VK3ARR's SOTA Blog

Ego loqui ad viros super montes

Month: September, 2013

The Chaser’s Curse

The chaser’s curse: the moment you see a ton of high-point activations coming up followed by the realisation you won’t be around to work them. That was my lot for this week, although it wasn’t a complete washout in the end. Unfortunate circumstances (ie, my own damn fault) had meant I flew out to the US on Monday for two days of work meetings on the East Coast, and then straight back again. The date line meant I experienced no Friday, the Airbus meant I experienced little sleep, and by the time I’d driven home from the airport, it was well past UTC rollover on Saturday, with no activations around. I’d missed Rik and Mitch’s 10 summit adventure, plus all the early Saturday ones.

I am proud to say that my first reaction when arriving home wasn’t to turn on the radio and start chasing, but after greeting the family and unpacking the bags, Item Three on the list was checked off. I listened for a while, heard nothing, tuned up the antenna, and kept listening.

Eventually, I managed to hear Tony VK3CAT activating VK3/VN-004, receiving him at a 53. His report to me was a 43 and a mention that my signal was right down towards the noise. A subtle suspicion crept into my brain through the lack of sleep, and once the QSO was over, I checked my RF output setting on the radio and noticed it was still down on minimum power from when I tuned it up. I’d managed to work Tony on less than a Watt of power. I’ll take that for an opening chase for the day.

Tony would frustrate me for the rest of the day however, through no fault of his own. His second summit was activated on 7090, but I missed out on working him before the Naval net came on. I heard Allen jump in before Tony was due to QSY up to 12m, but by the time I’d readied myself to transmit, the Naval net was underway, and it would have been impolite to try to chase Tony. I instead jumped up to 12m, but I’ve never heard a signal up there, so it was no surprise I couldn’t hear Tony. His final activation for the day was interrupted at my end by the requirement to set fire to a large pile of wood in my wood oven. He was there when I left with the blow torch and paper, but gone by the time I got back 5 minutes later. I hadn’t been able to overhear if he was QSYing or just doing a short activation. My wood oven raged with fire, but it was my Chaser Heart that was burnt. The only consolation for my poor planning was some awesome pizza two hours later.

If truth be told, I didn’t really have much opportunity on the Saturday to chase that much. I spent plenty of time with the kids and helped out around the house, all while trying to stay awake as long as possible to [a] eliminate the jet lag and [b] avoid having to have nightmares about Hawthorn beating Geelong. I made a deal with my wife that Sunday would be my day to talk to people on mountains.

The morning started with Andrew VK1NAM, portable in VK2 on South Black Range (VK2/ST-006). I tried to listen for Andrew on 20 metres, but I heard nothing, probably deep in the skip zone. I worked Andrew on 40 metres either side of UTC. His signal was very strong, 5 and 7, which was lucky, as local QRM kept jumping in to try to wipe out the signal. Andrew stayed above the noise for the most part, but it wasn’t always easy. I probably came off a bit brusque or non-talkative this morning as a consequence – it was more avoiding the PTT to stop myself swearing on air more than anything.

Mitch VK3FMDV was also out on Flinders Peak, nice and close to me and a summit I’ve climbed many times since I was a child. I worked Mitch either side of UTC too, strong signals both ways, although my latter QSO was again almost drowned out by QRM. I could hear some other signals occasionally on 7090, Andrew VK2ONZ was out there, soft but never getting high enough that I’d have been confident of working him.

The final successful chases for the day were of Kevin VK3KAB, first on VK3/VN-002 Mt Bullfight, and then on VK3/VN-004 Bill Head. Kevin’s signal boomed in, 56 and 57, while my QRP 5W signal was received 55 both times.

The lessons learnt for this week:

  • Don’t be an idiot and schedule overseas work trips when activators are showering points down upon chasers. OK, so the trip was planned ages ago and the activations relatively recently, but I can still be annoyed!
  • Don’t be an idiot and go to the US East Coast for two days. You spend the next few days making silly mistakes like not checking your RF power output.
  • Less than a watt is still a powerful communications mechanism. A couple of hundred kilometres between Tony and myself, but we still got through. This shouldn’t surprise people in a modern environment where mobile phones are putting out milliwatt signals across tens of kilometres.
  • Wood fired pizza is the best. It’s even better when it’s made in an oven you built yourself. Everyone should build one. Go and do it. Stop reading this and start planning now. Oh, and the side benefit: fire!

