Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Bugs: My New Fascination

As many QRP'ers, I'm a CW enthuisiast. Before I earned my license, CW was an imagined barrier. I imagined how difficult it would be to learn and that it would the ulitmate reason for me failing to get my license. However, for me, after I tried it it came to me relatively easy. I went from 5 wpm to 20 wpm in 11 months as I advanced to Extra Class. As most of us do, I started with a straight key and moved on to paddle and electonic keyer.

During my process of learning code, I had read about, and seen at hamfests, these telegraphy devices called "bugs". Interesting looking contraptions these bugs, but could a person really master one of these things. As I was intimidated by the code initially, so I was intimidated by sending code with a bug. You must understand, of course, that I never attempted to send even a dit with a bug, because I was certain it was difficult.

The past Straight Key Night I was in Santa Fe, NM having a New Years Eve dinner at the QTH of Fred, KT5X, and in the company of John, K1JD. It was assumed by both of these experience bug users that I too was proficient with that instrument. As we retired to the radio shack after a fine dinner with our wives, I was introduced to the bug. I was actually able to send my call after a brief tutorial from Fred, although he forbade me to send actual code over the air after a few of my awkward attempts. but I was able to manipulate the bug. How about that, not as hard as thought. Fred also collects and restores bugs and has a lot of knowledge of the time frame of manufacture and the rarity and nuances of collectible bugs. To get to the point, I was quite enthuisiastic about learning this part of the craft and the history of the bugs was quite interesting to me.

So after a trip (or two) to EBay, I am now the proud owner of a Vibroplex Original from 1944. I've gotten to the point that I'm not afraid to call CQ and have a QSO with the bug. I have, however, been calling all my CQ's to date on my KX3 at 5 watts. I want to keep the damage to my CW reputation to a minimum:-) It's quite fun and leaves you with a sense of accomplishment.

As you see from the picture, the bug is almost as big as the KX3, but its lots of fun. I am now certain that using bugs will always be a part of my CW repertoire. If you don't want to get hooked, don't try it.

One word of advice, find someone to coach you on how to set up the bug. As you can see above, there are lots of knobs to turn to get to that feel that you like.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Holiday SOTA Activations

So here we are, another year has past, and it seems, at warp speed. I hope each of you are enjoying the holiday season, however you celebrate it. Our family celebrates Christmas and I was able to spoil my grandchildren, so it has been fun indeed. Happy New Year as we approach 2015, and may you have health and happiness.

I am spending a few days at my Santa Fe, NM QTH for the holidays. There is snow on the ground and its only been above freezing about 3 hours since last Friday. However its a dry cold so its not too bad.

As always when I'm here I try to squeeze in some Summits on the Air (SOTA) activations. So far I've been able to do a couple as detailed below.

The Wagon Mound W5N/EL-016  6,930ft ASL  6 pts

The Wagon Mound gets its name from it's appearance. Without too much imagination you can see the outline of an old Conestoga Wagon on the summit outline. I chose this summit primarily because I've never done it, but also because, for the peaks in the area, it is at a relatively low elevation and the snow cover should be much less than higher peaks. When I departed Santa Fe, it was clear, sunny and 19F. I envisioned very thin snow cover, if any, on the mountain.

I was in for a little surprise, as you will see from the video below.


Wagon Mound, NM is 104 miles northeast of my QTH near Lamy, NM. About half way there we encountered fog. Visibility dropped, at times, to about 50 yards and the temperature dropped to 7F. I was beginning to have my doubts about making the climb. It was obvious that the snow accumulations were significantly more here, than back home. However I continued, postponing my decision until I could see the actual conditions at the base of the mountain..

Upon arrival, conditions had improved a little, visibility to 1 mile and the temperature was 13F at the base of the mountain. It wasn't a long climb, but it was steep. There was about 12 inches of snow on the ground. The problem with that is that this climb was a bushwhack over volcanic rocks and cactus. The snow cover completely disguised what might or might not be underneath. I decided to make the attempt. Cris, my XYL, was with me and she was willing to try as well. After all, we had just come over 100 miles.

The footing was treacherous. I had to plant my foot through the snow to discover what footing was below, whether solid ground or slippery rocks.We took our time and turned what should have been a 20 minute climb into about 40 minutes.

We set up about 30 feet below the summit, well into the activation zone. I used my KX3, 31 ft. piece of wire elevated with a 21 foot mast through a 9 to 1 balun, tuned by the KX3's tuner. Despite weather conditions, propagation was very good. I worked 31 stations on 20m CW in 18 minutes, a quick QSY to 40m yielded no results and since it was cold I didn't try any other bands. We packed up and retraced our steps down.

All in all a very satisfying activation given the challenges. We stopped on our way home in Las Vegas, NM and warmed ourselves up with some Mexican Food. A good day.

