Friday, April 11, 2014

Ham Radio and Fitness

Unfortunately, to many, ham radio and fitness are mutually exclusive. We are all passionate about a hobby whose major milestones can be accomplished setting in a comfortable chair in front of our radios. Our major competitions include 24 - 48 hours of sitting. We've even developed software that eliminates the need to even operate a CW paddle or press the button on a microphone. Needless to say our hobby or at least many facets of it promote physical inactivity. You will never mistake a Hamfest for a Triathalete convention.

There are notable exceptions, within the hobby, that will get you out. Expeditioning, fox hunting (outside), Summits on the Air and I'm sure there are a few others. In fact, and I may be a little biased, I think that the SOTA Goat award is one of the toughest awards in amateur radio. The SOTA Goat is an activator award, you must earn 1,000 activator points with the highest value summit worth 10 points. There are some bonus points available during extreme weather conditions, but suffice it to say you will have to summit at least 100 peaks and operate to earn the award. Normally it takes several years to earn this award and you have to do it on your feet.

However, if you aren't into Summits or other outdoor forms of radio there is device that you can wear on your wrist to motivate you to get up and around. These devices count your steps in a day and depending on the device will nudge you to get up when you have been sitting too long. All of these devices have accompanying apps that will sync with the device to give you statistics on your day including steps and the quality of your sleep. I currently use a device made by Jawbone and although I have a somewhat regular exercise regimen, it reminds and motivates me to keep it up. An extra walk around the block or around the office, if done regularly can make a difference in your overall fitness.

I blogged here several months back about the backpacker mentality of saving ounces in our packs while we were carrying extra pounds on our bodies. Since that blog I have lost ten pounds and signficantly improved my stamina. The higher fitness level we can achieve improves our odds to live long enough to achieve some of our sedentary goals.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The First Activation of a South Texas SOTA Summit - Peak 2002

The SOTA Management Team recently authorized a group of qualifying summits in South Texas. These summits are located generally west of San Antonio in the Texas Hill Country. The elevation of these summits range from ~1700 - 2200 feet ASL. All of these new summits are only 1 point summits, however, they are new and have never been activated which begs for someone to do them for the first time. So today, I was the first to activate a South Texas Summit.

I have only done limited research and actually stopped looking when I found the first accessible summit. The summit, named "2002" for it's elevation because it is otherwise unnamed. The summit is an escarpment, which is defined as, "a long precipitous, cliff-like ridge of land, rock, or the like, commonly formed by faulting or fracturing of the earths crust".  Peak 2002 is just that with a summit ridge that runs for nearly a mile. Accordingly it has a large activation zone. (In SOTA, the operator doesn't necessarily need to transmit from the actual summit, in Texas the activation zone is anywhere within 150 vertical feet of the summit). The majority of the summit ridge is on private land, however the eastern third of the summit lies within the boundries of the Texas Hill Country State Natural Area. So an easy, state park hike, should be easy.

View from the Trail

Looking at the layout of the park, the ranger told me which trail would get me to the summit ridge, trail 4B. I downloaded the map and the trail was in the middle of the park, but I would be able to drive to the trail head right, wrong. The Ranger informed me that because this is a Natural Area I would have to walk. What I thought was, at most, a 2 mile round-trip was now a 6 mile round-trip. Wait a minute this is just a 1 point summit. But I was there, but I knew I didn't have enough water for 6 miles, so I bought a bottle of water at the Park Office, got directions and took off.
South Texas Fauna

So what was a 2 mile round-trip which had now become a 6 mile round-trip, turned out to be nearly 8 miles. I missed a trail due to a poorly marked trail sign and was almost a mile down that trail when I realized my error. So I had to back track and get on the right trail. Finally 1 hour and 40 minutes after leaving the trail-head I reached the summit ridge.

From that point, it was a fairly normal activation. I used my MTR and a 20/40m EFHW and my Pico Paddle. I managed 22 QSO's with the first being AE4FZ and the last being KD5KC, Mike who did the bulk of the work to get the additional Texas Summits approved. Thanks Mike. I was also able to work a little DX with OK1CZ calling in on 20m.
A Selfie from the Trail

So this was another SOTA first and I'm glad I was able to be the first to activate a South Texas Summit. I will have to say though, this was the toughest SOTA point I ever earned. Eight miles of hiking for 1 point, the miles per point is pretty high. If you extrapolated that ratio to a 10 point summit a person would have to walk 80 miles. Well as they say, everything is bigger in Texas.

