May 10, 2017

My first SOTA and CW activation

Last edited: 12.05.2017

One of my favourite aspects of ham radio is Summits on the Air (SOTA). With this blog entry I will not go into explaining as to what exactly SOTA is, as most of my readers already know or otherwise will be able to find more information on the official SOTA web page or on this Wikipedia page. Beside that I will also do a special "sticky" blog page about SOTA in general another time soon.
So this blog entry is not about SOTA in general, but rather about my CW activation of SOTA summit PA/PA-004 Torenberg in specific.

I've been a SOTA chaser for some time now, mainly using CW. As a chaser I can do the basic "rubber stamp" CW QSOs, i.e. copy the activator's call, send my call, copy my call, copy the signal report, send a signal report, send 73 and TU. I can also easily copy and send some basic abbreviations like GM, GA, GE, UR RST, BK, GL, FB, etc. Basically this is all one needs to make SOTA QSOs as a chaser, or to make QSOs with DXpeditions or DX stations for that matter. In less than two years, with probably 99% of the SOTA Qs in CW, I earned my SOTA chaser Shack Sloth award and the HB9SOTA Edelweiss award. Using only SSB this might have taken ages. But I wanted more, just basic CW skills is not enough, as I was also aspiring SOTA CW activations.

The radio shack out in nature. SOTA PA/PA-004.
Equipment used on PA/PA-004 includes a Yaesu FT-817ND running 5 Watts into a portable lightweight version of the HyEndFed 10/20/40 wire antenna, a 10 metre telescopic lightweight fiberglass pole, a gel cel 7 Ah battery, and a Palm Pico paddle. There are two things I learned today: I need a narrow CW filter for the FT-817, and I need to save for that portable, self-supporting HF-P1 antenna I've been looking at for some time now; fixating a 10 m telescopic pole out in nature can be quite a hassle.
So meanwhile I kept practicing my CW skills using the Koch method at 25 WPM. The Koch method for me has been the ideal way to learn Morse code. A Koch app on my smartphone lets me practice whenever and wherever I want. I tried and still try to do at least 15 to 20 minutes of practicing each day. Over time I also managed to add some variations to the rubber stamp QSOs. For instance, in the QSOs with them, I also started sending the personal name of the regular SOTA activators I'd made acquaintance with. "Dry practicing" I also built confidence in sending random callsigns, words, letters, and numbers. For SOTA CW activations I knew, at least sending wasn't going to be a problem.

One of the motivators to keep up the essential self discipline to practice CW every day has been the aspiration to do SOTA activations. The lightweight QRP equipment you take on a summit activation is so much more effective in CW than it is in SSB. Doing a CW activation however is a totally different ball game compared to chasing!  Not only you'll have to leave the comfort of your shack and ascend the summit and set up your portable station there of course, but also you'd have to be able to quickly copy the different callsigns and messages coming at you in fast pace from random SOTA chasers. As a CW chaser before making the QSO you have the advantage of having the time to listen for the activator's callsign, just one callsign, and if you don't copy it completely the first time, you'll listen for it a second or even third time. When activating it's a complete different situation.

For today I'd planned an activation of the Dutch SOTA summit PA/PA-004 Torenberg. It would be my first SOTA activation. The Netherlands is not a mountainous country, but there are some hills in the eastern and southern part of the Netherlands, and under the special SOTA P100 rule, five of them qualify as SOTA summits, were included in the SOTA programme, and were given a SOTA reference number. However, after a careful check of the P100 rule, it was decided to retire two of them as of 31 July, 2017, including PA/PA-004.
My initial plan was to do the activation in SSB only. But I remembered my last QRP SSB WWFF activation in which I needed many hours to eventually make just 16 Qs. A SOTA activation in CW would be so much more effective, and not in the last place so much COOLER!. For an activation though, at higher speeds I'm still not confident enough about my CW skills.
But then I realized, for my first CW activation I just could go QRS! At 12 to 16 WPM I'm much more comfortable and confident. Chasers that want to work me will adapt to my speed. When a callsign is not copied completely the first time, I can always do a "..--.."
Then coincidentally, some days ago Polish ham SQ6GIT on the SOTA Reflector started the thread "SOTA CW for beginners".  SQ6GIT is planning a SOTA activation in Ukraine and wants to do it in CW, but he has the same doubts about his CW skills that I have about mine, and asked the SOTA community for their opinion on doing a CW activation with limited CW skills. The SOTA people all reacted the same: Take the plunge! Just do it! Just go slowly, go QRS! One SOTA activator reacted "The best training method when aspiring towards CW SOTA activations is: CW SOTA activations! And it's true, taking the plunge and jumping into the big ocean often is the best teacher!

So I did. Today I activated PA/PA-004 in CW, only CW, no SSB at all! I made 8 contacts on 40m including one "Summit 2 Summit" with HB9AGO/P in Switzerland! The transceiver's keyer was set to 12 WPM. Some "E E E" were needed a couple of times, but for a first time, and despite being very nervous, overall I think I did well! I must say SQ6GIT's post on the SOTA Reflector came just in time and gave me the push I needed. The chasers all were very cooperative and patient and adapted their speed to mine. And guess who's one of the chasers I made a QSO with! It was SQ6GIT, adding another special touch to this story! My initial fear is gone, and I hope to be able to do some more CW activations soon!

PA/PA-004 Torenberg is located in a forested area called De Veluwe near the town of Apeldoorn. Its summit is 107 metres a.s.l. It's quite an odd summit and it can't be reached legally as it's located on land owned by the Dutch Royal Family and is in a no-access wildlife area with many wild boar and deer. So to keep it legal I decided to activate from the forest at the Aardhuis on the Aardmansberg at 102 metres a.s.l. The Aardhuis is the former hunting lodge of King William III and was built in 1861. It's now a visitors centre and museum. Some of the rooms remain furnished as in historical times when it was still a hunting lodge. The Aardhuis is a couple of hundred metres away from the the real Torenberg summit, but it's within the closed 90 metres elevation contour line around it (and with 102 metres elevation not in a dip) and therefore complies to SOTA rules and the SOTA definition of the activation zone (max 25 m vertical distance from the summit). It feels a little ackward to do a SOTA activation at such a big distance from the actual summit, but I guess that's what you get in the "Dutch Mountains". The Aardhuis is also on the same land owned by the Dutch Royal Family, but for a small fee you're allowed to freely wander around on the forested land around the lodge. The fee also includes a visit to the museum and the Aardhuis wildlife park.

The Aardhuis at 102 m elevation
Inside the Aardhuis. At the right, King William III's original guns.
Wooden "Aardman". This Aardman has been guarding the lodge since 1861!
Topographic map of the area as provided by PA3Q with the 90 m contour line in red. The Torenberg and the Aardhuis are also indicated. As can be seen, the Aardhuis lies within the 90 m contour line around the PA/PA-004 summit. (source)
Addendum 12.05.2017
Those aspiring SOTA CW activations and looking for some practice might find the CW practice audio files on the site of ON6ZQ to be very useful, I did and still do. On this particular page you will find links to CW audio files as well as other CW practice tools. There's also a CW audio file with real SOTA chaser callsigns which can be played at various speeds. Check it out!

For those wondering what Koch trainer I'm using, it's IZ2UUF Morse Koch CW for Android. It's a great app, and I can really recommend it. More information can be found here.

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