The certificate for my entry in the 2014 ARRL September VHF Contest arrived in the mail last week. Given that it has been 11 months after the contest, I had pretty much forgotten about the effort. The ARRL VHF contest certificates look great, even if they do take a while to get issued. It turns out this contest entry was the combination VHF contest plus Summits On The Air (SOTA) activation from Mt Herman that I blogged about.
My blog posting said my score was 767 but the actual score was 780. Not a big score by any standard but not bad for ~4 hours of operating on a Saturday afternoon. As I suspected, this sets a new record for the Single Operator Portable category in the Colorado Section. What I did not expect is placing sixth in the overall contest (for my category). For the most part, this was just a really fun SOTA activation that included some VHF contest action.
Summary: The score doesn’t matter; any day having fun with ham radio is a good day.
Buffalo Peaks are a pair of 13er summits that stick up quite prominently on the west side of South Park in Colorado. West Buffalo Peak is the taller of the pair (13,326 feet) and the SOTA summit (W0C/SP-018). I’ve had my eye on these peaks for a while, wanting to climb then and also do a SOTA activation. Here’s a winter view of the summits, as seen from the south near Trout Creek Pass.
Joyce K0JJW and I hiked in from the north, off of Buffalo Peaks Road (FS 431). The trailhead is not marked and is easy to miss but this trip report on the 13ers.com web site is very helpful. Pay special attention to the photo of the trailhead. This trip report describes doing both East and West Buffalo in a bit of a loop. We opted to focus on just West Buffalo, skipping East Buffalo.
Here’s my favorite hiking partner on the trail near the trailhead. The “trail” is not very well marked, following various old logging roads. We roughly followed the route indicate on 13ers.com. Once we cleared the trees we had a good view of both peaks and aimed for West Buffalo. We did make a critical error by going for the summit too early and got onto some very steep talus. Not fun. So the main route finding advice I am going to provide is make sure you approach the summit from the (more) gentle saddle on the northwest side. I marked this waypoint (N 38.99444, W 106.12866) as a good point to aim for on the way up so that you stay far enough west.
Once on the summit, I worked the following stations on 146.52 MHz: KD0MRC, KJ6NES, AF5KS, W9GYA, KE0DMT, W0BV and K5UK.
On the descent we stayed west of the route marked on the 13ers.com trip report with the intent of having an easier route. However, mostly what we did was encounter additional off trail hiking, so that is probably not recommended. It would have been better to just retrace our ascent route. Eventually, we found a different trail that led back to FS 431, popping out about a quarter mile west of where we parked. I had the location of our Jeep marked in the GPS, so it was easy to backtrack to the vehicle.
This was the first SOTA activation for West Buffalo Peak, so it was great to get that in the log. Thanks to everyone that got on the air to work me.
During my presentation on Mountaintop VHF for SOTA at the Central States VHF Society Conference in Denver today, I mentioned this is an issue. Basically, I pointed out that Summits On The Air (SOTA) operators often default to the 2m fm calling frequency, which is prohibited for use in the ARRL contests. This gets in the way when mountaintop stations do a combination SOTA and VHF Contest operation.
During my presentation, Brian Mileshosky N5ZGT, ARRL Director of the Rocky Mountain Division, reported that the ARRL has decided to remove the prohibition of 146.52 MHz in VHF contests. It will take some time for this to work its way into the actual rules, so stayed tuned for further developments.
This is great news…a cleanup of an unnecessary impediment to VHF contesting. Now, will the CQ Worldwide VHF Contest do the same?
Amateur Radio operators from around Colorado will be climbing many of Colorado’s 14,000-foot mountains and Summits On The Air (SOTA) peaks in an effort to communicate with other radio amateurs across the state and around world. Join in on the fun on the first full weekend in August and see how many of the mountaintop stations you can contact. The prime operating hours are on Sunday August 2nd from 9 AM to noon local time (1500 to 1800 UTC), but activity can occur throughout the weekend.
