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).