Summits On The Air (SOTA)

I earned my first SOTA points a week ago as an activator, and again this morning as a chaser. (My amateur radio call sign is K7EDS.)

Activators pack a complete amateur radio station to the summit of a qualifying mountain. Ascent must be on foot or bicycle. Motorized vehicles are not allowed.

Once at the summit, they hook up everything and make a minimum of four (4) confirmed QSOs. The exchange of the two station’s call signs, signal reports both ways and, for the SOTA program, the identification of the summit are required for each “confirmed QSO.”

I made my trip as an activator to the top of W7A/MN-138, Shaw Butte, about two miles from my home QTH (location). I carried the easiest possible configuration up the mountain, a five watt handy-talkie with rubber-ducky antenna and spoke with seven other hams, slang for amateur radio operators, who lived in the immediate area.

FYI: Jack’s picture (above) is from an earlier “training hike” part of the way up this same mountain. Once he finishes growing, Jack will accompany me to many of the summits. In a doggie backpack, he will carry his snack, a dog cookie, his water and a collapsible water dish.

That “activation” of Shaw Butte–a 600 foot “hike” up a well-worn trail–earned me two (2) points. Awards vary from one to ten points depending on the difficulty of the climb. Accumulating a total of 1,000 points as an activator entitles someone to “Mountain Goat” status, a truly prestigious as well as physically demanding award!

Chasers, on the other hand, sit at home, typically with high power transmitters, tall towers festooned with multi-element beam antennas complete with electrical rotators, and clean bathrooms and kitchens with refrigerators.

But they’re not necessarily house-bound. Chasers may also sit outside at coffee houses, read the news on the Internet about the snow and sub-zero wind chill in New York City and Boston, and also talk to activators with their own rubber-ducky walky-talkies while their dog’s beg (bark) for attention from the other caffeine addicts.

And they may drive around with mobile ham radios installed in their cars with rooftop or, as in my case, rear hatchback mounted “screwdriver” antennas that lengthen or shorten on demand for different bands (frequencies) of operation. I earned my first chaser points this morning in the car by working AF7OS while he sat atop W7A/MN-142. My call sign in the family sedan is K7EDS/M, the “/M” denoting the Mobile operation. Incidentally, working the radio while walking, at the beach or in a city park is denoted as “/P” for portable. Other suffixes are added when outside of area seven (the “7” in my call sign includes Arizona, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington state) or in other countries.

Chasers who accumulate 1,000 points are awarded “Shack Sloth” status. Most SOTA operators focus on either activating or chasing but many have a few of both kinds. As of today, I have four (4) activator points and two (2) as chaser.

SOTA’s primary website has all the scoop, but here are some useful but not otherwise stated facts.

Making contact from a mountaintop has a number of challenges. First and foremost is the amount of weight a potential activator has to carry. Battery and solar are the only two permitted power sources. Solar is a great idea but generally costs at least one dollar per watt for the portable panels–remember, you’ve got to lug it up and down the mountain so both weight and size are significant. A 100 Watt rig would be considered fairly low power by many. Such a rig would require a portable solar panel that could supply about 50% more than that, say 150 Watts. That’s going to be at least $200, possibly $300, depending on where the seller is located. Then, there’s shipping, adapter cable, something called a “charge controller” if you intend to use a smaller solar panel and charge a battery with excess solar power while receiving but then use battery and solar simultaneously while transmitting. That’s another couple of hundred bucks.

Or you could go low power. A transmitter that radiates five watt or less–think “night light” in the kiddie’s room, generally seven watts–is called a QRP rig. The QCX transceiver shown here is available for $49. It comes in kit form so you have to solder it together and figure out a case. QRP rigs are very common with SOTA activators because they are very small–some are the size of a deck of playing cards–and extremely light weight.

Powered from a twelve volt car battery, you could communicate for hours, but who wants to carry that fifteen pound lead-acid battery? Instead, activators often take examples of the latest technology, Lithium, Iron, Polimer-4 or LiFePO4 batteries. (You’ll see these high-capacity, relatively light weight batteries used with electric model airplanes and cars.) A set of four 18650-size batteries from China will cost about $25. Rated at 1200 mAH (milli-Amp Hours), they will power a QRP rig for a couple of hours which is about the maximum you might want to sit on the mountain so you can make it down the mountain before sunset. Dispensing completely with solar and using just the LiFePO4 battery is a viable option, so much so that it is the most common configuration for SOTA activators.

