As the sun rose up on Friday morning, I checked my work diary and calendar. Everything looked good. The night before, I’d spotted Wayne VK3WAM’s alerts on SotaWatch for four activations of a couple of 6 and 8 point summits. I noted Paul VK5PAS would be around too, and Ian VK5CZ, and a quick check of the diary had shown that, if I played my cards right, and I kept an eye on SotaWatch’s spots, I might be able to work from home and duck out in between phone meetings and chase a few points. The added benefit would be that, in adding all the summit points up, I might make it past 100 points by the end of the day. I started the day on 69 points, so I needed a nice round 31 points. That was about the most I’d made in a weekend up to this point, so with careful juggling, this day might prove to be fruitful.
I had worked Wayne before on Wombat Spur, my very first SOTA contact, and my very first solo amateur radio contact of any kind. I had never worked Paul or Ian, despite a few attempts on my side. Ian had activated a few summits up in the Flinders Ranges that I hadn’t been able to work him on due to distance and power, and my schedule and Paul’s never seemed to align. That made for some added incentive.
I hadn’t counted on Wayne’s athleticism however. All thoughts of helping my wife with the school run went out the window when the spot went up that Wayne had reached his first summit, VK3/VT-029. I rushed to the shack, fired it up, and managed to work Wayne with very little effort on my part. The usual pile of chasers seemed to be enjoying a sleep-in, and there was barely a pile-up to break through. A strong 58 signal from Wayne, and the first 6 points were in the bag.
The next chase was Paul, on Mt Burr. I was confident of this one – I had chased Col VK5HCF on Mt Burr a month prior, and knew my antenna seems to favour stations in that direction. I worked Paul either side of UTC, the second time dialling back to 5W as I had a meeting to get to, and Paul was calling for QRP stations. I was pleasantly surprised to get a 55 back from Paul for my signal. There might be something to this QRP thing after all. Mt Burr is (only) a single point summit, but points are points, and by working either side of UTC, I had two more. 23 points to go.
On a whim, and just before I signed off for my meeting, I tuned around and heard Ian on VK5/SE-008 Lagoon Hill. Three minutes later, I had chased him. His signal was a lot harder to read than Paul’s, a 43, and I didn’t feel confident going QRP on that one. 15W got me a 53 report and 4 more points.
At this point, a planning disaster struck. Wayne, resembling the Mountain Goat he almost is, had arrived atop his next summit, and I was still stuck in my meeting. An interesting meeting, sure, but 8 points were going begging. I failed to make it in time, the silent hiss of static the only thing left when I fired the radio up next. Lightning almost struck twice when I went out to get lunch with my wife. A buzzing in the pocket and RRT was telling me Wayne was on the next summit, several hours ahead of schedule. I apologised to my wife, threw her the car keys, and ran to the shack to work him. Luckily, for my safety, there wasn’t much of a pile-up and I worked him easily and quickly for 8 more points, returning to the car before disaster struck on the home front. 11 points to go.
After lunch, I worked Wayne again on his final summit for the day. By now he was four hours ahead of his self-declared “speculative” schedule, but that’s the fun of chasing. If all you had to do was turn up at the allotted time and wait your turn, there’d be no point to SOTA chasing. 6 more points left 5 to go to get to the 100. With no further alerts, I held out little hope. I had work to do, and while I could scan the bands as I took breaks from work, I didn’t think I’d make it.
I was correct in the end. I worked Allen VK3HRA on Mt Ida for another point, before stumbling across Brian VK3MCD on Mt Zero for another point, but 97 was where the day would finish. The next day looked promising anyway. Peter VK3PF was offering up some tasty 8 and 10 pointers in Gippsland, and Paul and Brian both had big days planned.
The next day was brighter than the Friday. There was something in the air: the smell of mountains. Not just any mountain, but Mulch Mountain, 4 cubic metres of the pine-fragrant leaf litter in the driveway, needing to be shifted. I did my democratic duty early, headed off to a farmer’s market, and was back in time for the UTC rollover, but no one had surfaced by that stage.
I worked out that I had wifi access near Mulch Mountain, allowing my phone to alert me to any spots that came up, and if I kept the radio on in the shack, I’d hear anyone calling on 7090 as I wheeled barrowloads past the window. Two loads in, the phone vibrated, the barrow was dropped where it stood, and the radio became the focus. The temptation to attempt a S2S from the top of Mulch Mountain was strong, but probably not within the rules.