Summit 6860 W5N/SI-022  6,860ft ASL  6 pts

After my experience heading north, I decided to go south for my next activation. This summit is east of Albuquerque NM just south of I-40 and 67 miles from my QTH. This is a nice summit. Depending on where you start, the hike is 2. to 3 miles round trip. The elevation change is about 800 feet over that distance. There are numerous crisscrossing trails over the terrain, so there are multiple ways to get to summit. The trails are all nice trails, no bushwhacking required on this one.

The weather was near perfect for climbing, about 40 degrees, sunshine and little wind. Very enjoyable. You will see from the video below that the conditions were splendid and there was a little snow on the ground.


I used the same set-up here as described above. Conditions were good, 31 QSO's on 15, 20, and 30 meters.

So 12 more points in the log and some good exercise and, obviously, some stories to tell.

Happy New Year!!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Tromelin, Andamans and SOTA

It's been a while since I've sit down to write down a few thoughts. I've intended on several occasions to sit down and write down my thoughts, but it seems some other priority asserts itself and I can't get the time to write. But not today.

So what's happened since I last blogged.

Tromelin Expedition FT4TA: The expedition team did a great job, making nearly all bands available with good signals, at least in South Texas. I enjoyed both working the expedition, to fill some band slots, but also the event. The daily news, conditions, the complaining, etc.... I worked them on 10m, 15m, 20m, 30m and 80m. All new bands except 20m. My practice, as I have written about here, is to try to work the expeditions, during the last days, QRP. I was not able to do that on this expedition. The pile-ups never really slacked off, which brings me to my point.

Now that many expeditions use Club Log and other online tools to post how many QSO's each caller has logged, the information is leading to much debate. I am on a particular reflector where an individual copied and posted the band scorecard for multiple individuals and berated them for making multiple band/mode contacts when so many needed Tromelin for an all time new one.

My thoughts on this one: As long as an individual doesn't dupe band/mode slots, working the expedition is fair game. If a DXer builds a station that is capable and puts in the time operating to work Tromelin on 20 band slots, why not. Telling him not to is like telling a guy with a Ferrari that he can only drive the speed limit.  If, for whatever reason, a dipole is all you have, you know that working rare DX is a tough proposition. Why should the capable stations be made to wait on those not so capable. In my early days of DXing, not working an expedition motivated me to improve my station, improve my operating skills, improve my understanding of propagation, etc... Failure is often life's greatest teacher.

DX-peditions can control this somewhat by limiting the number of bands they operate on, but those guys paid their money, why shouldn't they have all the fun they can.

Andamans VU4CB and VU4KV:  This team also did a nice job activating a pretty rare place, that from my part of the world, is difficult to work.  I was able to get QSO's on a few bands and was impressed with the operation. I was not able to work these guys on QRP either. VU4VB operated from a rare IOTA which I also chased. So, please all around on this one.

SOTA Activations: I did find time to get in four SOTA activations near my Santa Fe, NM QTH during November. I activated three peaks, along with Fred KT5X and John K1JD, southeast of Albuquerque, NM.

Summit 8455 W5N/EL-002

This was a full day of activating. The first peak was a 100 mile drive, but well worth it. All of the three peaks were in excess of 8,000 feet. The picture above is of the first summit we activated, about a mile hike to the top. You can see from the pictures that a wildfire some years ago delineates our path to the top.

View from 8455

The reward, besides activator points, from being involved in SOTA, are the views.

More Views

The additional points achieved from these activations moved me to a total of 719 points in my quest to get to a 1,000 and earn the esteemed title of "SOTA Goat"

I love this radio stuff.....Until next time...73

Thursday, November 6, 2014

My Band's New CD

Sorry for a little off topic personal promotion. I've been busy the last few weeks managing the release of my band's (No Refund Band), second CD, Current State of Blue. No Refund Band is a contemporary blues band. The CD is being released worldwide and is already being played in the US and will be heard globally within the next couple of weeks. The band recently won the Houston and Texas Gulf Coast regional competition of the International Blues Challenge (IBC). This is a big deal. We will be playing in Memphis on Beale St. in January competing for the IBC title. In addition, the CD, Current State of Blue, won the "Best Self-Produced" award in the IBC Regional competition as well.

So if you are a Blues fan, give the CD a listen. It is available on iTunes, Amazon and most digital outlets.

Twitter: @norefundband

Back to regular programming.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Smoky Mountain SOTA Adventure

I've documented in this space before what I love about the Summits on the Air program. I love the mountains, the views, the exercise, the fresh air, the sense of accomplishment and the planning and executing of a successful radio operation. All of those elements came into play these past few days as I took a quick trip to the Smoky Mountains in Tennessee and North Carolina.