Now including Summits On the Air (SOTA), which adds over 1700 potential summits! If you aren’t up to climbing a 14er, there are many other summits to choose from (with a wide variety of difficulty). See the W0C SOTA web page at w0c-sota.org
Frequencies used during the event Activity can occur on any amateur band including HF and VHF. The 2m fm band plan uses a “primary frequency and move up” approach. The 2m fm primary frequency is 147.42 MHz. At the beginning of the event, operators should try calling on 147.42 MHz. As activity increases on that frequency, move on up the band using the 30 kHz steps. Don’t just hang out on 147.42 MHz…move up! The next standard simplex frequency up from 147.42 MHz is 147.45 MHz, followed by 147.48, 147.51, 147.54 MHz.
147.42 Primary 2m FM Frequency, then up in 30 kHz steps
223.5 Primary 222 MHz FM frequency
446.000 Primary 70 cm FM frequency
446.025 Alternate 70 cm FM frequency
52.525 Primary 6m FM frequency
144.200 2m SSB calling frequency
50.125 6m SSB calling frequency
14.060 20m CW Frequency
14.345 20m SSB Frequency
18.092 17m CW Frequency
18.158 17m SSB Frequency
21.060 15m CW Frequency
21.330 15m SSB Frequency
28.060 10m CW Frequency
28.350 10m SSB Frequency
Standard calling frequencies and/or band plans apply.
Warning: Climbing mountains is inherently a dangerous activity. Do not attempt this without proper training, equipment and preparation.
It was the Saturday of ARRL Field Day, so I planned to be out at our FD site in Black Forest. Brad and I had coordinated in advance and pretty much concluded that it would be difficult or impossible to make the contact on FM. Brad decided to take his FT-817 along with a homebrew 4-element yagi to give him 2m SSB capability. Out at the FD site, I saw that Brad was spotted on Bald Mountain (W0C/PR-019) via SOTAwatch early in the morning, so I borrowed the FD VHF station to try to work him. It was an FT-897 pushing 50 watts to a 4-element yagi up about 30 feet. I heard Brad clearly on 144.200 MHz (SSB calling frequency) and we made the contact.
I estimate that the contact was about 75 miles. I did not do a careful analysis of the terrain but the the signal had to get over the Rampart Range and quite a few other mountains to get from Black Forest to Bald Mountain. The summit of Bald Mountain is at 13,684 feet, so that certainly helps.
A few hours later, Brad showed up on the summit of Boreas Mountain (W0C/SP-030), another 13er near Breckenridge. By now, the Field Day station was in use, so I pulled out my own FT-817 and a 3-element Arrow yagi. Holding it in my hand, I pointed it towards Boreas Mountain and tuned to 144.200 MHz USB. This time Brad was even weaker but still readable, so we completed the contact.
In both cases, Brad was fair to good copy but just above the noise, I am sure that using FM would not have gotten the job done. For serious VHF work, 75 miles is not that great of a distance but we were running QRP power levels with small yagi antennas.
Brad and I are both concluding we need to encourage the use of SSB for 2m SOTA here in Colorado. It is common to end up on a high peak in the Colorado backcountry and not have enough range to reach the larger population centers. Sure there are more people active on 2m FM, but if no one is within range, it does not matter.
Congratulations to WA6MM for first activations of two more challenging summits in Colorado and thanks for 18 chaser points!
Last weekend was the ARRL June VHF Contest, my favorite ham radio event of the year. For me, this is “vhf activity weekend” when all of the vhf radio enthusiasts come out to play on the bands above 50 MHz. The sporadic-e propagation that is (almost) always present during the contest means that 6 meters will be hopping.
I entered in the 3-Band Single Operator category, using 6m, 2m and 70cm. My 6m rig is a Yaesu FT-950 driving a 6M5XHP Yagi antenna. For 2m and 70cm, I use a Yaesu FT-847 to drive a 2M9SSB Yagi on 2m and a similar Yagi for 70 cm. I set up portable masts at our cabin in DM78av, near Trout Creek Pass, Colorado (9600 feet).
This year, propagation seemed OK but not great. My score turned out to be about the same as last year with similar effort and same equipment, but down from previous years. 6m had sporadic-e openings very late both evenings, about the time I was ready to give up. Fortunately, I stuck with it and made quite a few contacts late into the evening.