The final tally, 256 points at the end of the weekend. Past the 250 mark! It’s also the 0x100 mark too, for all the computer scientist out there.  I’m also going to be heading up to Goulburn to see family during this coming week, so if anyone has a simple summit that can be activated with a 2m handheld and a Slim Jim, quickly enough to avoid annoying the wife, I’m all ears.  I’m guessing one of the Canberra suburban summits might be a candidate, but I can make no guarantees that I’ll get approval to do so.

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What comes up must come down

After last weekend’s efforts, this weekend was bound to be a disappointment.  In more ways than one.  The end of the tennis season frees up Saturdays for SOTA chasing, but this time work intervened, hosting a Saturday meeting that threw everything out.  Being last to present at this meeting, I had no concept of when I had to join, so the family got out early to complete some chores, meaning I missed the UTC rollover.  I could only look on in horror at SotaWatch to see all the points go begging. 

I got the text message to join my meeting right about the time the next cycle of activations opened up. In the end, I managed only one chase for all of Saturday, VK3XPT on Mount Donna Buang. I had been fiddling with my SWR meter to construct a 2m Slim Jim, and in my haste to chase, put everything back together wrong. By the time I’d worked out what I’d done wrong, I’d earnt a 42 signal report. Putting the cables round the right way made other signals come in nice and strong, but by then, the SOTA crowd had dispersed.

Sunday too was almost a bust. I have a semi-regular gig playing piano at my church, and that pushed me to miss the morning rush. I heard VK1FB activating Mt Ginini, but had no chance to bust the pileup before I had to go. Of course, given the choice, and given some of the personalities involved, I might have preferred to stay at home. What Would Jesus Do? He’d play SOTA, dammit! (The sermon on the mount was clearly the first activation of a summit recorded, although Moses had tried earlier, but only managed one QSO, and even Mohammed, a few years later, went to the mountain)

I managed to work Tony VK3CAT on VK3/VN-003 with 5W, with a signal report of 44. He was a strong 57 signal, but I’m not entirely sure we completed the QSO to SOTA standards. His response to my signal report was wiped out by local QRM (again), and he was working others by the time it cleared. I’ll claim it, but delete it if I don’t see myself in Tony’s logs.

The lessons out of this weekend’s chasing were all equipment based:

  • Set things up properly and don’t rush. The QSO was completed, but once I saw what I’d done, I felt a complete knob. It’s lucky I’m a beginner and can use beginner’s mistake as an excuse.
  • Clearly something is not entirely right with my antenna set up, so if anyone has an analyser they’d like to lend me for a bit, it’d be much appreciated! 🙂 I suspect I just have to trim a bit here and there to get the SWR down to a nice level. I do have plans to put up a hexbeam, in which case I’ll rip out the OCF and put a proper half-wave dipole for 40m from that mast.
  • Switch-mode power supplies are the Devil’s own QRM source. Some holy water, an exorcism and perhaps a battery or a linear PS setup are probably in order. There is the possibility it’s outside my shack, but let’s blame myself first before seeking to blame others.

Of course, there are a number of big-point summits being activated this week. Normally, I’m all up for a weekday chase, but I’ll be in America for work, back Saturday morning. I will listen out for contacts on Saturday afternoon and Sunday to keep building the score. The sudden rush of Shack Sloths in VK3 is inspiring. Congratulations Marshall (VK3MRG), Rhett (VK3GHZ) and Peter (VK3FPSR).

I have also been playing a bit with Google Translate, and “Loquor populus montuosis” (I speak to people on the mountains) seems to be the best Latin motto I can find. I’m not going to change my blog title though – I like the “people of the mountains” vibe in the other one. Like Activators are one with the mountain or something.

A great weekend

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.

 

20130909_085553The remains of Mulch Mountain (VK3/VC-270)

Ego loqui ad viros super montes

First post! At the urging of Andrew VK1NAM, I’ve decided to blog a bit about SOTA chasing, and hopefully some activations later on.  The title of this post is from trying to explain SOTA to my youngest daughter: “Dad’s talking to a man on a mountain”.  This is Google’s best effort of “I talk to men on mountains” (which then translates back to “I talk to the men of the mountains”).   Of course, men here refers to all genders; any inherent sexism is blamed on Google.