First SOTA Activation – Great Whernside G/NP-008

This Sunday I made my first attempt at a Summits On The Air activation. After the time and experiments with portable antennas at valley level it was time to take it to the mountain top. I chose Great Whernside as it was close to home and, I thought, not too long a walk in.

It is worth adding a safety note here. I walked alone. I wasn’t the only solo walker/runner on the mountain. I met other walkers and runners and later on the farmers checking on their sheep. Travelling alone is not normally a good idea. If I’d have had a disabling accident I’d have had to rely on those back at home who knew my route to send help when I didn’t turn up. All of the communication equipment I was carrying would likely be of little use. When you get out of line of sight of anything but open moorland then you realise how far from help you are. In the end maybe six short blasts of the whistle could have alerted a farmer. I could hear them shouting to their sheep. My emergency shelter is brightly coloured and I had enough warm clothing, but injuries and medical emergencies can make getting help a time critical problem. Travelling solo really is not something to take lightly.

Equipment

I had planned this as a shortwave activation, so carried the Elecraft KX3 and my linked dipole. I also added my Kenwood handheld 2m radio, which in the end turned out to make the contacts. The 2m radio was an afterthought, so I did not think of fitting its larger antenna or taking a portable antenna for it. I can see the advantage of 2m radio for summits on the air as the equipment and antennas are smaller.

This equipment was packed alongside my usual hiking equipment of map, compass, clothing layers, coat, boots, small emergency shelter, whistle, water, snacks. I also carried a small GPS for route logging.

Climbing to the summit

Angram Reservoir viewed from the track along Scar House Reservoir. Great Whernside is in the background masked by cloud.

I crossed Scar House reservoir and turned West along the track on its far side. On the reservoir I noticed an interesting piece of equipment, and wonder if it is using an echo to measure the distance to the water surface and therefore monitor the water depth. There was a dog bag bin at the far end which was overflowing. I dread to think what that would do to any animals.

Navigation took me to a place on the map marked “Lodge”. I expected to find some form of accommodation there, but instead found the remains of a place called Lodge and a sign detailing its history.

Using the GPS

From Lodge it was along a short track then out into open moorland. The path became hard to see. I guess it’s not often walked. At first I navigated using the walls but these thinned out. The next stage would require use of the contours to find the points to cross the walls aiming to the left of Hard Bank before rounding the corner and aiming for the saddle between Great Whernside and Little Whernside. The terrain was boggy with care needed to step on the tufts of grass in places and find places where feet wouldn’t sink.

As for navigation, I cheated a little and used the GPS to keep on track. The pathway was faint and could be seen. In the past, before the GPS, I’d have taken a compass bearing.

Approaching the saddle between Great and Little Whernside.

All this time the summit was in cloud, and there was some dampness in the air. I was worried that I’d have to try the activation in foggy wet conditions. Another issue came to light while I was climbing. I picked up a conversation between to amateurs on the 2m radio. They were bemoaning the contest happening on the shortwave bands. The bands that my shortwave antenna is designed for were full of high power contest signals making it hard for other amateurs to find space.

These 2m signals grew stronger as I climbed so I hoped to join their conversation and tell them what I was doing. Two contacts if they’d have waited for me to reach the summit would have been useful.

Unfortunately, a pattern repeated later on, the Kenwood’s short stubby antenna and low power could not reach them. One thing said about SOTA is that the low RF noise environment allows you to hear a lot more stations than you can reply to. They have to hear you above all the background noise of electronic devices in a more urban setting.

The cloud lifted as I climbed the final steep section to the summit. I was in luck with the weather! I reached Small Crags, which I took as the boundary of the Activation Zone. This is a small climb onto the plateau. SOTA activations have to be within 25m altitude of the summit. I contemplated setting up at the stone shelter just above Small Crags, but the true summit and trig point were in sight so I walked the short extra distance to them. The total climb was just over two hours.

The Activation

I’d just reached the summit when I heard G6HMN/P calling CQ on the handheld. Answering that call gave me my first contact and was a good start. Given the wind and knowing I had limited time it would have made sense to keep trying on 2m, but I wanted to set up my HF antenna.