The rovers kept things from getting too boring when 6m was not cooperating. Thanks to W3DHJ/R, ABØYM/R and WE7L/R for roving in eastern Colorado. WBØGAZ/R passed through South Park heading towards Denver and give me a few contacts. I also got a few contacts from KØCS/R and KØJJW/R. Thanks for roving!
Best DX was ZF1EJ in EK99, a new country for me on 6m.
73, Bob KØNR
K0NR June VHF Contest Summary:
Band QSOs Mults
6: 190 83
2: 30 13
432: 11 6
Total: 231 102 Total Score = 24,684
For Field Day this year, the Tri-Lakes Monument Radio Association (WØTLM) is planning a one day event that combines our Tech Day training activities with normal Field Day radio operating. This Tech Field Day will have a strong emphasis on radio education and training, including an opportunity to make contacts on the HF bands under the supervision of an experienced radio ham.
Sat June 27th, 2015 (8:00 AM to 5 PM)
Location: Black Forest Fire Station 1
11445 Teachout Road, Colorado Springs
Come to our one-day education and radio operating event and learn from informative presentations of amateur radio topics. Operate a high frequency (HF) radio station with the helpful guidance of an experienced radio ham. Learn about emergency communications and public service. Most of all, have a bunch of fun messing around with ham radio stuff!
We have quite a few licensed radio amateurs that are members of public safety agencies, including fire departments, law enforcement agencies and search and rescue. Since they are authorized users of those public safety channels, they often ask this question:
Can I use my VHF/UHF ham radio on the fire, police or SAR channel?
It is widely known that many amateur radios can be modified to transmit outside the ham bands. The answer to this question used to be that amateur radio equipment cannot be used legally on public safety channels because it is not approved for use under Part 90 of the FCC Rules. (Part 90 covers the Private Land Mobile Radio Services.) The only option was to buy a commercial radio with Part 90 approval and a frequency range that covered the desired amateur band. Some commercial radios tune easily to the adjacent ham band but some do not. The commercial gear is usually two to three times as expensive as the amateur gear, and just as important, does not have the features and controls that ham operators expect. Usually, the commercial radios do not have a VFO and are completely channelized, typically changeable only with the required programming software.
The situation has changed dramatically in the past few years. Several wireless manufacturers in China (Wouxun, Baofeng, Anytone, etc.) have introduced low cost handheld transceivers into the US amateur market that are approved for Part 90 use. These radios offer keypad frequency entry and all of the usual features of a ham radio. It seems that these radios are a viable option for dual use: public safety and amateur radio, with some caveats.
New radios are being introduced frequently, so I won’t try to list them here. However, you might want to do a search on Wouxun, Baofeng and Anytone for the latest models. I will highlight the Anytone NSTIG-8R radio which I have been using. It seems to be a well-designed but still affordable (<$75) handheld radio. See the review by PD0AC.
Some Things to Consider When Buying These Radios
The manufacturers offer several different radios under the same model number. Also, they are improving the radios every few months with firmware changes and feature updates. This causes confusion in the marketplace, so buy carefully.
Make sure the vendor selling the radio indicates that the radio is approved for Part 90 use. I have seen some radios show up in the US without an FCC Part 90 label.
Make sure the radio is specified to tune to the channels that you need.
The 2.5-kHz tuning step is required for some public safety channels. For example, a 5-kHz frequency step can be used to select frequencies such as 155.1600 MHz and 154.2650 MHz. However, a 2.5 kHz step size is needed to select frequencies such as 155.7525 MHz. There are a number of Public Safety Interoperability Channels that require the 2.5-kHz step (e.g., VCALL10 155.7525 MHz, VCALL11 151.1375 MHz, VFIRE24 154.2725). The best thing to do for public safety use is to get a radio that tunes the 2.5-kHz steps.
Many of these radios have two frequencies in the display, but only have one receiver, which scans back and forth between the two selected frequencies. This can be confusing when the radio locks onto a signal on one of the frequencies and ignores the other. Read the radio specifications carefully.
