12 November 2016

Mont Blanc SOTA F/AB-001

Last edited:
19.11.2016 - Added various information and links to F6HBI's Flickr pages with spectacular photos of the expedition.
11.12.2016 - See also my blog entry of December 11th with additional information from F6HBI.

Somewhere in the autumn of 2015, announcements started to appear that a group of French hams of the Union Française des Télégraphistes (UFT) were planning a combined ham radio / mountaineering expedition to the top of the Mont Blanc. Located in the Alps on the border of eastern France and Italy, and rising to a height of almost 4,810 meters a.s.l., the Mont Blanc is Western Europe's highest mountain (in Europe only topped in height by a couple of mountains in the Caucasus). It's ranked 11th in the world in topographic prominence. The Summits on the Air (SOTA) reference for the Mont Blanc is F/AB-001.

I had just started actively chasing SOTA activators in CW, and I was really excited about the news. The expedition would take place in August of 2016. I would have almost a whole year to look forward to it and to get myself ready to put this special activation in the log.

By the summer of 2016 more information followed. The expedition team of 8 members had been assembled and consisted of Christian F8GHE, Gérald F6HBI, Frédéric F8DQY, André F6IGY, Mathieu F4EZO, Jean-Guy, Serge, and Théo. Another team member is mentioned, Jean F5BQT, and I believe he was the expedition's base camp VHF radioman down in the valley. Team member Gérald F6HBI is a well known and very active CW SOTA activator, and I had worked him many times before on various mountains throughout southeastern France. The team would use the call F8UFT, the callsign of the Union Française des Télégraphistes.

The F8UFT team would stay in the Chamonix-Mont-Blanc area for about a month, and as part of their training, preparation, and acclimatization for the climb of the Mont Blanc, several other mountains in the area would be ascended and activated on the ham bands.

The first contact I made with the team was on August 1st, 2016 on 30m CW. The operator was Gérald F6HBI, located on the summit of Le Brévent (SOTA F/AB-258) at 2525m height. The callsign used was F8UFT/P. On all the activations that followed later in August, the /P was omitted. The 30m signal was good and solid, and I had no problems making the contact.

My next contact was on August 6th. I worked operator Gérald F6HBI on 30m CW and operator Frédéric F8DQY on 40m CW on the summit of Mont Buet (F/AB-126) at 3096m height.

The activation date of the Mont Blanc was set to August 21, and while this date was getting closer and closer, in the meantime on August 12th I managed to work the team again on 40m CW (operator Frédéric F8DQY), this time on Le Prarion (SOTA F/AB-362) at 1969m height.

Expedition leader André F6IGY at the key on the summit of Mont Buet 06.08.2016 (source)
Frédéric F8DQY at the key at Mer de Glace 04.08.2016 (source)
On SOTAwatch, for August 16th also the activation of Mont Blanc du Tacul F/AB-003 (4248m) and Aguille du Midi F/AB-015 (3842m) was announced, but as far as I know these activations didn't take place. I don't know the reason for this, but maybe weather conditions or difficult, unsafe, or unsuitable operating conditions at the summit made the team decide not to spend time on any ham activities there.

The team did go up the Aguille du Midi, as the men could be seen in a spectacular You Tube video posted by Gérald F6HBI going down the knife-edge ridge of the Aguille du Midi Arête. Unfortunately, Gérald for reasons unknown recently removed the video from You Tube.

I was now really looking forward to the activation of the "Big One" on August 21st. The easy contacts with the team during their earlier activations had made me believe working them on the Mont Blanc was going to be a piece of cake. This however turned out to be far from the truth.

Mont Blanc F/AB-001 (source)
The plans of the F8UFT team were to start climbing for the top of the Mont Blanc in the early morning of August 21st from the Tête Rousse Hut at 3167m height. Excellent, I thought, August 21st being on a Sunday.

