we switched to 40m. It was a little more involved to move the buddipole to 40m, but we finally got a reasonable match.  Predictably, on daytime 40m, we worked primarily the US east coast: PA, VA, MA, NJ, and NY.

We had intended to work until about 6 pm, but stopped early, because we were informed that the access road was being closed up at 4 pm. In talking with some guys from the facility, who turned out to be communications professionals, we learned that the facility houses some sensitive radio equipment. Although our signals did not cause any sort of interference, we agreed that we would recommend that others not work this summit, even at QRP levels.

We learned a number of lessons from our first activation, and here are the ones I can remember:

  • It is okay, indeed encouraged, to self-spot. We had so-so cellular connectivity, but in the future, getting the word out will include spotting on sotawatch, qrpspots, and via twitter.
  • Less equipment is better. We did not use the G5RV or the TenTec 1320; while there is some value in being prepared and having redundant equipment, if I had to carry the extra gear up a more challenging slope, I would not have been a happy camper.
  • The WARC bands are your friends. Ian and I both like 17 meters. If I had to pick one band, that would be it.
  • We had originally not planned to work 40m in the middle of the day, but the east coast US hams were grateful to hear us, so I’d factor that in next time, and try to split operation between local and more DX stations.
  • Our pre-posted operating frequencies went right out the window. Also, we had too many of them. It probably isn’t practical to work more than a couple bands on a given activation.
  • 5W on voice is difficult, but still worth it – when we did connect wth other stations, most of the time we received fairly good reports, and on our end, the other stations were loud.
  • For CW, I’d prefer a radio with better filtering (or maybe a modded 817).


SOTA: Signal Mountain, April 14

A snow-covered mountainIan, N0IMB, and I will attempt to activate Signal Mountain, Virginia as a Summit On The Air (SOTA)  on Saturday, April 14, 2012. Signal Mountain is less than an hour’s drive from my house, and with a name like Signal Mountain, it seems the natural choice. Strangely, for being so close to a metropolitan center, according to the SOTA database,  this “peak”  has never been activated.

Signal Mountain, SOTA designator W4/SH-049,  is a 416 m tall peak located at Long -77.7033 by  Lat 38.8816 degrees.  Conveniently, judging by a google map view of the site, a road runs up to the top, although by SOTA rules, we’ll park some ways down the road and lug the equipment to the top. We don’t have mules, but we do have a hand-truck and/or a furniture dolly, so we plan not to break our backs carting the equipment up the hill. While this may not sound very adventurous for more experienced SOTA enthusiasts, this is our first activation, so we are trying to keep it simple. One side benefit is that we’ll have a stronger signal: one item we are lugging will be a gas-powered generator, and we will be transmitting at 100W. [edited: Correction – it was pointed out by a more experienced SOTA-er that this would violate SOTA guidelines – no fossil fuel generators. Well, that’s fine with us, too. We’ll use storage cells, perhaps supplemented with a bit of solar if we can put our hands on the right equipment quickly enough. This means we will not be transmitting at 100W, or at least not for long stretches. Most of my gear is QRP already, so this isn’t a big adjustment. We’ll just talk louder :-)]  Rigs will be a Yaesu FT-817 and a TenTec 1320.

Operating Plan:

We will be operating under the call sign N0IMB from 16:00Z to 22:00Z on 14 April 2012. In local time, that is noon to 6 pm. Local sunset is 7:45 pm, so we should would like to pack up while we can see what we are doing.

We will operate voice from the top of each hour to forty-five minutes past, and then switch to CW for the last fifteen minutes. Typically, we will exchange a signal report, the name of the operator, and the SOTA designator.

Generally, we’ll stick to the following center frequencies. If these frequencies are busy, look for us up or down a bit:

Band CW Freq SSB Freq
40 7.027 7.187
30 10.127 cw only
20 14.027 14.277
17 18.077 18.127
15  21.027 21.287
12  24.897 24.947
10 28.027 28.487

We picked these frequencies after looking over the operating plans for other events on the same day (such as the various state QSO parties, the QCWA QSO party, etc.) as well as international band allocations. We may try 40m early in the day before strong absorbtion sets in, but then we’ll move to the higher frequencies. We are likely to spend the lionshare of the activation on 17 and 20m. In the last couple hours, we may try 30m. We will not be operation above 50Mhz for this event. [Note: Another update – to accomodate the US band plan, we have tweaked the center frequencies from the original posting, the three affected voice frequencies are highlighted in red.]

If anyone hears use, we’d sure appreciate being spotted so other people can find us! I think we will have cellular connectivity from the site, so we will also post our band changes via twitter (@dhakajack, with the hash tag #signalmt). My twitter account feeds to this website (, so the tweets will be visible in the right column in the desktop view. We will not post via twitter or SMS to qrpspots since we will be working barefoot for most of the event.