I worked Peter first for my 100th point just after UTC. My signals out to Peter always seem down for similar power levels. I haven’t bothered to check the distances involved to rule that out, but I certainly feel the OCF dipole here favours the west rather than the east. Brian followed next near Boroka Lookout and Paul on Mt Napier, for 4 and 1 point respectively. Once again, I worked Paul QRP.
In between all of this, barrowloads were carried and the garden rapidly beautified. I picked out Allen VK3HRA up in the Riverina of NSW on Galore Hill for another point, before working Peter again half an hour later on Mt Phipps for the full 10 points. Again, my signals to Peter were down, only 52, but we had no problems completing the QSO.
After lunch, I worked Brian again, as he made his way through the Grampians, and then Paul again on Mt Rouse. Glenn VK3YY popped up a few kHz away on Federation Range for 8 more points. Both Paul and Glenn were again worked QRP.
At about this point, it dawned on me that, while I’d been keen to make it to a total of 100 points yesterday, there was a real possibility of doing 100 chaser points over the entire weekend alone. I had 63 points by this stage alone. The challenge was set.
Mulch Mountain moved slowly, and it was an hour or so before I heard another call, Peter on VK3/VG-030. Again a low signal report, but the 8 points that Peter allowed me to get meant I’d reached 71 points, and doubled my chaser score in the last two days.
I turned the footy on, saw Geelong was up by about 5 goals, and turned it back off again. We would romp it in.
The rest of the day was spent QRP, Brian on Mt William, Glenn on Mt Gordon, and Paul on One Tree Hill left me with 17 points to get to meet my goal. I watched the last quarter of the footy, and swore as Geelong threw it away. That, combined with the election result (there was no possibility of a ‘good result’ there), and a quick glance over my schedule for Sunday left me depressed. The icing on the cake was watching Collingwood kick away in the third term against Port. I turned the TV off in disgust and went to bed.
Of course, a new day dawns, and nothing is as bad as it seems. Port came back to win (I’d rather Port to Collingwood, if picking the lesser of two weevils), and I was up early enough that I knew I could sneak some quick chasing in before I had to leave at 9:25. Actually, I had to leave at 9:20, but my destination could wait.
I could hear VK2 stations out and about, but with a lot of fading, it would be close to impossible to work them. Ed VK2JI would peak up to a 4 and 1, but he never stayed there long enough, and working him would take more time than I had to spare. I hoped he’d be around later in the day, but by the time I got back, he was gone. I did get Paul on Blue Mountain, again QRP, after he started early, for 4 points. Only 13 to go.
After I came back for lunch, I nabbed Paul again on Point 756 in the Pyrenees for another 4 points, before having to head out again. I knew Andrew VK1NAM was out on Booroomba Rocks later in the day, and Paul had one more 4 pointer coming up, but I had no idea if I had any other opportunities. I was on 91 points, with 8 points available, if my schedule lined up.
By chance, the stars aligned, and I managed to work Al VK1RX on ST-001. This was quite the chase. I heard him on 7100, as per the spot, but he was fairly weak, and there were a few stations piling around. Nearly every station was telling him that the Andrews were on 7095 at Booroomba Rocks, and I had my second VFO tuned there, jumping between the two, trying to find a gap to transmit. Finally, a gap appeared on Al’s frequency and I transmitted, but heard no reply. I flicked the VFO and there he was doing a S2S with the Andrews. I waited for him to finish…and was transmitted over by another station.
I flicked back to 7100 in time to catch Al talking with another station and discussing QSYing up 10 to escape some QRM. After chatting for a bit about how he was about to pack up, I worried I wasn’t going to get the station, and there was no QRZ? or CQ after he wrapped up that QSO. Time to chase him properly – I put out a full call to him, and yes! he responded. The feeling of hearing your callsign come back from someone you’ve been chasing around the dial is great! The QSY had also pushed his signal up a bit, and we swapped 55s.