There are a number of reasonably good radios out there from various manufacturers. My favorite right now is the Anytone NSTIG-8R but I also like the Wouxun KG-UV6D. The Baofeng UV-5R continues to be popular in the amateur community as the low cost leader. However if you show up at an incident with the Baofeng, your fellow first responders will think it is a toy. Which leads to a really important point: the established commercial radio manufacturers such as Motorola, Vertex, etc. build very rugged radios. They are made for frequent, heavy use by people whose main job is putting out fires, rescuing people in trouble and dealing with criminals. These low cost radios from China are not in the same league. However, they can still serve in a less demanding physical environment while covering the Amateur Radio Service (FCC Part 97) and the Private Land Mobile Radio Services (FCC Part 90).
I’ve written before about the flexibility of Field Day and the need to season to taste to make it your own. I have always thought that one of the great things about Field Day is that it can be tuned to whatever interests you or your club. It can be a serious radio contest (well, almost); it can be an emcomm drill. It can be a radio campout; it can be a foodfest, it can be a beer-drinking party. Insert your idea here.
This year, our local club, the Tri-Lakes Monument Radio Association is going to try a new approach that we call Tech Field Day. We previously have held a one-day educational event that we call Tech Day, that featured a series of presentations and hands-on demonstrations. The main theme of Tech Day was to help the Technician level hams gain more knowledge and help them move on up to General class operating.
We are taking the basic idea of Tech Day and combining with a shortened one-day version of Field Day. So on Saturday June 27th, we’ll offer a series of educational presentations along with some classic Field Day radio operating. The operating emphasis will be on giving newer hams a chance to get on the air, probably on both HF and VHF. (Our plans are still coming together.) We will also promote the theme of emergency communications, operating off a emergency power source, etc.
There are a number of things that we are intentionally leaving out. We won’t operate the entire 24 hour period…in fact, we’ll probably just be on the air Saturday afternoon. We won’t worry about making a lot of contacts or running up the score. Our stations will be relatively simple (no towers, no amplifiers).
So that’s our idea of a fun Field Day. What are you planning to do?
Anytone Tech is shaking things up in the low cost handheld radio market. They have introduced three new dualband transceivers with features including dual receive, crossband repeater and legal operation on MURS, GMRS and commercial (Part 90) frequencies. See the excellent reviews on the Hans PD0AC blog:
HamRadioNow reports on some very interesting developments of digital voice technology. See the video interview with David Rowe VK5DGR, who is developing some amazing technology (codec2 and related work).
This hilarious video will show you some good safety tips for working with high voltage…not really.
On the topic of operating events for Summits On The Air (SOTA) activations, Guy N7UN suggested focusing on six major events for 2015. Most of these are VHF-oriented but HF activity can also occur on these days.
Jan 24-26: ARRL Jan VHF Contest + NA SOTA Winter Activity Weekend
(oops, I guess we already missed that one)
Apr 18-19: North America SOTA Spring Activity Weekend
Of course, any day is a good day for SOTA activity. I also think six weekends are a great way to focus our operating activity and create S2S (summit to summit) radio contacts. The August 1-2 weekend looks to be the alignment of the planets with four events happening on that weekend. Early August usually offers excellent conditions for hiking the highest peaks in Colorado, so come on out and play.
After acquiring a Ford F-150 truck last year, I’ve been working on getting a ham radio installed in it. At times, I have loaded up my vehicle with multiple radios covering HF through 70 cm but lately I am content with just having a reasonable dualband 2m/70 cm FM rig in the mobile. Actually, I used a Yaesu FT-8900 that does FM on 10m, 6m, 2m and 70 cm but just set it up for the two bands.
One of the most critical questions for a mobile installation is what kind of antenna to install and where to put it. In the end, the antenna is going to be the main determinant of mobile performance. Ideally, I’d like to have the antenna on the roof of the cab but the truck will not fit in my garage in that configuration. Another option I considered was mounting a longer dualband antenna using one of the stake pocket mounts from Breedlove. I prefer NMO mounts for VHF/UHF antennas and the stake pocket looked like a good way to go. However, a little measuring revealed that a 1/2-wave or 5/8-wave 2m antenna on the stack pocket was not going to clear my garage door. So it seemed that I was limited to a shorter antenna. I may still use the stake pocket mount for an additional antenna for road trips or to add 6m and 10m antennas.