Then the news was brought out on SOTA Reflector that the team had changed their plans and would climb the Mont Blanc on August 24th. This date would allow them to sleep in the Goûter Hut at 3815m height, closer to the top of the Mont Blanc, allowing them to reach the top in less time and increasing the chance of succes. They would start climbing in darkness at 03:00 hours in the morning and expected to reach the top at 09:30-10:00 hours local time. This new date also meant that I had to take a day off from work. Much to my dismay the company didn't give permission, but luckily it turned out I had the late shift that day, and I would be able to spend time in the radio shack until about 3 in the afternoon!

Refuge du Goûter mountain hut (source)
So on the morning of August 24th I was awake early and was all set for working the Mont Blanc (SOTA F/AB-001). I kept an eye on the SOTAwatch cluster and followed Gérald F6HBI on APRS.fi. I was also switching between the announced frequencies of 7.013 and 10.122 MHz monitoring for a CQ from the F8UFT team. Frédéric F8DQY would be active on 40m CW, Gérald F6HBI on 30m CW, while Mathieu F4EZO would wait for the CW sessions of Frédéric to end and then start a 40m SSB session.

At one point I noticed Gérald's APRS beacon was at the top of the Mont Blanc, and soon also the first F8UFT spot appeared for 10.122 MHz. I quickly tuned in to the frequency, only to find out that Gérald's signal was extremely weak and not workable. Just my luck! Then a spot appeared for Frédéric on 7.013. When I tuned in, a sigh of relief; the signal of F8UFT was relatively strong! But the pile-up was huge, and I knew the time of the F8UFT team up on the summit would be short. Low temperatures and high winds were reported making the conditions for the team quite difficult.

APRS.fi screenshot from my smartphone
I started keying my callsign with my Kent twin paddle, hoping to break through the pile-up madness on 7.013. I was lucky and around 08:30 UTC I heard my call coming back, but due to QRM only partially: "...7MDJ 5NN 5NN K". I waited and again my call was coming back with a 599 report. I sent "R R GM UR 55N 55N 73 GL TU" which was answered with "73 TU dit dit". I still wasn't sure though if my callsign was copied correctly. Did I hear a dot missing in the P, and several dots in the 7? Was it QSB, or am I in the log as GA7MDJ or some other variant even worse?
I should have sent my call one more time, and then should have waited for another callsign readback. But I got nervous, was afraid of loosing the contact, and I felt the pressure of the limited time available to the team. Still I wonder, how could I have let this happen? Normally I stick until I'm absolutely sure my callsign is copied correctly. I wanted to try again, to make sure I was in the log correctly, but soon Frédéric went QRT, and the signals of the SSB session that followed were way below noise level. I've been looking forward to this moment for almost a year, now did I blow my chance to work the Mont Blanc? I felt miserable.

I'm quite strict when it comes to having my callsign correctly in the log of the station worked. If it's not in there correctly or if it's in there only partially, to me the QSO is not a valid one. So, anxiously I awaited the log of F8UFT to be uploaded to the SOTA log database. It lasted about a week, and it almost drove me mad, but finally it was there and I could check and see if my callsign was in there correctly. On 40m only 16 CW QSO's had been made, and LO AND BEHOLD, there it was, my callsign, CORRECT AND COMPLETE!

I'm the type of radio amateur that always places importance on following the rules and the proper procedure for a valid QSO. This certainly was not a QSO by the book, and it deserves no beauty prizes, but it'll have to do. It's a small miracle that out of just 16 stations worked one of them was me!

F8UFT log for F/AB-001 in the SOTA database

Later Gérald reported that on the summit winds were really strong with windchill temperatures going down to about 35º Celcius below zero. The CW keying with thick gloves on was really difficult, Gérald said. André later writes on the UFT website that the winds at the summit were blowing at 40kph! These harsh weather conditions and wearing thick gloves also was what Frédéric had to struggle with while trying to send my call correctly, and in these conditions it's not strange that some dots might have gone missing (during the other contacts I also noticed some missing dots). Also the equipment might have acted up in the extreme cold. In the end, it does add charm to the contact, made under harsh conditions at almost 5 kilometres height! I'm trying to imagine handling a small Palm paddle keyer with thick mountaineering gloves on, trying to send CW correctly while the freezing wind blows around your ears, the noise of it drowning out your own CW sidetone! I even mess up with big paddles and without any gloves on in the comfort of my warm shack, hi.

