Summits on the Air on a Summer’s Day

A picnic table at the summit of Mt. Wachusett makes a nice support for a 31-foot mast that sports your antenna — as long as you secure the bottom with a few heavy rocks.

There’s nothing like a dash of Summits on the Air (SOTA) to add some zest to the end of a vacation that began with another tasty QRP outing — Lobstercon.

Summits on the Air encourages hams who are so inclined to operate from, well, summits. Folks operating from the summits (activators) and those contacting them from other summits or from the comfort of the ham-station chair (chasers) earn points toward achievement awards based on a summit’s rating on  a scale of 1-10.

Frandy Johnson, N1FJ, introduced me to the activity last summer. He’s a member of a group of hams in central and western Massachusetts who regularly “activate” summits in New England. They call themselves the SOTA Jerks.

I was interested in “activating” the state’s Mt. Greylock State Reservation for another group, Parks on the Air. Frandy offered to come along as guide and work the summit for SOTA while I operated for POTA. It was too good a deal to pass up. So we teamed up for a memorable day of operating.

Since then, I’ve chased SOTA activators. But it wasn’t until folks posted messages to the North American SOTA e-mail list of a mega-activation in Canada and of a SOTA Jerxpedition to several summits in Vermont this weekend that the time seemed right to head for a summit myself.

But nothing too hairy to start: My SOTA training wheels spun on Mt. Wachusett, a bump in central Massachusetts that that definitely occupies the low end of the difficulty scale for activators. The summit is known as W1/CR-001 in SOTA speak. You can reach it from the base via hiking trails, or by car. If by car, however, the region’s rules say you have to gather up your gear, carry it back down to a point at least 100 feet from the summit, then carry the gear back up to your operating position, which cannot be in the car’s general vicinity.

Since I had, ahem, neglected my usual constitutionals for much of this year, I opted for the auto route — a sorry reminder than I need to get back to my daily treks through the wilds of Franklin, MA.

One additional bit of encouragement came from the weather. After endless days of high heat and humidity, storms moved through last Wednesday ahead of a cold front. Today was one of the front’s beneficiaries; blue skies studded with fair-weather cumulus clouds, temperatures in the low 80s, and a gentle breeze were the order of the day.

The views were stunning. New Hampshire’s Mt. Monadnock loomed large to the north, Mt. Greylock graced the western horizon, it’s profile reminiscent of a  }  resting on its legs. And off to the east, Boston’s skyline appeared as a cluster of tiny pillars of poking above distant ridge lines.

I arrived at the summit parking lot around 9:30 a.m. and found the trail I needed to make the trip legal from a W1-SOTA point of view.  The night before, I checked a topographical map of the park and found an intersection between a trail to the summit and the one-way road that winds down to the mountain’s base. A count of the contour lines showed that the intersection was 100 feet below the summit.

With collapsed 31-foot Jackite pole in hand and my radio and other gear in a new pack, I walked down the road to the trail, then headed back up the trail, emerging a few minutes later near the summit– a bald pate of rock and dirt capped with a small pond, and four sets of antenna farms – one in the form of a slick, modern fire tower built atop an observation platform.

All along the watchtower, the tourists scanned the view…and it made for some interesting conversations when some of them stopped by to see what kind of fish the guy with the tall orange fishing pole was trying to catch.

I had planned to start operating at 1500 UTC on 40 meters, and when the time came, no nibbles. Then I switched to 20 meters and nailed WS0TA, in the guise of Fred Maas, KT5X. WS0TA is known as Club SOTA (take that, SOTA Jerks). Fred is the club’s trustee. He was perched on West Spanish Peak, one of a pair of Colorado summits known collectively as, you guessed it, the Spanish Peaks.

Me? I was sitting at 2,006 feet above sea level, give or take a few feet. Fred was up around 13,626 feet. Advantage, Fred. His signal was rolling downhill.

It was the start of an active three and a half hours, with kudos to the following stations, many of which (including Fred’s) had to dig me out of the propagational mush:

On 20 meters:


On 17 meters:

F6HKA, K7NEW, KC8QVO, IK1QPQ, DJ5AV, W1EPH, KE5AKL, WH6DE/4 (it would have been more fun if he had actually been in Hawaii!), and DL4CW again.

I had hoped for summit-to-summit contacts with the SOTA Jerks and the Canadians, but the wind wasn’t blowing in the right direction, it seemed.

Chatting with visitors to the operating table was as much fun as making the contacts. The interruptions may have frustrated some of the hams trying to contact me. In some cases I ended a QSO and heard several stations calling at once as I pulled my ear buds out of my ears to explain that I was fishing for radio signals, not trout. In other cases, people waited patiently for me to finish a QSO before striking up a conversation. Virtually everyone who came by seemed genuinely interested in the little black box that was working a fair bit of the northern hemisphere.

The most nonplussed visitor of the day was a park ranger, who passed by the table and said: “Oh, ham radio?” Yep, she’d seen this movie before.

At one point, the wind knocked the Jackite pole over, drawing a shout from the observation deck: “Hey, you lost your fishing pole!”

“Yeah,” I shouted back, “Danged whales! They just take the bait and run!”

The pole’s tumble came as I was speaking with a gentleman came over and asked good questions, then gathered his family and friends around and proceeded to regurgitate, er, recite, what I’d told him about the day’s activities. Folks generally seemed impressed that such low power levels could reach as far west as Washington and Oregon and as far east as Germany and Italy. Not to mention the looks of amazement when I mentioned that Fred was doing what I was doing, but from an altitude of 13,000-plus feet above sea level.

All in all, a great day. Thanks to the chasers for the contacts, and thanks to the SOTA Jerks and the folks who populate the NA-SOTA list for providing the inspiration.

Now, where’s my map? The Flight of the Bumble Bees is next Sunday, and I may settle on a new, higher altitude spot to operate!

3 Responses to “Summits on the Air on a Summer’s Day”

  1. A fun outing, Pete! … thanks for sharing.

  2. That is awesome! Such a great innovator! You were able to communicate with people through that fishing pole! Your perseverance and belief that you can actually get a signal is awesome. All thumbs up! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Hey Pete. Thanks for report. Condx were lousy and we did not copy your sigs. 73 and take a hike!

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