How Not to Do a SOTA Activation

This weekend my wife and I were out exploring the San Juan Mountains near Ouray, Colorado. We found ourselves on a Jeep road to Engineer Pass. When we got to the pass, we stopped to have lunch and I examined the high peaks nearby. I saw some people on the summit of one of the peaks, which I determined was Engineer Mountain by looking at a topo map.

Hmmm, I said to myself, Engineer Mountain is a valid peak (W0/SJ-011, 12968 feet elevation) for a Summits On the Air (SOTA) activation. The only portable radio I had with me was a Yaesu VX-8GR with the stock rubber duck antenna. Not a great SOTA station. But if I could whistle up 4 contacts on 2M FM simplex, I would have a legitimate activation. We had already decided to climb to the summit, so any radio activity was just icing on the cake.

So off we went up the mountain. I got to the top and started calling on 146.52 MHz FM. Now it hits me that we are in the middle of a national forest, away from population centers and, to top it off, no one is expecting a SOTA activation here today. This might be a bit of a challenge to make 4 contacts. Then Thomas, KRØNK, answered my CQ. OK, there’s one contact. A little bit later Dave, AKØMR, comes on frequency and gives me a second contact. Both of these guys were in Grand Junction, CO, which is about 100 miles from Engineer Mountain. Not bad for a peanut-whistle HT using a standard rubber duck antenna.

I needed two more contacts. I tuned around for a repeater in the area and came across the 147.27 MHz machine which turned out to be a stones throw away from my location. It requires a CTCSS tone, so I fumbled around until I figured that out. No, I did not have a repeater directory with me…that was safely stored in the Jeep at the bottom of the mountain. I gave a quick call with my location and Ben WB5ITS came back to me. We QSY’d over to 146.52 to make my third contact.  Anticipating a rough go of it, I asked my wife Joyce K0JJW to descend off the peak while I remained at the top, so she could be my fourth contact. (SOTA rules do not allow contacts between parties on the same peak.)

Somewhere along the way, I reach for a piece of paper to log the contacts, only to find that I did not have a writing utensil with me. Duh. I would have to remember the times and callsigns of the contacts and write them down later.

I completed the fourth contact and headed down. Later that evening I checked the ListsofJohn database and found that there are actually two peaks in the area called Engineer Mountain. Go figure. The SOTA database only recognizes one of them…of course, you guessed it, not the one I was on. It turns out that the Engineer Mountain I was on is subordinated by an adjacent peak: Darley Mountain (W0/RG-034, 13260 feet). However, since I operated from 13,218 feet on my Engineer Mountain, it is within the 75 foot vertical activation zone for Darley Mountain. So, this does count for a SOTA activation of Darley Mountain.

This is where I could claim that incredible skill, flexibility and a little luck ruled the day. I think a more appropriate analysis is to concede that a complete lack of planning and preparedness produced a marginal result.

What can we learn from this?

  • Do your homework concerning the SOTA peak that you intend to activate before you start the climb. Make sure you know where it is and that you are really on it.
  • Always keep a notepad and pen/ pencil in your backpack
  • Even for casual hikes, take along a decent antenna for the HT. A half-wave vertical is way better than a stock rubber duck.
  • Plan in advance so you can post your intended SOTA activation on sotawatch.org
  • Have a repeater directory (or equivalent) available to identify repeaters in the area.
  • And don’t forgot the normal hiking Ten Essentials

Beyond doing a SOTA activation, some of these items could be important if an emergency should occur. It runs out there was no mobile phone coverage in the area. I used to be pretty vigilant about taking an HT with spare batteries and extended antenna along on hikes but have gotten sloppy lately. See Rescue on Uncompahgre Peak, which describes an incident years ago when my radio turned out to be very useful during an emergency.

In the end, I did complete my first SOTA activation, so I can be happy about that. And it gave me the opportunity to relearn a few things about planning and being prepared.

73, Bob KØNR

P.S. The WØ SOTA guys recently created a great W0 SOTA page.

2 Oct 2013 Update:

Upon further review of the SOTA rules, this was not a valid activation of Darley Mountain. SOTA General Rule 3.7.1 includes this:

The Operating Position must be within the permitted Vertical Distance of the Summit, as defined in Rule 3.5. The terrain between the operating position and the actual Summit must not fall below the permitted Vertical Distance.

There is a significant saddle between Engineer Mountain and Darley Mountain that falls below the 75 foot vertical distance used in Colorado. I have deleted the activation from the SOTA database.

Which provides us with another lesson learned: Read and understand the SOTA rules.

3 thoughts on “How Not to Do a SOTA Activation

  1. Great story Bob. On my 1st SOTA activation, I lugged a much too heavy pack all the way up the mtn, only to find that I forgot an adapter. No HF. Luckily I was able to do exactly what you did with my HT. The lessons we remember most are the ones we learn from mistakes- HI. GL on the next one. 73, Marc W4MPS

  2. Any day in the mountains is a good one with or without the right stuff regardless of planning. However it can turn bad real fast if you don’t have the 10-essentials with you. It also can be more pleasant and increase the fun-factor a lot by having the right stuff. Great article, Bob! Tks for sharing!
    73, Steve/wGOAT

  3. Pingback: SOTA Activation Without The Tears | KØNR: Radio Enthusiast