The problem with QRP rigs depends on the sun, but not for solar power. Rather, when the sun is “coughing” and it splatters the solar system with solar ejecta–solar mass–that nuclear phlegm will “ionize” the Earth’s upper atmosphere and turn it into a very shiny mirror to certain wavelengths of radio signals. They will then bounce around inside the sphere that envelopes the planet. Inside that reflective ball, a low-power QRP signal can travel around the world. (Ham radio operators may occasionally hear an “echo” of their own signal provided the ionospheric reflection is extremely strong as their signals make several complete circuits around the planet.)

But we’re in a solar lull at the moment. Sunspot activity waxes and wanes in an eleven year cycle and when it’s low such as now, many radio signals don’t bounce. Instead, most of the energy from the radio passes through the ionosphere and heads out into space. (“Hello Alpha Centauri!”) Only a tiny amount may reflect, if any, back to the ground.

Thus, hearing a QRP signal becomes extremely difficult. Chasers need to know when and where to listen. And even then, they often need giant antennas with multi-element beams pointed in the correct direction at the right time and on the right frequency to “dig them out.”

That’s where the SOTA Watch website helps.

Activators “post” their intentions to this website. In the screen shot, the first entry in “Latest Spots” says that “right now” (it’s in red), ham radio station N7CW is atop W7A/CS-011 Bixler Mountain west of Flagstaff AZ, and is transmitting morse code (CW) at 5.332 MegaHertz. Interested Chasers tune their radios to this frequency, turn their giant antennas to point to that location and, hopefully, hear Warren’s beeping. But remember, a successful QSO must exchange information. So Warren also has to be able to hear when the Chasers try to answer his signal. Knowing that Warren may have no more than a minimum of equipment with a makeshift antenna, Chasers beam back high powered answers so that Warren’s tiny little radio and headphones can pick them up.

Not by accident, Warren’s signal at 5.332 MegaHertz is nicely down into the range of frequencies that are likely to be reflected by the ionesphere. He’s undoubtedly chosen it for that very reason; it gives him a better chance of communicating (exchanging information) with another station somewhere on the Earth. (My own contacts using the handy-talkie with rubber-duck antenna were at 144.401 MegaHertz, much too high to bounce around inside the ionesphere; they all “leaked out” to the stars. So, all the stations I contacted were strictly “line of sight” within a few dozen miles of my location.)

Look now at the last entry in the SOTA Watch list — down at the end of the “Upcoming Activations.” A station in Japan, JA4RQO (Hay Ashi) lives in the western part of the country a few miles north of Hiroshima). He is announcing his intention of climbing and operating from JA/YG-019 at 23:00 UTC (GMT). That’s 16:00 (23-7) or 4:00 PM in Arizona. Ashi says he’ll be using morse code (CW) and somewhere in the 14, 18 and 21 MegaHertz amateur radio bands. My guess is he will probably spend a little time in each of those bands but only one at a time. Coupled with the uncertainty of ionospheric bounce (propagation) between him and me, communicating with Ashi will be challenging.

But help is available!

If you are watching the SOTA Watch website, you may notice that it updates every few minutes. If Ashi has his cell phone with him on the mountaintop and has a strong enough signal (in the cell phone) to use it, he can update that same website. His original post announces his intentions. But once he reaches the summit and sets up his equipment, he will probably update the website with his current frequency. Chasers monitoring this website will know, minute to minute, how to adjust their equipment to improve their chances of hearing, and being heard by, Ashi as he sits on a log and taps out his morse code dits and dahs.

If you thought ham radio was nothing but a bunch of old fogies sitting at home in their undershorts in front of a roomful of radios, SOTA makes it a whole new game!

2 thoughts on “Summits On The Air (SOTA)

    • I bought three (3) of the QCX transceivers, one each for 20, 30 and 40 meters. They’re so light, I figure I’ll carry a trap dipole or trapped EFHW to cover all three bands and then “plug and play” depending on band conditions. K7EDS

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