Thanks to all the chasers and thanks again to Mike KD5KC who was a catalyst in getting these summits approved.

I'm Back

Recent weeks have been extremely busy from both a professional and personal perspective. However, I seem to be getting back to a little more sane schedule that will allow me to blog a little more, which is very therapeutic for me. So some radio things that I am involved in.

I couple of weeks ago I hosted the annual IOTA Bash in Boerne, Texas. If you are into IOTA at all, it was a great gathering. Presentations from EA3NT, K6VVA, K9AJ and AB5EB. It was the 10th annual event and it's always a good time. Monitor for updates on next years BASH.

I  bought a K3. I needed to reclaim some real estate on my desk in the shack. I had an FT5000, which is a fantastic rig, but it is big. I will move it to my ranch station to upgrade my equipment there. So, far the K3 has lived up to all I've heard about it. It is a very flexible rig with a great receiver.

The SOTA powers that be have recently established more qualifying summits in Texas, some only 40 minutes from my QTH. While only 1 point summits, it is fun to activate any summit as the chasers are there and pile-ups are what we like. I plan to activate the first South Texas summit this afternoon. Maybe I will write it up after I'm done.

So, it's good to be at the keyboard again, thanks for reading this stuff.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Circle of Life

It's been a while since I've had the time to sit down and write a few lines. My recent work and personal schedule has looked like a blackout bingo game. When work interferes with play, that's serious. That said, I have been able to do a few things around the shack. I've been clearing out some of the surplus of QRP radios that have accumulated over the years to make room for more QRP radios. It is, after all, the circle of life isn't it. Buy it, play with it, look at it, sell it and then buy something else to start the cycle over again.

I've also changed up my QRO line-up. I have the FT-5000DX which is a wonderful radio. It does however take up a fair amount of real estate on my, not-so-big, desk. Along with VL-1000 amp, I don't have much room left over. So, I am sending the FT-5000 to my ranch station and replacing it at the home shack with a K3. Not a bad trade. I just received the K3 and am getting comfortable with it. Having owned a KX3 for while, the learning curve is not too steep. There is another agenda here and that is I want to be able to remote into my home station when away and Elecraft has an elegant solution for that. They build a K3/0 which looks just like the K3 but without the TX and RX circuitry. So when remote, you have the same front end to play with. Plug in your key, link up, spin the knobs and away you go. At least that's the theory. I will be setting this up soon and I will report on the progress.

So the circle of life is always with us, which makes life interesting.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Five Summits in Three Days

I have SOTA fever really bad. Activating summits seems to continually occupy my thinking these days. My goal, 1,000 activator points at which time I will buy piece of glass with my call and a picture of a goat on it. Doesn't everyone think about that?

To feed my addiction I made a trip to my QTH in Santa Fe, NM. I arrived there on my birthday February 13th. I had been planning this trip for more than a month and was worried about how the weather would be since the long weekend in Santa Fe would be my only chance to activate summits for a while. The weather forecast was for highs in '60's. Perfect.

. I had a different strategy for this trip, since none of the hikes would be more than a mile one way, I carried my FT-817 and an Elecraft T-1 tuner with plans to get on the WARC bands since the ARRL DX-CW contest would be going on the weekend. The FT-817 is fresh from getting modified with the W4RT on-board filter for both SSB and CW and the DSP as well.


So on Friday the 14th, I met up with Fred, KT5X aka WS0TA. We had two summits on the agenda, Peak 7119, W5N/PW-037 and Glorieta Mesa, W5N/PW-032. The day was windy, but the temps were comfortable. While the climbs were short, they were very steep to both summits. There were probably easier ways up, but what the heck, we were looking for adventure.