I jumped back to 7095, and was met by silence. I tuned around, trying to find either Andrew. A spot came up suggesting they were on 20m, but I heard nothing there. Another chaser had told Al that Marshall VK3MRG was on 7085, but I couldn’t find him either. I listened to a few stations chatting about whether he was still around, when Andrew VK1NAM popped up. Another station jumped in to try to grab Andrew and once they were done, I again put out a full call, and Andrew came back for 4 more points.
The QSO was interrupted by dual QRM. Somewhere in my shed there’s a SMPS that spits out RFI across 40m. The exact frequency no doubt depends on the load on the SMPS, but the harmonics are about 20kHz apart, and usually steer clear of SOTA frequencies. Not this time. I got the signal report, but Andrew was making some conversation that was drowned out by S8 noise. The second part of the QRM was my daughter coming in to ask what I was doing. He stood no chance, but patiently came back a few seconds later as the QRM passed and we finished the QSO.
At this stage, I had not seen how many points Al’s activation was worth to the chasers, but I knew that if I chased Paul on his final summit, it didn’t matter if it was 1 point or 10, I’d have my 100 points for the three days. I pottered around the shed, firing up the angle grinder occasionally to keep curious family away. The Mulch Mountain was spread as much as it could be, the lawn mowed, chores done. This was my time.
I kept the VFO on 7095. There was a net on 7090, but I’d worked Paul enough over the past few days to know he’d come up on 7095 as his first alternate. He turned up at Ben Nevis, roughly on schedule, and we again completed a QRP QSO. I left him to the pile-up and listened while I did a few more things on my TODO list. He must have worked contacts for almost an hour out there.
I went inside to enter my chaser logs, and was pleasantly surprised to find Al’s activation was 8 points, meaning I’d done 107 points since working Wayne on Friday morning. Off a base of 69, I had 176 chaser points.
The weekend had many learnings for me as a chaser.
- Chasing is more than just watching spots on SotaWatch and turning on the radio. Had I just done that, I’d never have found Al, never have worked Glenn, Allen, Brian, Andrew or even Wayne on one summit. Listen to what other callers are saying, and remember: Activators want S2S contacts, so they will usually hang around to hear other stations. That means several activators might be going at once.
- Dual VFOs are your friend. See above. Flicking between VFOs helps keep you in the chase. While an activator is handling a QSO, there’s no chance of you breaking in (nor should you try), so hit the button, jump to the other station. With luck, you could put in a call there, and even if not, you can use the time to gather summit details while you get ready to chase. Just remember who you are talking to on what frequency!
- QRP is more than just a challenge. It’s fun and can work in your favour. Recently a few people have challenged chasers to use QRP powers. The realisation that a signal report of 54 instead of 58 means absolutely nothing is a powerful realisation. The only thing that matters is that you exchanged the reports and are in the log. Anything else is ego-stroking. I cranked the power a bit to reach Allen in NSW on the Saturday, got a strong 58, peaking 59 report back, and instantly felt guilty. I’m sure I could have worked him with a fifth of the power I used. The other advantage is that a lot of activators call for QRP stations. Both Brian and Paul often did this, and that helped me move to the front of the queue. That’s a selfish reason, but I can’t deny it’s not useful! Paul’s encouragement to me to operate QRP also meant I had more incentive to dial the power back if he was around.
- Know your enemy. Well, no activator is my enemy, but by knowing Paul was going to jump up on 7095, I worked him early in the piece, helped him qualify the summit, and got to sit back and listen to a master at work. The key point though is hang around frequencies you know will get used. If 7090 has another station on it, move up to 7095 or down to 7085.
- Listen to good activators and the way they handle the pile-up. Both Brian and Paul were adept at pulling calls out of the pile-up, letting people know the order they were going to operate. Brian in particular adopted a state-by-state approach that kept people silent until he was ready to answer their calls. If I ever get a chance to be an activator, I will try to imitate this.
Finally, a big shout out to Paul. He has spent quite a few days recently cavorting around Western Victoria. I even managed to work him this morning either side of UTC before I had to head off to work, for another eight points. We have worked each other 9 times on 7 different summits, most of them QRP.
The remains of the Mulch Mountain still taunt me, although there is no place for it to go, and the wife is happy with the garden now. I worked over a hundred points in three days. Happy wife, many SOTA points. Truly a glorious weekend.
The remains of Mulch Mountain (VK3/VC-270)