SOTA Fail on Clatskanie Mountain

PC030148.JPG This post is a bit late, but I wanted to be sure to document my first attempt at a SOTA activation and what I learned from it. The title is probably a bit harsh, but the eternal pessimist in me couldn't help it. I decided to attempt a SOTA activation after seeing a lot of increased activity from my esteemed ham colleagues such as KK7DS, KD0BIK, and of course the guy who probably introduced most of us Americans to the activity: WG0AT. I've always loved outdoor hikes and have done my share of outdoor operating from parks and campgrounds, so the idea of packing a portable station up to the top of a local peak has been sounding appealing for quite a while now.

The plan was put together with much haste, as I wanted to get up in the mountains before any bad storms hit. I used the tools at SOTAWatch to find some candidate peaks that were within reasonable driving distance and not very high, then digitally scouted them using Google Earth. The initial research yielded a list of about 5 candidate peaks which fit my criteria. After more studying, I decided to try for Clatskanie Moutain W7/NC-039. It's roughly 60 miles from my house, which translates to a one-way drive time of about 1.5 hours. The logging road from the highway to the peak was only about 3 miles, and it looked like I could drive all the way to the peak if I wanted to. The plan that I had in mind was to park at the cutoff to the little spur road that branched off to the peak. The distance from this intersection to the peak is only about 500 meters, an easy hike, but one that would fit within the spirit of the SOTA rules.

After deciding on a peak, I managed to rope Dave W8NF into going on the trip with me, a decision that I would be very grateful for later. Since I recently sold my FT-817, the only portable radio that I currently have is my CC-20 beta unit, and it was in a bit of a torn-up state since I've been making corrections that will be implemented in the final version. I also wanted to do some 10 meter operation, so I thought it would be fun to slap together a VXO-tuned DSB rig that might allow me to snag a few voice QSOs. Without getting into the painful details, I worked furiously to build the DSB rig and get the CC-20 back into working condition (without a proper enclosure!). In a homage to my school days, I didn't finish until late night just before the day we were to go on our little expedition, and even then I wasn't sure that my 10 meter DSB rig was working correctly.

PC030143.JPG

So the designated day, Saturday, 3 December came around and I was running on about four hours of sleep, but still excited to get up around 8 AM to get going. By 9:30 AM, I was out the door, able to grab my coffee, and get to Dave's house. We quickly made way to the peak, and had little difficulty finding the logging road off of the highway that would take us up to the peak. There was only one small problem. The gate was locked. I should have done better due diligence (such as experienced SOTA expeditioner KK7DS explains here) and picked up a proper topo map from the local forestry office. I was planning on a short hike to the peak, but I really didn't want to turn around and drive back 1.5 hours having not even tried. I knew we were about 3 miles from the peak, which was a bit of a hike for some one as out of conditioning as me, but I felt I could probably hack it. Graciously, Dave agreed to hike it, so we grabbed our packs and I lugged the bulky, oversized sack with the Buddipole and we made way for Clatskanie Mountain. Fortunately for us, the weather couldn't be any better for a December trek in the Oregon Coastal Range. The skies were mostly clear, with just a bit of high clouds and some patches of fog below us.

PC030160.JPGWe had a pleasant hike up to the peak, and while I (the guy who is mostly sedentary and fat) had to stop for frequent breathers, Dave (the guy who runs half-marathons) didn't seem to have too much difficulty with the 3 mile hike and 700 foot elevation gain. When we reached the peak at sometime around 1:30 PM, we were greeted with a very spiffy microwave tower and wonderful view of the Columbia River below us to the north. The temperature was chilly (I'm guessing around 35° F) but the wind was slight.

There was a large earthen berm behind the microwave facility that gave us a point to operate with the mountain sloping away west, north, and east. I brought along my EFHW antennas, but decided not to deploy them at first since there weren't any trees at this location. I deployed the Buddipole in L-configuration with Dave's help and he broke out his FT-817 and started listening on 10 meters. As expected, the bands were ultra quiet up here far away from any big RF noise generators (save that big microwave tower right behind us!).