Propagation was good on the first summit, Peak 7119,  I worked 5 EU stations, OH9XX, DJ5AV, EA2LU, ON4LI and G4OBK. My antenna was an LNR Trail Friendly 40-20-10 EFHW strung over as high a limb as my pole could reach and then to my carbon fiber fishing pole and down to the rig, an inverted L configuration. the antenna tuned great on the WARC bands. Fred and I employed a strategy that maximized available bands. I started on 12m and worked my way down to 20m while Fred started on 20m and move down to 30m and 40m. So as a team we made the summit available in several bands. I made 20 QSO's; 11 on 12m, 3 on 17m, 5 on 20m and 1 on 30m. I did have a couple of S2S's, one with N6JZT and another with N7CW, both with huge signals. Thanks guys.

The Glorieta Mesa expedition was executed in a very similar manner, same radio, same antenna configuration, except this time I made 25 QSO's on the following bands; 10 on 12m, 5 on 15m, 2 on 17m and 8 on 20m. The only DX was DJ5AV on 15m.

It was a good day, 45 QSO's, two nice hikes and 20 SOTA points.


Fred was unable to go on Saturday, so my buddy Jeff from Red River, NM was visiting, so he set out with me for the days activities. Again, there were two summits on the agenda, Peak 8409, W5N/PW-027 and Peak 9420, W5N/PW-020.

Peak 8409 is a relatively easy summit, with only about a 75 vertical feet ascent required to get into the activation zone. I used an AlexLoop on this summit as I wanted to get set up quickly. Propagation must have been in the process of warming up. I only made 9 QSO's 8 on 12 meters and 1 on 30 meters. The stations I heard were loud, but there weren't many of them. I never was spotted on RBN. I tried to self spot on SMS but put a slant bar in the summit reference which is the incorrect format. I didn't figure this out until later. So,  I had to pack up to make the scheduled time on Peak 9420, so Jeff and I made our way down the hill to the car and were on the way to the next summit.

Peak 9420 is an excellent SOTA Summit. It climbs 800 feet over a distance of about one mile, which is relatively steep, but the hike is only a mile  to the summit and it has a nice trail with lots of switchbacks to take some of the sting out of the hill. I'm in relatively good shape and it took me 23 minutes to get to the top. The weather was cooler and the wind was blowing at a stiff clip. There was some snow on the ground at the top, but not too much. It was too windy right on top, so I moved down a little to get out of the wind. I used my FT-817 with the Elecraft T1 tuner and the EFHW. I netted 31 QSO's , 11 on 12m,  9 on 20m and 11 30m. During my run on 30m, I heard a faint but copiable signal and a slow but sure fist calling. It is K7NIT, Rachel, calling for an S2S, followed soon thereafter by K7ATN. Thanks guys. Another fun thing happened, after my first run on 12 meters I didn't work either W4DOW or AE4FZ both of which are well up the standings on the 12 meter challenge. I worked AE4FZ on 20m so I knew he was out there. So after the pile-ups died down I went back to 12m and threw out the bait. Like two big trout after a fly, very quickly after calling CQ I worked both W4DOW and AE4FZ. I knew then it was okay to QRT.

AD5A coming up the trail to 9420
Operating from 9420, out of the wind

For the day, 40 QSO's and 22 SOTA points (including bonus points)


Day 3 would require a little driving. I was headed to Sandia Crest, W5N/SI-001. Sandi Crest is dominant peak in Albuquerque, NM. My XYL accompanied me on this trip. It is a drive up to the summit which sits at ~10,600 feet. We also wanted make the drive on HWY 14 out of Santa Fe which is a beautiful drive. In addition to the views it goes through Madrid which is where much of the Tim Allen film, "Wild Hogs" was filmed. Its a very cool little town. We didn't have time to stop, but will make a special trip next time.

At the summit it was cold. In the 30's and very windy. I would have to find a spot out of the wind. Because of the cold my wife decided to sit this one out, in the gift shop. Now this was probably a mistake on my part, because when I was done with the activation she had found several nice things to put in our house. Another way of looking at this is that it's a small price to pay for a SOTA pass:-).

I hiked about a quarter of a mile south of the summit structures and found a place where I could sit on a log, out of the snow, be sheltered from the wind but yet give my antenna a good look at the world. The picture below is what I found. The log in the foreground was where I sat and the Alexloop, with the tripod anchored in the snow, has a nice look over the snow bank. I again used the 817.

