I couldn’t have known when the morning started that I would be part of SOTA history by day’s end.

Okay, that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration. But I did enjoy the privilege to be a part of (and witness to) the achievement of a new SOTA personal best for Steve wG0AT and Frank K0JQZ (and me too, for that matter):

Three SOTA summits in one day. Fourteen big, juicy SOTA activator points.

I suppose a little background information is in order. Summits On The Air, or SOTA for short, is a growing activity that combines ham radio with outdoor activities. The point of SOTA is to either (a) climb up a designated SOTA summit and activate it by working at least four ham radio contacts, or (b) listen for and chase an activator by contacting him or her on that summit. Points are awarded to both activators and chasers. If you live someplace like Colorado and you like to hike as well as play ham radio, then SOTA was made for you.

Last weekend had been designated as North American SOTA weekend, and SOTA activity was at a peak (no pun intended). Frank and Steve have been prolific activators over the past year, ranking very high in the W0 region with at least seventy summits each to their credit. In contrast, I’m a SOTA neophyte with only three summits in the bag before this weekend. So I was very lucky indeed to join their SOTA-spedition. If they achieved their goal (and I with them), I would double my summit count in a single day.

We met for coffee on Saturday morning at a Starbucks conveniently on the way out of town, and not long after we were bound for the South Park area near Buena Vista. Steve volunteered to drive his pickup, and Frank took the jump seat in the rear of the cab while I sat in the front (I got my turn in the back, too, so don’t fret for Frank). Steve calls his truck “Taco,” but I think of it simply as “the goat wagon” because of its primary use as a conveyance for Rooster and Peanut, his two pack goats. Indeed, the bed of the truck (enclosed by a topper) had a nice fresh layer of pine chips as bedding for the goats, and it didn’t take long before our hiking packs were using it as bedding, too. I was thankful that it was clean.

Our first objective was to be Castle Rock, but as we reached it Steve and Frank were uncertain about how best to approach it. It appeared to be a challenging objective when viewed from the road. Not wanting to let one summit consume too much of our time and energy, we opted to begin instead with Aspen Ridge (W0/SP-084), a much less challenging objective but several miles farther into the wilderness. It took us a bit of time and bouncing around on poor jeep roads to reach it, but by 9:30 we had gotten as close as we could by driving. The remainder of the trip was about a half mile up the hill to the summit, passing through a dense stand of aspen trees.

Frank and Steve readying for the short ascent to Aspen Ridge.
Frank and Steve readying for the short ascent to Aspen Ridge.

 

Had the direction of travel not been simply "up," it might have been a challenge to navigate in the thick stand of aspens.
Had the direction of travel not been simply “up,” it might have been a challenge to navigate in the thick stand of aspens.
The sunlight was heavily filtered by the thickness of the woods.
The sunlight was heavily filtered by the thickness of the woods.

The short hike up to the summit was worth it. We were immediately rewarded by a panoramic view of the 14’ers to the west.

Isn't this a great view!
Isn’t this a great view!

But the clock was ticking, and we got our gear set up fairly quickly. Steve and Frank used an Elecraft KX3 feeding a non-resonant length of end-fed half wave and immediately began hearing some DX stations on the air (Steve worked a fellow SOTA buddy in the UK, even!).

Steve and Frank working SOTA contacts on Aspen Ridge.
Steve and Frank working SOTA contacts on Aspen Ridge.

I had brought my KD1JV ATS-II radio with a 20-meter band module and was feeding my own end-fed half wave with a matchbox for 20 meters, supported by a 21-ft tall telescoping pole.

My end-fed half wave antenna for 20 meters was supported by a telescoping carbon fiber fishing pole that I lashed to a handy tree.
My end-fed half wave antenna for 20 meters was supported by a telescoping carbon fiber fishing pole that I lashed to a handy tree.

We were close enough to civilization that our elevation gave us cell coverage, and Frank used his iPhone to spot us on the SOTA Watch web site, and soon we were awash in SOTA contacts. Frank and Steve worked several bands and modes while I focused on 20-meter CW (the only band and mode I was prepared to operate with the equipment I brought). I was amazed at (and grateful for) the pile of stations waiting to work me!

Nice ham shack, wouldn't you say? That's me on the left in the shade.
Nice ham shack, wouldn’t you say? That’s me on the left in the shade. (courtesy WG0AT)

I ended up with 18 QSOs from Aspen Ridge–a great warmup for what was to come. Here’s my log:

My log from the Aspen Ridge activation.
My log from the Aspen Ridge activation.

It didn’t take long to get back down the hill to the pickup, but we could have easily missed it among the dense aspens had it not been for a GPS waypoint. Back in the truck and with six points in the bag, we headed for our next target, summit 10123 (W0/SP-099).

The summit is labeled simply “10123,” and its name reminded me of the hills that were attacked and defended in the Korean and Vietnam wars (“Men, our objective is to drive the enemy off hill 413 and occupy it for ourselves!”). 10123 is the elevation (in feet) of its summit, but of course you already figured that out. Finding our way to a suitable launching point for our hike up 10123 was a bit of a challenge. We had located it on a map and knew which of the backcountry roads would get us in the vicinity, but much of the area nearby was private land. We finally made our way down another rough jeep road and found a good spot to park and head up the hill.

Getting ready to summit 10123.
Getting ready to summit 10123.