PC030156.JPG While Dave sent out some CQs on 28.060 MHz, I unpacked my DSB radio and the CC-20 beta. Dave didn't have any luck getting responses, which struck me as a bit odd. We could hear plenty of signals, and we had his Elecraft T-1 in-line and tuned-up. So I decided to try the DSB radio. A few quick cable changes and it was ready to go. Only one small problem. It was completely deaf. Well, that's what I get for trying to get a radio on the air in such a hasty fashion. I felt bad because I knew that there were people listening for me on my pre-spotted frequency of 28.650 MHz, but somewhat surprisingly I was wasn't successful in getting cell service on the peak, so I couldn't spot a new notification. Sometime around these events, the wind started picking up, making the temperature feel wicked cold with the wind chill factor.

So next up was the CC-20. Again, dead as a doornail (I later found out that it was a bad solder joint in the VFO circuitry that popped loose on the hike). Dave was kind enough to let me use his FT-817 to try to get my four required QSOs to count for a proper SOTA activation. The 10 meter QRP watering hole was awfully quiet, but I figured that some CQing should bring people out. Turns out that I didn't have much luck. I managed to work a weak WA8REI, then a booming JA1KGW (this guy is an awesome QRPer). By this time, both Dave and I were getting awfully cold. The wind seemed to be getting stronger and the temperature felt like it kept dropping. My further CQs were going unanswered, so I thought that 10 meters might be starting to close up and that we should move to 20.

We quickly re-resonated the Buddipole for 20 meters and re-tuned the T-1. I tried calling CQ on a few different frequencies near the QRP watering hole, but never did get any calls on 20 meters. I'm not sure how long I tried calling, but I didn't have a memory keyer to use, so I was manually sending the CQ each time, and it was getting sloppier and sloppier due to my numb hands. Poor Dave was pacing around to keep warm by this point. As much as it killed me to leave before activating the summit, we we both very uncomfortable and needed to leave soon regardless, because we only had about 1.5 hours of sunlight left at this point.

PC030146.JPGAll of our stuff got packed up in record time and we started downhill at a brisk pace. But only a few hundred meters from the peak, my leg started cramping up bad from the cold weather. A bit of stretching worked it out, but then it kept recurring every few hundred meters! We both wanted to get back to the warmth of my pickup as fast as possible, but my leg was not cooperating very well. Dave patiently waited as I stopped each time to try to work out the leg cramps. Although it took longer than expected, we did reach the gate right when the dark was really starting to set in. Getting back in the truck and heating up my body mercifully ended the awful leg cramps.

I'm a perfectionist by nature, so it still bothers me that I didn't get my activation of Clataskanie Mountain. And it's tough to try to demonstrate the fun and effectiveness of QRP to a non-QRPer like  Dave when you have such a lousy radio day as I did. I am very glad that Dave was there, as I might have stayed on the peak too late to get back before dark if I was only thinking of myself and of trying to complete my activation. I also realized that a nearly 7 mile round trip hike for a unconditioned hiker such as myself would have been incredibly foolish. If my leg cramps had been worse, I could have been stuck up there in the dark over night. I used to hike like this with no problems, but I have to remind myself that this was 10+ years ago and that I was in much better shape then.

It's a cliché, but I did learn a lot from the trip, regardless of the radio results. I do intend to try it again in the spring, once the bad winter storms have passed and I have my radios really ready to go. Stay tuned for further adventures!

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Ham Radio Hits Linux Journal

cover189The January 2010 issue of Linux Journal is hitting the newsstands, and this one has the theme of Amateur Radio and Linux. One of the featured articles was written by none other than the local Linux guru, KK7DS. I haven't purchased the issue yet, but I got a sneak peak at this particular article, and I know that Dan does a nice overview of the ways in which you can integrate Linux into your ham radio activities. There's also a podcast that the magazine has launched with this issue. The hosts talk about the ham radio stuff, although they are not hams, so they have a bit of a difficult time doing a good job of describing what's going on with the ham radio stuff. It would have been nice if they would have brought Dan or another ham on as a guest. But it's worth a listen if you are curious about what's in the magazine, and it's only about 20 minutes of program. Check it out if you currently use Linux in your shack or might be interested in doing so.