At this point, the F-150 bracket offered by The Antenna Farm looked like a good option. They have a number of these brackets made specifically for various vehicles, so check them out. This made the antenna installation quite simple. <click on any of the photos for a larger view>
The antenna is an NMO-mount dualband that I had laying around the hamshack. I don’t recall the exact model number but these are very common, about 19-inch long for 1/4-wave operation on 2m and a small loading coil to make it work on the 70cm band.
The F-150 has several precut holes for passing wires through the firewall. I used one that is on the passenger side just below a large module, as shown in the photo. It took a stiff wire and some force to punch my way through the rubber plug and into the cab compartment.
I don’t have a photo of the battery connection but I connected the positive lead right onto the battery terminal while the negative lead was attached to the truck chassis near the battery. You may have been told to always connect directly to the battery terminals but that advice no longer applies to some newer cars because there is a current monitoring device in the negative battery lead. To avoid confusing the vehicle battery monitoring system, the negative connection to your transceiver needs to be on the chassis side of the current monitor. Alan K0BG explains this issue on his web site. Actually, Alan has a wealth of information on mobile installations on his web site: www.k0bg.com. Oh, of course, I used inline fuses on both the positive and negative power cables.
I mounted the FT-8900 transceiver on the floor under the back seat. To route the power cables and antenna coax, I pulled up the flat plastic trim piece that runs along the floor at the passenger door. I started from the front and did some careful prying (and praying) to remove the trim without breaking it. This exposes a trough with a factory wiring harness in it but there’s room for more. A few other plastic trim pieces were removed to get access to the wires coming through the firewall. All in all, this was not that difficult. (Yea, Ford!)
The photo to the left shows the FT-8900 radio installed under the passenger side rear seat. I drilled holes through the floor and mounted the radio with hefty sheet metal screws. The screws go right through the metal floor and and can be seen from under the truck. (Check that out before drilling!) Because the radio body is under the rear seat, I am using a small external speaker mounted near the drivers seat.
The radio control head is mounted inside a little door/shelf that normally pops open to reveal the USB port for plugging in a smartphone. (Note that Ford has multiple seat / dashboard configurations.)
The FT-8900 control head just fits inside this little shelf, even when the door is closed (see photo). The microphone does have to be removed to close the door. I mounted a microphone hanger with a couple of sheet metal screws, as shown in the photo. I don’t like the crappy little hanger that usually comes with a ham transceiver so I bought some higher quality hangers on Amazon.
Overall, I am pleased with the radio install. The antenna location is clearly a compromise and I notice the performance is not as good as my previous vehicle (which was a small SUV with an NMO mount antenna in the middle of the roof.) But the antenna is “low profile” and sufficient for “around town” mobile operating. I am getting a little noise on the 2m band which needs some investigation. The 70cm band is very clean and is the band I use the most.
One continuing discussion in the VHF community is how to promote more activity, especially during the major VHF contests. One central theme that always emerges is how to modify the VHF contest rules to make them better, to make them fairer and to encourage new contesters. (Let me say up front that there is room for improvement in the contest rules but I don’t think rule changes alone will change contest participation significantly.)
In 2013, the ARRL contests added the Three-Band Single Operator and Single Operator FM Only entry categories. In January 2015, the ARRL added three more categories: Single Operator Unlimited High Power, Single Operator Unlimited Low Power, and Single Operator Unlimited Portable. These “unlimited” categories allow “passive use of spotting assistance” which roughly means these operators can monitor the various DX spotting networks but not spot themselves. The CQ Worldwide VHF Contest already allows passive assistance for all participants and self-spotting for digital EME and meteor scatter contacts. See the CQ WW VHF rules.
In January, the ARRL announced additional changes:
The Board … adopted amendments to the General Rules for ARRL Contests Above 50 MHz to encourage greater participation and band utilization. The changes become effective with the 2015 June ARRL VHF Contest. The revisions stemmed from recommendations offered by the Board’s Programs and Services Committee’s ad-hoc VHF and Above Revitalization subcommittee, composed of active VHF/UHF contesters, and they received strong support from the VHF/UHF community.