The bulk of the trip was spent on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a target rich environment from a SOTA perspective. The drive along the Parkway is beautiful all by itself, especially this time of year with the leaves starting to change. The Parkway is a winding road, with a speed limit of 45 mph, but because of the scenery you are tempted to drive slower. I highly recommend it.

From a SOTA perspective I wanted to activate as many summits as I could in a 2 1/2 time frame. I had been wanting to do this trip for over a year and finally found a hole in my schedule and some decent weather to make the trip happen. I wanted to activate summits in both Tennessee and North Carolina as these would be new SOTA Associations for me to activate. I had some frequent flyer miles on Delta Airlines that needed to be used so we flew into Knoxville, TN. The Smoky Mountains are just a short drive south from there.

I was able to activate eight summits, seven of which were 10 pointers with the other being an 8 pointer. In order of activation they were:
Greentop                                   W4T/SU-076
Clingmans Dome                      W4C/WM-001
Bunches Bald,                           W4C/WM-013
Waterrock Knob,                       W4C/WM-004
Black Balsam Knob                   W4C/CM-005
Mount Pisgah                             W4C/CM-011
Mount Mitchell                          W4C/CM-001
Richland Balsam                        W4C/WM-003

My XYL accompanied my on this trip. She is in great shape and is very helpful setting up and tearing down. Because she was with me and could carry the Alex Loop, my station consisted of Yaesu FT-817 with the 3000 MAh rechargeable battery, Pico Paddle and Alex Loop. The Alex Loop is easier to manage on crowded summits and worked well.

My operating strategy was simple, start on 20m and run the pile-up until I get several unanswered CQ's, move to 40m and get the local guys and then go to 15m to look for some DX. I had some decent DX on 15m. My typical activation takes around 25 - 30 minutes. Since these activations were during the week, I figured QSO counts would be down, however I would say they were better than I expected with 130 QSO's over 8 activations.

Greentop Mountain W4T/SU-076

This is a drive-up summit with radio towers on the top. I didn't have any trouble with RF in the radio however and had a nice activation, 16 QSOs including CU3AA and OE8SPW.

Greentop Mountain

Clingmans Dome W4C/WM-001

Clingman's Dome is a tourist attraction. While it is mostly a drive up, there is about a 1/2 mile hike to the top. Walking past all of the out of shape tourists, I felt rather fit. The trick for the operation is to avoid the crowds. I went to the left of the observation deck and down a path to a clearing next to a air monitoring station and some solar panels. Nice and quiet, away from the crowds and as you can see below, a very nice operating position. 14 QSO's from here.

Operating Position at Clingman's Dome

Bunches Bald W4C/WM-013

As much as Clingman's Dome is a tourist attraction, Bunches Bald is not. It's off the beaten path on the backside of a campground. Got to SotaWatch for more details, but at the back of campsite #14 there is a faint trail to the summit. The hike is probably less that a 1/4 of a mile, but it is through some fairly dense woods/undergrowth, however the trail makes it easier. The summit is very small, so I wouldn't count on two different stations if you do it with someone. I made 27 QSO's from here including EA2LU and F5UBH.
Benchmark on Bunches Bald
Operating from Bunches Bald

Waterrock Knob W4C/WM-004

Waterrock Knob has a visitor center, toilets and a nice trail to the summit. While the trail is nice its a challenging little hike, not too long, but steep in places. Wonderful views from here. 16 QSO's from here including EA2LU, EA2IF and CU3AA.

View from Waterrock Knob

This finished off the first day. As you can see from the pictures, the weather was glorious and the scenery fantastic. The XYL and I finished off the with a nice pizza pie.

Black Balsam Knob W4C/CM-005

This is a unique summit for the area in that there are no trees on top. I'm sure there is some reasonable explanation but I didn't talk to anyone who knew. I would have guessed that this summit would have "bald" in the name since it has no trees, however, it's a "knob". Bunches Bald, is anything but bald as it has lots of trees and undergrowth on the summit. Go figure. From the trailhead this is probably a 2 mile roundtrip but not a bad hike at all. Because there are no trees on the summit you can see for miles and miles. Beautiful!! 22 QSO's from here including EA2LU and DJ5AV.

Operating from Black Balsam Knob

Mt. Pisgah W4C/CM-011

This is a classic hike in the region. It's 3 miles round trip and gains 750 vertical feet, however the first third of a mile is relatively flat, so most of the vertical gain comes over the last mile. The trail is well shaded, but the trail is rock laden, be sure to wear supportive shoes. Pisgah is a summit that will, at most any given time, have 5 -10 people on top. There is an observation deck, however, based on N1EU's recommendation, I crossed under the tower and operated from the other side of the tower opposite the observation deck. I made 15 QSO's from here including a couple of EA's.