SEA-PAC 2009 Wrapup

Whew, I just got back from a nice day at the SEA-PAC 2009 convention in Seaside, OR. Due to the *ahem*unstable*ahem* financial situation that I have recently found myself in due to the current economic conditions, I decided a few months ago that I would skip the show this year. However, things ended up changing, as they often do. Since I'm now working for Buddipole, I figured that it would be good to make an appearance, if for nothing more than getting in some time at the booth, soaking up the feeling of the chaos, and maybe trying to learn a thing or two. The deal was sealed when Chris, W6HFP called me last night to let me know that he had an extra exhibitor's pass that I could use. Being a ham, thus cheap by nature, I jumped on the chance.

Found: SSDRA
Found: SSDRA

The morning started a bit late for me since I was busy doing some much-needed hibernation the night before. I ended up rolling into Seaside around 1030. Surprisingly, I didn't have much trouble finding a parking space within a few blocks of the convention center. After a quick check-in at the Buddipole booth, I started off with a first walkthrough of the convention floor. As usual, the sheer mass of stuff, along with the throngs of hams smashed together in narrow aisles kept me too distracted from finding much that I wanted to buy. However, when I was about ready to quit my first pass through the show floor, I found it: my reason for being there. The thing that I knew made the trip worth it, regardless of whether I found any other good purchases. Sitting on a lonely swap table in the middle of the main floor was two first edition copies of Solid State Design for the Radio Amateur (SSDRA). For those of you who aren't homebrewers and don't listen to SolderSmoke, just know that SSDRA is a long out-of-print book that can command quite high prices on eBay and other reseller sites. These two copies carried a cover price of $7.00, but the seller had marked them down to $5.00! Immediately, I snagged both of them. However, I'm not quite as greedy as it might seem. I had loaned out my 3rd printing copy to W8NF, who hadn't had access to one for years. Since I knew he needed one, I had to save one copy for him (coincidentally enough, he had brought along my loaner copy to return to me). I know that still puts me in that club of hoarders who have more than one copy, but I don't really care! I've got two copies of EMRFD (1st edition and Revised 1st edition), so it feels right to have the first and third printing copies sitting on my shelf. Don't hate me.

After that small bit of excitement (yes, I'm a geek to the core), I went back to the Buddipole booth for a stint in helping out. What I thought would be a fairly small amount of time behind the booth turned out to be about three hours during some fairly busy periods. I was at a pretty big disadvantage because I couldn't remember the prices on most items, and I had to bug poor Chris numerous times to ask. However, I started to get more comfortable fielding questions as the afternoon wore on, especially regarding the technical side of things. The best part was getting people pumped up about our new A123 nanophosphate battery packs and chargers. A lot of folks were interested in these things. I also ran into a few people of note while manning the booth. First off, I got to meet Randy K7AGE when he stopped by the booth. He was a really nice guy and I got to tell him how much I appreciate his YouTube videos, especially the 6 meter stuff he recently released. A bit later, Dan KK7DS and his wife (Mrs. D-RATS, according to her t-shirt, LOL) stopped by. You may remember him from our January Eggs & Coffee, where he was kind enough to stop by to demo D-RATS. Dave W8NF, came to the booth to give me my copy of SSDRA, and I had the pleasure of surprising him with a copy of his very own.

