I thought I would be lucky if I had time to activate one summit on my visit to San Francisco, but morning meetings left my afternoons free, so I activated Mt Davidson (NC-423) as planned but also worked in Richardson East Benchmark (NC-407). Yesterday, thanks to a monstrous amount of snow that shut down airports on the US east coast, I found myself with an extra day in San Francisco. After reviewing maps, reports from other activators and a quick look at weather, I chose to visit NC-432, Chabot 2 Benchmark (what does that mean, benchmark? Why are all these peaks called Benchmark? Is that a west coast thing?).
One of my main criteria for choosing this peak, like the others I visited on this trip, was that it would be accessible by public transportation: I took the BART underground from near my hotel (Powell Station), green line towards Daly City, stopping at Bay Fair. From the bus terminal at that station, I caught the 89 “counter-clockwise”. The bus runs only hourly on the weekends, so I had a bit of a wait. I took the bus to the Juvenile Justice Center, about ten minutes away. I suppose you could walk, but the route crosses a major interstate (580) and there’s more walking to come, so I thought it was worth the $2.10 fare.
Having worked Mount Davidson, the highest point in San Francisco (283m), the only way to get more altitude (“excelsior!”) was to leave the city. I set my sights on Richardson East Benchmark (339m) in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, just north across the Golden Gate bridge from the city.
After spending the morning in meetings, I again checked the weather forecast. Although it had been drizzling all morning, the lowest probability of precipitation occurred in the afternoon, so I packed my bags and took the 70 bus north from 5th and Mission. The timing worked out just right, by the time the bus got to the destination, rain had stopped.
The most convenient entrance to the park is at the park and ride station, “Spencer Avenue Bus Pad”. Google Maps suggested taking one of the North bound buses, e.g, the 70 or the 4, northward past the stop and then coming back southward on another bus since the trail head is on the southbound side of the bus pad. This is not necessary, as you can walk from one side of the bus pad to the other through an underpass. This shaves off a lot of time and some extra bus fare.
There is a sign near the entrance, the morning sun trail. Stairs lead upward from that point, and the morning sun trail joins with other trails that circle the peak. The stairs wind back and forth a bit, but are not too steep. I did find the upper portion of the stairs slippery since it had rained earlier in the day and the stairs were covered with organic detritus (i.e., dead leaves).
At the top of the stairs, there is a scenic lookout, which includes a bench. The peak itself is visible from there, topped with commercial radio antennas. I ended up climbing most of the way up, but wanted to keep some distance to those antennas. Again, my antenna plan consisted of throwing the 10/20/40 end-feds into a tree.
I did remember this time to bring the VHF antenna and I tried putting out a call on the 2m calling frequency at the start and end of operation, but heard nothing. My business band was 20 meters, with 35 contacts. I was working two a minute for a while. I only had two contacts on 40m, which seemed alive with activity, but mostly QRO, so I might have been buried in the noise.
Some of the activity might be attributable to a comment that NF1R added on sota spotting network, that the peak was not only a SOTA peak, but also NPOTA RC11. I hadn’t realized that when I chose the location, but when I enter the contacts into LOTW, I’ll be sure to use the NPOTA unit number so chasers get NPOTA credit as well. The SOTA contacts have already been entered, but I’ll need to get home to update LOTW.
Best DX to the east was NY (preparing for a blizzard), FL and TX to the south, a good showing for Canadian stations (ON, QC, and BC), and westward, HI.
Three years ago, I paid a visit to Lamb’s Knoll Summit in Maryland (as detailed on this very blog). At that time, I went up the Appalachian Trail to the summit with a handheld to test my VX8GR handheld and a 70cm hand-held yagi. I verified that I could hit the VWS 2 meter and 70 cm repeaters in Virginia even with the Comet SRH320A antenna, a short whip. I also checked out possible operating positions and access paths with the intent of returning at some point for a SOTA activation. I also verified that from the summit I had good cellular connectivity and could hit a bunch of APRS digipeaters. Today I returned with my FT817 and activated the peak, W3/WE-007.
There are a limited number of SOTA peaks within a short drive of Washington, DC, and most of them, particularly the ones with zero activations, are on private property. After spending a little time with the SOTA database, I found one promising peak less than an hour’s drive away: Lambs Knoll, W3/WE-007. The most attractive feature is that it is located on the Appalachian Trail, and as a plus, it is line of sight to the VWS repeater.
A Google Map view shows that the trail winds back and forth, with a road running up the middle of it towards a facility on the peak. Even in the aerial photo, it is clear that there are two large log periodic antennas on that site, which turns out to be an FAA facility. By some accounts, this facility started as a Cold War continuity of government site (designated Corkscrew), but presumably, it no longer performs that function.
I drove to Fox’s Gap, along Reno Monument Road. Just off the side of the road, there is a dirt parking lot. The monument to General Reno and some historic markers are also there. The road leading to the FAA site is marked “road may close without notice”, but the metal gate somewhat up the road does not look like it has moved in recent times. The Appalachian Trail crosses Reno Monument Road and runs through the parking lot and into the woods.
The white-blaze trail winds through the woods and eventually rises towards a clearing, where large high tension lines run down the hill. The trail then continues for some distance and forks, with a blue trail running level, and the white trail continuing upward. The path becomes increasingly steep and rocky. On the day that I went, I ran into a good number of hikers on this part of the trail. At one point, the trail crosses the road to the FAA facility and then continues upward. From here, the ascent is not so steep, though, and the trail wraps around the facility.
At the point that I thought I’d have line of sight to Tyson’s Corner, Virginia, I was successful in hitting the 70cm VWS repeater with my handheld at 5W using my Comet antenna. From that same position (the red dot on the above topopgraphic map), I was able to get acknowledgement to APRS squirts from three digipeaters.
After climbing back down, I drove the access road up to the facility. It is a nicely paved road and winds up the hill. At the point where the power lines cross the road, a fence runs along each side of the road, blocking access to the cleared strip of land under the lines. There are gates in the fences, but they are closed. The Appalachian Trail crosses the road higher up, with some minor signage to indicate the intersection.
At the top of the hill, the road splits with the main facility to the right and an emergency vehicle entrance straight ahead. I did not approach the main entrance, but it looks to be a remotely-controlled electronic fence, probably with a card reader and some cameras. From the front of the facility, I could not see the log periodic or other recognizable antennas.
To reduce the climb time, one could probably drive up the road, drop operators off, and park the car back near the Reno Monument. Park the car along the side of the road is not a good option. The weakness of this plan is that whomever drove the car either has to wait in the parking lot for a “pick us up” call, or has to hike the whole trail — but it would allow the operators to get into position more quickly and have a longer operating day.
There is no indicate of hours of operation along the trail — it is not a park that closes at night, but it is probably best to tackle it in the day time. There may be some sort of camping along the blue trail, although I’d just drive out for the day.
The 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.
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).
Ian, 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.
We will be operating under the call signN0IMB 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:
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 (http://blog.templaro.com), 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.