Operating Position on Sandia Peak
Propagation was very good as I had 35 QSO's. I surprisingly found an open spot on 20m despite the contest that was going on and started there. I made 23 QSO's on 20 meters and then move to 12m, where I had 7 QSO's including contacts with DJ5AV and EA2LU. I finished out on 30m with 5 more contacts. When the CQ's produced no more results I packed up and headed back to the warm gift shop and my awaiting bill. But no worries, it was a fun trip. I was happy, my wife was happy and we had a nice day in the mountains.
This was a very nice SOTA trip. For a winter weekend in New Mexico, the weather was exceptional. I activated 5 Summits, made 120 QSO's and netted 55 Activator points. I'm just a little closer to that piece of glass.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Upgrading My FT-817

The FT-817 is a great little radio. It has been around for 15 years and was the first QRP radio, that I'm aware of, that was designed for backpacking and covered 160m through 70cm. It is housed in a rugged package that is efficient, and is relatively easy to pack. The radio sells for ~ $660 and is a great value for the money. It has been the undisputed leader of it's class until the entry of the Elecraft KX3 came to market. The KX3 is a fine radio that clearly has more bells and whistles than the FT-817 although it is doesn't cover 2m and 70cm in its base model.

I have both radios but favor the FT-817 for SOTA expeditions when I choose to carry an all band radio. (I usually carry CW only radio that is much lighter, but carry the FT-817 on some trips). Clearly the out of the box filtering is better on the KX3, but so is the price. You can buy two 817's for the price of a KX3. However that said, I set out to modify my 817 to see if I could close the gap between the two. So I added the W4RT On Board Filter ($284) with both SSB and CW (300Hz) filters. I also added the BHI DSP filter ($169). These prices include installation by W4RT, if you do it yourself you can save a few bucks. These modifications, in my opinion help to close the gaps between the two radios considerably.

Below are some very basic, unscientific, comparisons of the two radios on SSB and CW.

CW Comparison

SSB Comparison

As you heard in the videos the differences boil down to a matter of taste. I think the 817, with the 300Hz filter comes very close if not better than the KX3 on CW, on SSB the KX3 has the advantage but the DSP does clean up the noise and the SSB filter does sharpen the 817 audio considerably. I favor 817 for outdoor work and the KX3 for the in-shack QRP radio.

In future blogs I will discuss a couple cool additions to the 817.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

FT5ZM with QRP

All major expeditions are chaotic in the first days. Panic sets in as days go by and contacts aren't made, logs aren't posted, propagation doesn't cooperate and on and on. It is a very predictable pattern. However there is also a predictable pattern in the last days of  a major expedition and that's comments on the reflector of, "finally made it", "on 14.023 begging", "working simplex", " worked with a wire", "worked first call", "worked mobile!!!" and finally, "worked QRP". An so that time has arrived for the FT5ZM expedition.

I can't say enough about the quality of this team and their operating plan. Amsterdam is antipodal to my QTH and yet these guys have been workable on most bands, I have worked them on six bands using my battleship sized station and yes, I worked them yesterday QRP with my FT-817 on 20m. Over 2,000 miles per watt! It's ironic, but there is power in QRP. There was a small pile-up, relatively speaking, covering 2-3 KC's but my 5 watt signal travelled almost exactly half way around to the world to be copied by a station almost 12,000 miles away. Very cool.

The QRP contact was the first good news of the day, the second was a bonus. The common grayline/shared darkness with FT5 and my QTH in W5 is about 30 minutes. Yesterday around 0028z, with still some faint sunlight, the FT5ZM signal came out of the mud on 3.523 listening up 2. I use only an inverted L on 80m at about 55 feet at its apex, so we aren't talking about a superior antenna. Their signal was in the 339 - 449 range. Very light copy, but solid. I was excited just to copy them. I am usually confident when I jump in a pile-up, but not this one, figuring the east coast would drown me out. However on about the fourth call I could hear faintly but solidly, AD5A 599, I went back, de AD5A 599 599 bk.......AD5A 599 599. Oh no, he didn't hear me come AD5A 599 599 599 bk.......AD5A 599 TU UP.....Yesssss! An unexpected bonus and a short victory dance and another short one when the QSO was verified in the online log today.

 There are so many ways to enjoy radio and yesterday was another fun day in this wonderful hobby of ours.