HF Linked Dipole on Great Whernside Summit

The antenna setup was easy. My guying system made with a small piece of water overflow pipe and some lengths of Dyneema harpoon line allow the post to be lifted quickly by a single operator. I placed two pegs a couple of meters apart on the upwind side, lifted the pole and positioned such that those guylines were tight, then placed the third guyline to secure it. I had to remember to keep hold of the third line otherwise it flapped around in the wind out of reach.

The bend in the mast comes from pegging out the first leg of the dipole too far. I need to look out for this. The radio seemed to struggle to tune at first on 40m so I wonder if the extra tension was causing another problem. Either that or I’d not connected one of the links properly. Re-pegging seemed to help. My 10m feeder just about allowed me to reach the shelter of the rocks to operate.

Elecraft KX3, microphone, earbuds, BaMaKey TP-II, map with band plans, notebook and pen

I soon found that the warning about the contest was right. I could tune entirely across the bands and not easily find a gap to operate in, or if I found a gap it would soon be occupied. Some of this could be down to the KX3’s sensitivity operating in a place with very little noise. Antenna noise, noticed when plugging in the feeder, was also quieter than I am used to at home.

I did find gaps, and used the KX3’s message function to transmit my CQ. Unfortunately no responses. With time and cold I only tried 20m and 40m SSB. I had my 80m extension wires which seemed small in such a large space when I laid them out on the floor, but I didn’t connect them. Instead I switched to 30m Morse Code.

First attempts with the paddle in the cold without a flat surface proved hard. I know that some operators strap it to their leg which could work. Another common arrangement is to attach it to the radio so using the radio’s bulk to support it. Last time I used it portable I used my other hand or my index finger of my operating hand to secure it. In the end I turned it on its side and configured it as a straight key sending manually. It is good to have this option.

Time flies when you’re having fun! After one and a half hours on the summit I felt I needed to return so packed the equipment away. I could still hear G6HMN calling on 2m. The equipment packed away easily and I started walking towards Small Craggs.

It was here that my other two contacts came. I answered a CQ call but had difficulty completing the contact, so did not log it. My attempt was overheard by G4TJC/P operating on Skiddaw in the Lake District. His signal was almost noise free and very clear and his report for me was also a good 5/5 – not bad for 92km on the stubby handie antenna with battery dropping and the radio backing off power. This summit to summit contact earned 16 points and meant that I had some SOTA success for the day. I had not yet reached the edge of the plateau and the edge of the activation zone.

Stone shelter near the edge of the plateau

Soon after that I heard M1SPY calling, and answered. I ran back up to the activation zone so I could log it and had to climb on some rocks to help with the signal. I was given a report of 5/3 but dropping as I moved around. I made one quick CQ call after that, but with battery failing and time running out I had to return home.

The Descent

Looking at the map, I could follow a spur down straight to the end of Angram Reservoir. This could have worked well. There were fences but they had stiles at regular intervals. Instead I started to backtrack before following a wall down a gulley.

This worked well apart from some very damp ground with water. The new fence to the left in this photograph acted as a boundary which I had to follow. So I ended up on the spur to the right following the course of my first plan.

The map showed a weir at the top of the reservoir. I could have crossed it if I needed to, but thankfully I found the circular tourist path and the wooden bridge made for it. Once on this path I could just follow it all the way back to the car park.

There are nice views at the reservoirs, and some interesting history documented on noticeboards there. I arrived back at the car after 6 hours, just in time to drive on to my next engagement.

Learning Points and Improvements

  • Take equipment for 2m operation, even a backpack antenna if not the SotaBeam.
  • Consider using the KX3’s antenna tuner to reach higher bands on HF if the lower bands are full.
  • Also consider adding 60m links to the dipole’s extension wires.
  • The old NiMH battery pack soon drops power reducing output to 5W. Investigate Lithium batteries.
  • Rain would have stopped play. How can I protect the KX3 in wet weather? (The 2m handies are waterproof).

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