The hike up 10123 was through a pine forest with a good amount of deadfall, unlike the pleasant aspen grove we’d just experienced. when we reached the top, we found ourselves amid the ruins of some old mining activity, including an old log cabin and a barely-covered mine shaft.

Hiking through the pine forest with lots of dead wood laying about.
Hiking through the pine forest with lots of dead wood laying about.
Remnants of a cabin we found on 10123.
Remnants of a cabin we found on 10123.
Frank and Steve checking out the old mining site.
Frank and Steve checking out the old mining site.

We noticed an old jeep trail leaving the summit from the mining camp, and I absent-mindedly wondered out loud, “I wonder where that old road goes?” Frank was kind enough to answer me: “Down.” Thanks, Frank. :-)

Do not go down there!
Do not go down there!

We scouted the area and decided to set up in a spot with a more scenic view. This time we all had our own stations assembled–lots of poles and wires in the air! I once again jumped on 20 meters, straddling an old log while I worked my chasers. Three contacts came almost immediately. I only needed one more to earn the points for activating 10123, but that fourth chaser just wasn’t showing up! I called CQ for several minutes, and finally I got some more chaser attention. Once the action started again, it didn’t stop until I’d put 16 more chasers in the log!

Dave working the 20-meter chasers. The log wasn't the most comfy operating position I'd ever experienced.
Dave working the 20-meter chasers. The log wasn’t the most comfy operating position I’d ever experienced. (courtesy WG0AT)

Meanwhile, Frank and Steve were each working their own chasers on other bands. When my activity wound down, I packed up my gear and wandered over to watch Frank do his thing while I grabbed some lunch and a drink.

Frank with his ATS-4 station. Frank used his link dipole for multiband operation.
Frank with his ATS-4 station. Frank used his link dipole for multiband operation.
Steve messing around with his SOTA setup.
Steve messing around with his SOTA setup.

Once Frank wrapped up his ops and packed up, we hoofed it back to the truck and bounced back up the jeep roads toward our next objective. We were up 10 points with 4 yet to go.

My SOTA activation log for 10123.
My SOTA activation log for 10123.

Our third and final summit for the day was Bald Mountain (W0/SP-115). It would take us about an hour and a half to get from 10123 to Bald Mountain over yet more bumpy jeep roads. A 4WD truck can be driven all the way to the summit of Bald Mountain, but it’s not an easy drive. Steve did an admirable job getting us near the top in the Goat Wagon, and we hiked the last few hundred vertical feet after he found a convenient spot to turn the truck around and park.

The jeep road to the top of Bald Mountain. No room for passing...
The jeep road to the top of Bald Mountain. No room for passing…
Our parking spot on Bald Mountain. Just a few hundred vertical feet to the top.
Our parking spot on Bald Mountain. Just a few hundred vertical feet to the top.
The road we came up in the truck. In the distance is the summit.
The road we came up in the truck. In the distance is the summit.

 

The road we hiked to reach the summit.
The road we hiked to reach the summit.

A little rain squall arrived at the summit of Bald Mountain about the same time that we did. Thankfully, it was neither severe nor long-lived, and our rain jackets were enough to keep us dry. Once it passed, we began setting up once again. This time I lashed my carbon fiber antenna pole to a small tree to support my EFHW. Steve beat me on the air on 20 meters, so I wandered over to where he set up and watched while he worked his 20 meter contacts. Once he had wrapped up, I jumped on. It only took a moment to generate some activity, and the chasers just kept coming for the next 25 minutes. By the time I was finished, I had 24 in the log in that 25 minutes. Once again I was grateful for everyone who hung around to work me, and hopefully I handed out few chaser points in the process.

Once the rain squall passed, I was able to lash my antenna pole to a small tree and get on the air.
Once the rain squall passed, I was able to lash my antenna pole to a small tree and get on the air. (courtesy WG0AT)
My SOTA station setup. (courtesy WG0AT)
My SOTA station setup. (courtesy WG0AT)

By the time I finished working the chasers, Steve and Frank were already packed and ready to head back down to the truck. Thankfully, my station only took a few minutes to pack, and I was ready to go as well.

My SOTA activation log for Bald Mountain.
My SOTA activation log for Bald Mountain.

We bounced our way back down the road and finally found our way off the back roads and back onto the highway, all 14 points accounted for. Happy, tired, and hungry, we all agreed that dinner and refreshments were in order, so we headed into town and stopped at the Coyote Cantina. I’m sure the staff was more than happy that we chose a table on the patio.

Celebrating a great day of SOTA-ing at the Coyote Cantina.
Celebrating a great day of SOTA-ing at the Coyote Cantina. (courtesy WG0AT)

What a great SOTA day! 14 new activator points, 61 new QSO’s in the log (including 5 summit-to-summit contacts), and a great day spent in the wonderful Colorado outdoors! And Frank and Steve are great guys to hang around with, to boot. I was also pleased at how well my SOTA station worked. The ATS-II worked wonderfully all afternoon, and the EFHW antenna seemed to work great, as well. The carbon fiber antenna pole was easy to deploy and pack up–a great addition to the setup. I’m already looking forward to the next chance to activate another SOTA summit! Thanks again to Frank and Steve for letting me tag along (and apologies if I hogged 20 meters–I’ll bring along another band next time). Thanks also to everyone who chased me around the summits–it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun without the pileups! I was very pleased to be able to hand out as many chaser points as I could, and if I somehow missed you, I hope I can put you in the log next time!

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