The subcommittee was charged with developing recommendations to increase the level and breadth of ARRL VHF and above contest participation and encourage operation on lesser-used bands. As a start to the process, the Board approved three changes that will permit assistance for all operator categories, with no effect on entry category; permit self-spotting for all operator categories, and allow single operators to transmit on more than one band at a time.
The changes will permit assistance in arranging contacts, but not in conducting contacts. They will, for example, allow a station to announce its location in a chat room, on a repeater, or even via e-mail.
The self-spotting/assistance issue is a hotly debated issue among VHFers, with two main schools of thought:
1) Contacts should be made completely independent of non-amateur assistance. Sometimes passive spotting assistance is allowed, but some folks want to eliminate that practice as well.
2) Contacts can be made with non-amateur assistance (spotting networks, chat rooms, etc.) as long as a complete radio contact occurs over the ham bands. This follows the common practice of internet spotting for EME and meteor scatter. Also, some rover stations have requested the ability to spot themselves when they enter a new grid.
There are a number of shades of gray positions between these two points of view (see the CQ WW VHF rules, for example), but I won’t try to explain them here. In general, I support the move to loosening up the restrictions on assistance (#2). Without good 6m propagation, VHF contests tend to be “QSO poor” and expanded use of spotting will allow for additional contacts. The potential risk is that we’ll get sloppy with what constitutes a legitimate contact. Once I know the exact frequency and call sign of the other station, it will be easier to “hear” the other station even when the path is not there. Of course, we already have this situation when we complete a QSO on one band and QSY to another band to work the same station. We know the frequency and call sign (and the grid)…did we really hear the other guy or just think we did? In the end, it all comes down to the integrity of the radio hams involved in the contact.
I keep getting asked about the Baofeng radios. Usually, it’s a new ham asking “hey, should I buy the Baofeng?” Even though I own several of them and make good use of them, I have been a little reluctant to recommend them as a first radio. I put together my thoughts on these radios plus a few tips to help people get started with them. Read the full story here on HamRadioSchool.com.
If you ever thought it would be a good idea to use a banana as a Morse code keyer, check out this video. Meanwhile, Burger King has recognized the importance of ham radio for space communications (video).
Stu W0STU over at HamRadioSchool.com has been straining his brain on the topic of complex impedance. If you need some help understanding this (ahem) complex topic, take a look at his three part article on the subject: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.
If you are worried about exposure to excessive EMF (Electromagnetic Field), you’ll want to consider this device over at Amazon.com. Be sure to read the reviews to get the full entertainment value.
It was a nice fall day, so Joyce K0JJW and I decided to go for an easy hike up Kaufman Ridge HP (W0C/SP-081) and do some SOTA operating. Well, maybe the hike was her idea and the Summits On The Air thing was my contribution to the plan. The hike is less than a mile with about 900 feet of elevation gain, depending on where you start.
This was definitely a slacker operation: easy access, easy hike, great weather and 2m FM activation via a handheld radio and the 1/2-wave whip.
Note that there are two SOTA peaks with the “Kaufman Ridge” name: Kaufman Ridge North (W0C/SP-085) and Kaufman Ridge HP (W0C/SP-081), located near Trout Creek Pass in Colorado. Today we headed to SP-081 which we reached by following County Road 318 from Trout Creek Pass, which is also called Buckrake Drive and then Windmill Drive. These roads pass through private property to reach the San Isabel National Forest, where there is a gate that is closed from December to April (see map). At this point, the road is easy 4WD; most 2WD high clearance vehicles will do fine. You can also approach from the south on FS 308 through Mushroom Gulch.
We turned left onto FS 308 and then took a short side road FS 308B toward the summit. There are several other turn offs but 308B seems the best (shown in black on map). The road is blocked for vehicular traffic at 38.858659° N / 105.933921°W. You can continue walking on the road a ways or just head straight for the summit (blue on map). While the hike is short and not very steep, there are plenty of downed logs to give you a challenge.
