My First SOTA Activations!

Posted on September 5, 2013 
Filed Under Ham Radio

SOTA LogoRecently, I have been taking an interest in SOTA (Summits On The Air) and this week, being a holiday week, I had the chance to go on my first expedition. For those that don’t know, SOTA is “Summits On The Air”; Take your gear, climb a mountain or hill and make at least 4 contacts in order for it to be a successful activation. What I thought was great about SOTA is that it would give me a reason to actually go somewhere and do something. It seems like more and more over the past few months, I have become a homebody and when I’m not on the road working, I tend to never leave the house. No, literally… I have had complete weeks that I didn’t venture out to do anything more than check the mail. It was time to take my amateur radio hobby up a few notches… or feet.

Day 1: Black Balsam Knob (W4C/CM-005) – 6214 ft.

We couldn’t have asked for a better day for an activation. The skies were crystal clear and the temperature in the mountains was in the upper 60’s. We proceeded down the Blue Ridge Parkway towards Black Balsam Knob, stopping for the occasional pictures at the overlooks. When we arrived at the base of the trail, we spent a few minutes packing the gear and supplies and scrounging for wild blackberries that were growing on the side of the road. We proceeded to the trailhead for the hike, which was just under a mile and would have us gain approximately 300 feet in elevation. To my surprise, I was actually enjoying myself, until…

Stupid beginner mistake #1: Check your gear… double check your gear. Then after you think you have it all, figure out what you left out! Chances are, something got forgotten.

About a third of the way to the peak, I realized that I brought the HF radio and all of the miscellaneous stuff that goes along with it, except for the cable to attach the antenna to the radio! How could I possibly forget the cable? Seriously? Well, after coming that far, I wasn’t about to turn around to go get it, so I began making other arrangements in my head. I had my handheld radio with me, so all was not lost. I would just try to make my necessary contacts with 2-meter simplex communications instead of HF. After about a 20 minute hike, we reached the summit.

Black Balsam Pano

Black Balsam

Wow! The view was unbelievable. Before I even considered getting on the radio, I needed to take a few minutes to catch my breath and get my heart rate back to a normal pace, so I took a few pictures of the view from the summit to help remind me of why I was doing this.

Ok… back to the task at hand. I pulled out my handheld radio and easily made my four required contacts to activate the summit. It was interesting to me just how many people actually monitored the simplex frequencies up in the mountains and it took only a few minutes to make contact with some chasers that were lurking and waiting for some summit activities. Thanks to them, my first ascent to a summit for a SOTA activation was a successful one! My first 10 pointer!

After a few more moments of packing up and admiring the scenery, we proceeded back down the mountain to continue our journey on to the next summit… or so we thought.

ALMOST Day 1: Mount Pisgah (W4C/CM-011) – 6721 ft.

As we arrived at the trailhead for Mt. Pisgah, I came to a realization; it just wasn’t going to happen on this day! At the beginning of the trailhead, there was a welcome message waiting for me. See for yourself:


The sign really doesn’t do it any justice. That was one BIG hill. In fact, this hill was so big, it was the host of one of Asheville’s television station towers. It was already getting a little late in the afternoon and the last thing that I wanted was to start a hike up this beast and lose daylight and have to come back down in the dark. I figured that I would put this one back into the books and do it another time. Preferably, a day that could be dedicated to the task!

It was off to Asheville for dinner, a nice long shower and rest for the night.

Day 2: Mount Mitchell (W4C/CM-001) – 6684 ft.

Mount Mitchell is the highest point east of the Rocky Mountains and Mississippi River and is only a 35 mile drive northeast of Asheville on the Blue Ridge Parkway. There is really no describing just how beautiful of a drive the parkway is. It is understandable why is has been named as an “All-American Road”. Just amazing.

We arrived at the turnoff for the Mt. Mitchell State Park and headed up the five mile drive to the summit parking area. The hike up to the summit was a little bit of a surprise. It was a only a quarter-mile paved walkway up to the top, but it was steep. Really steep. Steep enough that there were benches every couple hundred feet for people to rest.

Because of the holiday, the summit at Mount Mitchell was busy. There were quite a few people around, so the thought of taking out a bunch of radio equipment and stringing up wire antennas seemed to be a little hazardous to me. That’s all I needed was for child on vacation with his family to get a nasty radiation burn or trip and fall from the top of a mountain. Remember, its not the fall, but the sudden stop at the end that gets you every time!

Mt Mitchell Sign

Once again, I decided to just use the handheld radio to activate the summit. This time was even easier than the day before! Maybe it was the elevation, but when I made my first CQ call on the radio, it started a small pileup. Within a minute, I had stations calling from up to 70 miles away to make the contact with the summit. It was pretty amazing considering that I hadn’t posted an alert of any kind. Just like the day before, there were chasers that just happened to be on frequency when I needed them the most! Chalk up another 10 points and lead me to some food… I was starving!

Luckily, the Mt. Mitchell State Park also had a restaurant. Not only was the food good, but the view from it’s panoramic windows and outside deck was absolutely amazing. We spent a little time just relaxing and enjoying the moment before we continued on our journey.

Day 2: Green Knob (W4C/CM-020) – 5080 ft.

This summit was the one where I had a moment of clarity; not every activation will be a successful one! The ascent to the abandoned fire tower at the top of the summit was a half mile hike that would gain another 340 feet in altitude. Unlike the hike the previous day, this one was deep in the forest, was very narrow and steep, and was obviously not very well traveled. It took a lot of determination to continue on at times. As soon as you thought you were almost there, the trail would switchback and it just seemed to go on and on.

Finally… finally, we make it to the top. Unfortunately, the fire tower was now locked up and not accessible, so any contacts either had to be made from the ground with towering trees blocking the views and radio signals, or from the narrow shaky steps leading up to the tower. Did I mention that the tower was originally constructed in 1931?

Green Knob Tower

The airwaves were dead. I called CQ for at least 30 minutes and was only able to pull a single station out of the static. The bands were just not willing to cooperate on this one. It was a little disappointing, especially after all of the effort to get up there, but you can’t win every time. I’ll go back and get this one again on another day.

The Drive Home

It was time to head home with a feeling of accomplishment. I set the destination on the GPS for home and proceeded to follow the directions that were given to me. I guess when they programmed the GPS, they forgot to tell it just how big a Ford F-350 super crew with an 8-foot bed is. Some of the roads that I was led down were tight… really tight. It’s a good thing that there wasn’t much oncoming traffic on some of those turns, because I needed both lanes just to get around the bend!

Anyways, my first SOTA expedition was successful and I was able to activate two 10-point summits on my first outing. I’m already looking forward to my next trip to the mountains!


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