Last weekend was one of the highlights of my ham radio experience even though I spent most of it shivering and hunched over a pair of paddles on a frigid mountaintop.
Mike, KA4CDN, and I decided to mount an expedition with the goal of activating rare counties for the 2019 Virginia QSO Party. We poured over spreadsheets of prior year activity and looked for places where we might camp on the intersection of two or more counties. We came up with a few possibilities, but ultimately decided to check out Rocky Mountain, which lies at the intersection of Nelson, Rockbridge, and Amherst counties. Additionally, it is centrally located in Virginia, which we thought would give us the best chance of picking up the many multipliers (95 counties and 38 independent cities) in the state.
The Bottom Line
To cut to the chase, despite poor propagation, we did better than we thought we would: more than 850 QSOs and broad coverage of multipliers throughout both Virginia and North America. Best of all, we worked a bunch of people we knew including at least ten members of our home club, the Vienna Wireless Society.
Scoping Out The Site
We took a road trip down to the mountain a week ahead of the contest, driving through heavy sleet and fog, to reach the ice-clad summit of the mountain (marked “camp site”, above), which we activated as a SOTA peak. The summit lies on the edge of two counties, and we were initially thinking of working from there.
While up there, we noticed a road heading off northward. It did appear on most maps, but the Caltopo map shows it winding around and leading right to the three-county intersection point at about 37.8034N, 79.1719W.
We only saw that location for ourselves, however, the day before the VAQP. A portion of the road extends over high boulders, but there is a bypass that routes around them, so we had no problem negotiating the road in a 4WD vehicle with relatively high clearance. The road then levels out through the area that we picked as a our operating site, labeled “three counties” above. The site is on the side of a gentle hill, which rises to the south.
While operating on the summit would have had its advantages in terms of take off angles, it also would have been more exposed and closer to a commercial antenna installation. The driving factor, though, was that the lower site covered three counties rather than two.
According to the VAQP rules, a station can only hand out one county at a time. I have worked other QSO parties in the past as a mobile station, where I have been able to work more than one county at a time, for example, as AI4SV/AMH/NEL. However, that would be difficult because in this party the exchange consists of a serial number and county. It would have been complicated to explain to people, particularly on CW, that they needed to record the contact as, for example “111 AMH”, “112 NEL”, and “113 RBR” — too much room for confusion. So, although every station that worked us technically worked all three counties, the each QSO was attributed to one county only in the N1MM log. In discussion with county-hunters afterwards, though, I have uploaded to LOTW all of the contacts tagged with all three counties, so everyone can get full credit.
The day before the contest was unusually warm, even at the operating site, the temperature was almost 60F (15C). We set up our tents, found a central place for a generator, put operating positions in place under tarps and spent most of the day getting antennas into trees.
However, as night fell, the temperature dropped to about 23F (-5C) and more importantly, wind whipped up; our best guess is that sustained winds were near 30 mph (50 kph) with gusts near 50 mph (80 kph). Wiped out from a day of travel and set-up, we were chilled to the bone as we worked in the dark to batten down everything. For me, that meant draping the entire operating position in a tarp, tying it all together at the base, and then securing it to neighboring trees and ground rods.
When we were sure that everything was reasonably well protected and that we’d be able to find our equipment the next morning, Mike and I had an impromptu meeting back in the car, where we ran the engine for a few minutes to get blood flowing again. We realized that with the change in weather, it was not feasible to try to operate under tarps, so we fell back on a contingency plan: Mike would operate the SSB station from inside his tent, and I would set up the CW station in the back seat of Mike’s car.
On the CW side of the dirt road, we put up three antennas: a standard 20m dipole, which we hung as a sloper, a roll-up 2m/70cm Jpole, and a 80m/40m NVIS dipole based on a design on the DX Engineering website.
We had hoped to work VHF and UHF, but as plans altered around weather, we figured we would be lucky if we managed to effectively cover the HF bands, so we only used the roll-up Jpole to squirt APRS messages, but it worked very well for that — there is a ton of traffic from that location and we had no difficulty getting our beacon spots through to internet gateways.
The crossed 80/40 NVIS antenna went up in about ten minutes. The center element was slipped into the end of a sectional fiberglass mast composed of five meter-long sections and the four arms served as both radiating elements and guys. The antenna is not really resonant on either band, but goes up very easy and seemed to work well with a tuner.