You never know who is going to show up on 146.52 MHz in the mountains but I had put the word out via email to some of the local hams to let them know I was doing a SOTA activation. When I got to the summit, I had a few stations already calling me and I quickly worked Ron N0MQJ, Jerry N0VXE, Dave K0HTX, Jim KD0MRC, Bob W0BV and Don K0DRJ. Don was my “best DX”, about 60 miles away in Woodland Park with a few mountains in the way. Thanks to everyone that came on frequency and contacted me.
Side note: if you want to activate SP-085, go north on a forest service road (shown in black on the map) near where 318 and 308 intersect. Just drive a short ways north, find a parking spot and bushwack your way up the summit. (NM5S provides some tips on finding a trail.) You could easily activate both summits in one day.
The North America SOTA Weekend coincided with the ARRL September VHF Contest, which I interpreted as a great opportunity to do a combination SOTA activation and QRP VHF operation. A few other folks thought that was a good idea so we all got on the air from SOTA peaks on the Sunday of the weekend. I decided to operate from Mount Herman (W0C/FR-063) in grid DM79. I hiked up the same mountain for last year’s September contest and got soaked by the rain. Fortunately, the weather was excellent this year, making it a great day.
For radio equipment, I took a couple of HTs for 2m and 70 cm FM and the FT-817 for CW/SSB on 6m, 2m and 70 cm. Most of the SOTA action would be on 2m FM but SSB is critical for working the VHF contest. I did put out the word to the usual VHF contesters that there would be FM activity and did work a few of them via 2m FM. The 2m FM calling frequency, 146.52 MHz, is commonly used for SOTA but is not allowed for contest use. (Another example of how this rule is just a barrier to contest activity.) We used 146.55 MHz for the contest contacts. I had coordinated with Brad WA6MM who was going to be on Grays Peak (W0C/FR-002), one of the Colorado 14ers. When he made the summit, I had my 2m yagi antenna pointed in his direction and easily worked him on 2m FM at a distance of 65 miles. Brad was using an HT with a 1/2-wave vertical antenna. Also, I worked Stu W0STU and Dan N0OLD on Bald Mountain (W0C/FR-093) , which sits on the east side of I-25 right at Monument Hill. Contest activity was light, as usual for the September contest in Colorado. We did have two rover stations that activated a few of the unpopulated grids in eastern Colorado: George AB0YM and Jonesy W3DHJ.
My contest score was not bad for a few hours of operating QRP portable. It turns out that I had set the Colorado section record for “single-op portable” back in 1990 with just 624 points (using my old callsign KB0CY). Oddly enough, 24 years later it appears that I set a new record. (This speaks more to the lack of QRP activity during the September contest and less about my incredible operating ability.)
All in all, it was a great day in the mountains to take a hike and play with radios. I will probably do the SOTA + VHF Contest activation again.
For truly portable mountaintop all-mode VHF operating, especially SOTA and VHF contests, the Yaesu FT-817ND has been my rig of choice. You might say that it is really the “only game in town” for a 6m/2m/70cm radio that fits in a backpack.
I’ve had my eye on the Elecraft KX3 transceiver ever since it was introduced, but really I have been waiting for the 2m module to become available. (The KX3 has HF plus 6m standard.) After being announced over a year ago, the 2m module is now shipping and radio amateurs are getting their hands on the unit.
I do enjoy getting on the HF bands but my radio passion has always been centered on 50 MHz and higher. For my purposes, the manufacturers could have left off the HF bands and just designed a portable rig that does 6m, 2m and 70 cm (and maybe 1.25m, too). Or how about a dualband HT that does SSB?
I’ve used my 817 for many portable operations, so I have quite a bit of stick time on that rig. I’ve not really used a KX3, other than to play with it at hamfests. I’ve also talked with a number of KX3 owners that really like the rig. I was a bit surprised that the KX3 output power on 2m is only 2.5W minimum (3W typical), compared to 5W with the FT-817. (Yeah, I know, that’s only 3 dB difference, blah, blah, blah.) One of the big complaints on the 817 is that it is a bit of a battery hog on receive (450 mA) but the KX3 is not that much better at 300 to 350 mA. Here’s my comparison table for the two radios — with the emphasis on VHF operation.