This might be the highest mountain ever activated on the ham bands, the F8UFT team only spent about 50 minutes total on the air from there, and I'm in the log! If it was up to me, and if such a thing would exist, this expedition would win the prize for Best Ham Radio Event of the Year 2016! To the whole F8UFT team I would like to say: thank you and congratulations on the outstanding achievement, both in ham radio and mountaineering!

The equipment used on this expedition are two Yaesu FT-817's with inverted V and ATAS 100 antennas.

If I'm not mistaken, there was a dedicated cameraman on the expedition, and hopefully a video documentary will be available on DVD some day soon. I haven't seen any announcements of this though. According to expedition leader André on the UFT website, a special QSL card will be available and will be send to the stations worked. When received, I'll post it on my blog.

The F8UFT team on Glacier des Bossons 13.08.2016. From left to right: Christian F8GHE, Gérald F6HBI, Frédéric F8DQY, Jean-Guy, Serge, Théo, Mathieu F4EZO, F6IGY André (source)
SOTA activation history of F/AB-001
All contacts also confirmed in LotW
More photos of the expedition can be found on the Flickr pages and the last three web pages listed below.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/geof6hbi/albums/72157674423614415  (activation of Mont Buet F/AB-126)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/geof6hbi/albums/72157669975353914 (activation Le Brévent F/AB-258)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/geof6hbi/albums/72157673087919816 (activation Mont Blanc F/AB-001) 

3 November 2016

High Altitude Balloon (HAB) carrying WSPR payload

Last edited: 06.11.2016

Around the world, regularly experimental High Altitude Balloons (or HABs) are released into the earth's atmosphere carrying amateur radio payloads. These payloads often include an APRS or WSPR (or other mode) tracker transmitting position reports, enabling ham operators to track the balloons on their voyage. Often travelling at a height of more than 10km, and depending on the mission's goal sometimes even entering the atmosphere's "near space" region, some of these balloons (the so called "floaters", long-distance travellers designed to reach a certain altitude and then float with the prevailing winds) even manage to circumnavigate the globe before finally coming down to earth again.

Dave VE3KCL from Canada launched several floater HABs carrying a WSPR payload based on the Ultimate3S kit of QRP Labs. QRP Labs is well known to the radio amateur for developing and selling WSPR transmitter kits which work as stand alone devices not needing any PC to generate the WSPR signals.

At the time of writing this, VE3KCL's HAB flight S-18, released on October 17th, and after completing a circumnavigation on October 27th, is still aloft and transmitting WSPR signals on the 30 and 20m HF bands. It's currently over the Atlantic Ocean west of Africa. During nighttime the battery will be depleted, and no position reports are transmitted. I didn't learn about the S-18 flight until yesterday, and so far due to QRL I haven't been able to monitor for the mission's signals during the balloon's daytime. I'm planning on listening for it coming Sunday though, provided the balloon is still in the air by then.

More information on the S-18 can be found on the website of QRP Labs here. Might we miss this one, the list of QRP Labs powered WSPR balloons shows another VE3KCL balloon flight planned for the future, and hopefully more missions will follow.

Track of the S-18 flight on November 3, 2016. The red parts of the track are based on actual received position reports.
If you want to learn more about amateur radio HABs, take a look at the website of ARHAB Amateur Radio High Altitude Ballooning - "The Poor Man's Space Program" at www.arhab.org.

A list of all the missions that managed to circumnavigate the globe can be found here.

By the way, I'm planning on buying a QRP Labs WSPR Ultimate3S kit for use at my home QTH. I'd like to start simple, with just one band, and I think the 40m band is the one I prefer at the moment. Stay tuned!

Addendum 06.11.2016
It seemed balloon flight S-18 already had descended down into the Atlantic Ocean by November 2nd, as is now reported on the balloon's web page. Now let's keep an eye on the flight list and wait for the launch of S-20.