Operating from Mt. Pisgah
My XYL Cris on the trail to Mt. Pisgah

Mt Mitchell W4C/CM-001

Mt. Mitchell is located in Mt. Mitchell State Park. The mountain is the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. There is a nice road to just below the summit, which is just a short walk away. This is another summit with an observation deck and as before I walked to opposite side of the summit from the deck. I found a nice flat rock to operate from. I made 16 QSO's from here including CU3AA.
Mt. Mitchel Benchmark
Operating from Mt. Mitchell

Mt. Mitchell Summit
Mt. Mitchell finished the second day. We were tired and had dinner at the restaurant just down from the summit. The restaurant food was delicious and the views incredible.
Friday morning, the third day of the trip was forecast for 80% chance of rain. I had a plan to do Richland Balsam if I could get there before the rain did.
Richland Balsam W4C/WM-003
Visibility on the Blue Ridge Parkway was near zero in places and a rain storm was approaching from the west. I was racing the weather to get this one in before it got too bad. It took a little time to find the trail head because of the fog, but we finally found it. The trail is probably .6 miles one way through some dense forest.  We arrived at the summit with only the wind and foggy mist to deal with, but after the first QSO, the rain started. My XYL, what a trooper she is, was holding the umbrella while I hastily tried to qualify the activation. So I was sitting in the rain after 3 QSO's in log, N7UN, NE4TN and W2CKL. It was around 1245z, a little early for the chasers in the west and this was a work day as well. I called CQ for what seemed like an eternity trying to get that 4th QSO. I switched to 40m from 20m, called a couple of CQ's and then the golden answer, de N4EX. Hallelujah!! Another quick QSO with N4MJ and I QRT'ed as the rain intensified. We packed up and happily, at least me, headed down the mountain in the rain.
Operating from Richland Balsam just before a rain
Departing Richland Balsam in the rain
What a great trip, lots of SOTA points and lots of beautiful scenery and even some adventure.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014


It's been over a month since my last post. The day job, busy weekends and yes even a little radio have kept me occupied. I won't bore you with the non radio stuff, but I'll try to hit the highlights of the last few weeks.


I've been on a couple of SOTA excursions. The first was mid-August to the Davis Mountains in West Texas. If you have never been there, it is an oasis in the middle of a desert. With mountain elevations in the 6 -7,000 ft. ASL, the climate is much closer to a summer alpine climate than a desert climate. Afternoon showers keep the entire area lush and green. I partnered with Mike,  KD5KC on this trip and did three summits, Pine Peak W5T/DW-003, Summit 6641, W5T/DW-018 and Locke Mount, W5T/DE-003. Locke Mount is the home of the McDonald Observatory.

Pine Peak was a first activation for that summit. It is located within the Nature Conservancy boundary, It is open to the public a couple of weekends a year, so we made sure to be there that weekend. It is a pure bushwhack with no trails to the top, so we had fun making a path.

AD5A on Pine Peak Ascent
Over the Labor Day Weekend I was able to do three summits in New Mexico. I didn't take any pictures, but had a great time with Alan NM5S activating Cerro Vista, W5N/SS-010, and Cuchillo De Fernando, W5N/SS-013. My daughter-in-Law, Kat, wanted to do a hike, so she accompanied me on an ascent of Summit 9700, W5N/PW-018.
I've now crossed the 600 point threshold on my way to the 1,000 points required to earn the Mountain Goat award from SOTA.
New Radio
I bought a used X1M Platinum, the 5 band QRP rig from China. I will need to play with it a little more, but so far I'm impressed. For the price, it's a nice rig. I suppose the jury is out on durability, but time will be a good test for that. It's SSB and CW, smaller than the FT-817. It has 80,40,20,15 and 10m bands. However it has the ability to transmit on the other bands, but the filtering would need to be added. I'm sure there are tons of mods for this radio.
I will try to catch up over the next few days.

Friday, August 15, 2014

North America SOTA Activity Weekend, Setptember 13-14

North America SOTA Activity Weekend 2014, September 13ths and 14th, is a casual event involving tiny battery-powered radios on mountain summits.  It i s not a contest but is intended to introduce "Summits on the Air" to newcomers with home stations who try to work summit operators during one or two days. There are no rules regarding power levels, modes or number of bands worked, but please be courteous when more than one station is trying to talk to a SOTA operator on a summit.  The SOTA operators have just climbed mountains as high as 14,000 feet; they use low power; and they don't receive on split frequencies.
Check to spot who is on which mountain.  Summits are numbered, and you can hover your cursor over the number to see the name and point value for each summit.  Expect the website to show activity near 7.032, 7.185, 10.110, 14.342, 18.095, 18.155, 21.350, 24.905, 24.955, 28.420, 146.52, 446.00, and 61 Khz up from the bottom of 20, 15, and 10 meters CW.  Participants are invited to collect points toward certificates and trophies offered by the twelve-year-old international SOTA group (  As we learned in past years, this is a barrel of fun for both hill climbers and home operators.  See you then.