KX3 with 2m Module
HF + 6m, 2m, 70cm
HF + 6m, 2m
6m Power Out
2m Power Out
Standby rx current (2m)
300 to 350 mA
Transmit current (2m)
2.5 lbs, 1.2 kg
1.5 lbs, 0.7 kg
KX3 assembled $900
Hand mic $60
2m module $260
The price comparison is a bit tricky because the KX3 can be purchased in kit form for $100 less. Many hams will actually see the kit assembly as a plus, since they get the satisfaction of building their own radio. A microphone is not standard on the KX3, so I added that to the list. Also, there are several different variations on the 2m module, depending on whether the automatic antenna tuner for HF is installed and whether the factory installs the option. I just picked a price that was in middle of the range.
The table would lead you to conclude that the FT-817ND is the clear winner mostly based on price (and the 70cm band). But its not that simple. There is a lot to like about the KX3, including the nice big display and the trail friendly layout. It also has more features for CW, PSK31 and RTTY.
For me, the answer is clear: keep on keepin’ on with the 817, since there is not enough of an advantage to go to the KX3. But I will probably keep lusting after it anyway. This also raises the question: what does Yaesu have coming to replace the aging 817?
Sandia Crest pokes up 10,678 feet, towering over Albuquerque at roughly 5000 feet. Although the weather was rainy, we enjoyed the drive up the paved Sandia Crest Road through the Cibola National Forest. This looks like a great area to explore and we’ll probably be back sometime in the future.
At the parking lot, about 40 vertical feet below the summit, we paid the $3 per day use fee (self-service USFS station), grabbed the radio gear and headed up the walkway to the top. There is a gift shop and restaurant at the south end of the parking lot, along with several hiking trails. A large radio site on the north end of the parking lot has numerous towers and high power transmitters. The field strength is so strong that a sign has been placed there to warn of radio interference to car alarms and keyless remotes.
I pulled out the trusty Yaesu FT-60 handheld transceiver with the MJF-1714 1/2-wave antenna for 2 meters. I gave a few calls on 146.52 MHz and heard no replies. I am thinking, “surely with so many hams in town for the hamfest, someone is listening on five two.” Joyce was standing next to me with her FT-60 and a rubber duck antenna. We noticed that her radio was hearing signals that I could not hear.
Hmmm, the radio with the better antenna is not able to hear anything but the radio with a crummy rubber duck is working fine. At this point, I realized that my HT was being overloaded from the transmitter site with my high-efficiency antenna doing a great job of coupling those signals into my radio. I had to chuckle about this since I’ve often pointed out the poor performance of your typical rubber duck antenna. In this case, the less effective antenna was doing us the favor of reducing interference.
I swapped antennas and began making calls on 2m fm with the rubber duck. I also moved further away from the radio site to reduce the signal level. Yep, now I heard some guys coming back to me on 146.52 MHz. I could tell there was still some interference but it was workable. In short order, I had these stations in the log: KE7WOD, W5AOX, K5LXP, WB5QXD and K0JJW (after moving downhill outside of the activation zone),. Thanks for the QSOs!
I will admit that NM5SW mentioned the interference problems on this peak, so I had fair warning. Keep in mind that the FT-60 has reasonably good intermod performance, probably better than your average HT, and was getting completely blocked with the long antenna. I was glad that I was not using one of the Baofeng HTs. It made me wonder how well my FT-817 would do under the same conditions, but that will be a test for another day.
Another way to ascend the peak is via the Sandia Peak Tramway, which comes up from the Albuquerque side. We came across this sign that shows the trail system near the summit and indicates the top of the tram (click to expand). The tram drops passengers off some distance from the actual summit, so you’ll have about a 1.5 mile hike to the summit.
In summary, it was a successful activation although the weather could have been better. The big thing I learned was that a more efficient antenna is not always the best antenna. Sometimes a crummy rubber duck does better!
73, Bob K0NR
P.S. I later heard from Mike KD5KC that the Kiwanis Cabin (shown on the map) is a good place to operate from without radio interference issues on HF and VHF.