On the SSB side of the road, Mike had made a fan dipole with 40m and 20m elements. We had a lucky shot with an EZ Hang slingshot and got the center support up almost 50 feet up. We then hauled up the 40m arms to hang almost horizontally, with the 20m elements descending at about a 30 degree angle below them. This antenna was well matched on 40m and was probably our best performer. It was not matched on 20m, and we tended to use the other 20m antenna for that band. Finally, we also put up an end-fed 80m half wave antenna, which worked very well.
It was a cold, cold night. Lesson for the future: bring more sleeping bags to stuff into sleeping bags.
The morning was bitterly cold but sunny, and Mike’s bacon and egg breakfast got us moving again. The wind was still howling, but a little less than the previous evening. For the next couple hours before the contest started, we moved all the equipment to new operating positions.
Working from the car, I definitely got the better end of that deal in terms of wind protection, but Mike is a seasoned winter camper, with both experience and gear from his Alaska adventures, he managed to stay warm enough in his tent.
In the car, we folded down half the rear seat, which is where I placed my K3. I had hoped to boost the power with my KPA500 amplifier, but given the close quarters, we decided simpler was better and to just go with 100W. I sat on the rear seat on the other side of the car, and used a clever fold-down table that Mike had constructed, which hung from the passenger-side head rest. With my logging computer and paddles mounted on the platform, I was in business.
All of this came together just before the start of the contest at 10 am and we did our final checks just before the clock struck. Throughout the day, we followed propagation and tried to assure that each county got some time on each mode and band.
At the end of Saturday, we thought we had done pretty well, but were surprised how hard it was to make contacts. We both had stretches of a few minutes with nothing in the log, so we were comforted to hear from a report that propagation was in fact poor due to a geoeffective coronal hole that had pushed the K-index up to five during the afternoon.
Sunday was more of the same — we were up with the sun and began breaking down what we could and pre-staging camping items since we knew that we would be packing out in the dark later than night. Once that was done, a quick breakfast and then on the air, working through until 8 pm with occasional breaks for snacks.
Taking down antennas in the dark was not too bad, but it took some time to pack everything up. We got to my house in Southern Maryland around two in the morning.
We felt good about the overall number of QSOs. While the log will have to be checked and duplicates and busted calls removed, our raw logs show 869 uniques and 121 multipliers. Factor in various bonuses for operating as an expedition, and our score should compare favorably to similar expedition efforts of previous years.
Here’s the overall breakdown of QSOs in each category by band and mode (note this is the number of QSOs in each category, not the number of multipliers worked):
From this, it’s apparent that the 20m band contributed little, as you would expect now that we’re near the minimum at the end of Solar Cycle 24. Forty meters did the heavy lifting for continental contacts, and we picked up the most in-state multipliers on 80.
All together, we had excellent coverage over North America.
Similarly, our coverage in Virginia mostly lined up with population density:
This activation provided many helpful tips for next time:
- Tie the weight to the fishing line before shooting it into the trees.
- Make sure the other end of the rope that you are throwing is tied to something.
- Don’t plug the 100W rig into Rigrunner’s 5A fuse.
- Don’t stand under the tree limb while pulling the rope that goes over it.
- More layers of clothes for legs (Mike knew this; Jack learned this).
- Bring a full or extra propane tank for camp stove. It may be too windy for a camp fire.
- Bring extra weights, swivels, and line for the EZ Hang.
- Either network logging computers or set one up with a large serial number offset to avoid serial number collision during the contest.
- Consider more end-fed antennas; they are easy to set up and worked well, whereas classic two-arm antennas are more difficult to hang in dense tree cover.
- Unless antenna sites are a lot more spaced out (several hundred meters), do not expect to work both modes on 40m at same time.
- Related: next time bring per-band filters to avoid interference / desensing between bands.
- Review knots before the trip so Mike doesn’t have to tie all the sheepshanks.
- It is a big help to have rope and wires wound up on forms rather than coiled or wrapped on a rod.
- There is easily enough HF activity even under poor conditions to keep two people busy; if 6m and up is added, it will require another operator.
- Adding an amplifier will not add much in terms of S&P; 100W was enough to work just about everyone I could hear. It might make a difference with regard to getting replies to CQs.
- Under better conditions, contacts in the Russian contest on this weekend could have added to the QSO count; both contests use a serial number exchange.
- According to the score summary, one multiplier was worth almost 5 QSOs by the end of the contest, so attention to S&P and feeds from the VAQP spotting net and APRS mobile tracker would be worthwhile.