The Law
The Law

Across the way from the Buddipole booth was a vendor selling ham radio-related t-shirts. I had to do a double-take at one point because I saw someone well-known to the locals browsing the wares across the way. Paul Linnman, who used to report for KATU and now broadcasts on radio station KEX, was right there, along with who I assume was his wife. He was there to give the evening banquet speech regarding the famous Oregon Exploding Whale story, which he covered as a newbie reporter back in the day. I pretty much expect media types to kind of look down their nose at us nerds, but Paul seemed genuinely interested and amused at the hamfest. Speaking of the t-shirt vendor, I spotted a shirt that I just had to pick up. I don't normally go for the extremely nerdy fare that you find at these things, but if you check out the photo to the left, you'll probably appreciate why I had to have this one. Of course, I got a ton of eye-rolling from Jennifer when I brought it home, but it's not like I plan on wearing it out everywhere we go in public. Or maybe I will, just so she'll be embarrassed to be seen with me.

Even with all of the cool stuff that I saw, the best was still to come. After my stint at the Buddipole booth, I had a bit of time to kill before the seminar I wanted to see. When I was wandering near the front doors of the convention center, I spotted the ham homebrewer #1 rockstar, Wes W7ZOI. I've communicated with Wes a few times via e-mail but I've never met the guy in person. I almost walked up to introduce myself to him, but chickened out, figuring the poor guy didn't want to be ambushed by some unknown geek at the front door. So I continued browsing the tables to see if I could find anything else I couldn't live without. As fortune would have it, I ended up right next to Wes once again on the mezzanine level right by the table full of old Tek junk. Since it appeared that the universe was giving me a second chance, I got up the nerve to walk up and introduce myself. Surprisingly to me, he actually recognized my name and mentioned that he had been hoping to meet me at some point, since I'm one of the few locals who is out there homebrewing and publishing my work on the Internet. To say I was flattered is a huge understatement. He also invited me over to visit his shack some day; asking why I hadn't come over sooner. My reply was something along the lines of "I didn't want to be a crazy stalker"...or maybe it wasn't quite that dramatic, but you get the gist of the message. Wes is a really nice guy, and it was truly an honor to finally meet him. When I do get over to his shack, you can bet I will get some photos and a write-up for you.

The end of the evening was a presentation on "Construction & Design Ideas" by Jeff WA7MLH. Jeff is a protege of Wes, and it showed in his really neat presentation. He brought along a PowerPoint deck showing off his shack and many of his homebrew rigs. He discussed strategies for acquiring parts cheaply at hamfests, techniques for repurposing used chassis,  design elements for receivers, transmitters, and transceivers, as well as a bunch of other random homebrewer wisdom. After an hour-and-a-half, he still wasn't done with the first part of his presentation, but I had to go! Which was a bummer, because I really wanted to stick around for part two, which was about building crystal filters. Alas, real life had to intrude into my geek bliss, and I needed to return home.

This was the best time that I've had yet at any hamfest. Even though I'm a pretty shy guy, I got a lot of socializing in this time. I've come away really reinvigorated to get building more stuff, but unfortunately I don't have much time for that right now. But that's OK, because the fire is really burning once again. Thanks to everyone who I met at SEA-PAC this year, and a special thanks to Buddipole for giving me the opportunity to get reconnected with a lot of good ham radio stuff.

Must Be Something in the Water

I got my September QST in the mail last week and when I was doing my preliminary flip through the pages, an article caught my eye. Featured on the pages were quite a few screen shots of an application running on the very distinctive Ubuntu Human theme. It turns out that the article is about a new bit of open source software suite for D-STAR users that's called D-RATS. I'm not very intersted in VHF repeater ops, but this got my attention. Then I noticed that one of the screenshots had a GPS map that looked kind of familiar. A closer look confirmed that the map was a view of the city of Hillsboro, just a few miles away from my QTH. It turns out that the author of the software and QST article, Dan Smith KK7DS, is a local resident who is heavily involved in the local EMCOMM group. Dan also works at the IBM Linux Technology Center in Beaverton. It's amazing how many talented hams we have over here in the Pacific Northwest. Off the top of my head there's W7ZOI, KK7B, WA7MLH, and NB6M (I'm sure I'm forgetting some other big names). It's great to see some up-and-coming new blood like KK7DS to keep the strong Silicon Forest tradition alive.

So do yourself a favor and check out Dan's blog at danplanet.com. I just might have to reconsider my interest in VHF/UHF activity.