A month or so ago, my friend Adam (K6ARK) asked me if I was interested in joining an expedition to the Holcomb Valley area near Big Bear to have a little Summits On The Air (SOTA) fun. I was definitely in. Adam did some planning and sent over some charted peaks that we could do and announced the expedition on a So Cal SOTA mailing list. It’s a pretty big list but people are busy and have varying interests so the only takers for the trip were Adam, myself, and W6RIP, Kevin, who lives not too far away from the planned area of operation. Adam has a friend that owns a piece of land that was next to the campground and let us setup there for base camp. It was a perfect central area, complete with some small cabins, outdoor cooking and R&R area with wood burning stove.
The plan was to drive up Friday and hike and play with radios on Friday night, Saturday and Sunday. I was pretty stoked. Unfortunately the trip was cut short by a day as Adam had an unexpected work trip. That worked out for me since I really needed to spend some time with my daughter and do some stuff and I’ll be traveling next weekend.
Leading up to the expedition I spent some time charting all the peaks in the area that I was given from Adam. In addition, I tried to lay out a path to each of the peaks in case I was going to be on my own. I'm unfamiliar with the area, so I spent some time charting a ingress point and the best course up to each peak. I know I wouldn’t be able to do all of these but we weren’t sure which ones we would prioritize. With an return on Saturday we would only be able to hit a few. The idea was that if several other operators showed up, we’d split up a bit and do different peaks and conduct some summit-to-summit comms as well. That’s always kinda fun. Unfortunately, a lot of guys that wanted to come had other things going on this weekend.
The trip was a great success in my eyes, as I was able to make contacts in New Zealand, Russia, Puerto Rico, Finland, Japan, Canada, and the mainland US and all but one of those was Friday night!!! This is the most number of countries I’ve ever had during a trip and it was all thanks to Adams suggestion that we activate a mountain at night during a world-wide ham contest. Russia is also a first for me and I had two contacts there. There was a major world-wide contest going on. That meant that all of the major stations with really big “ears” were working and we’d have a better chance at doing some DX. The airways were packed Friday night and Saturday. Let’s break the trip down summit by summit.
I took a half day vacation and came home at noon and put my stuff together (for the most part). I made a trip to REI for some dehydrated food and a couple of odds and ends but realized at the last second I didn’t have a pad for my sleeping bag. I borrowed Juan’s and was ready to roll when Adam arrived at about 1330 local. We loaded up and headed out, and after a quick stop for gas and a sandwich we were on the road. The traffic on north 15 was already starting to back up! I actually thought that an early start might help us avoid some of the clog but the freeway gods were having none of it. The one bonus however was that the late afternoon drive into the mountains revealed some beautiful fall colors.
Our plan was to try to hit a peak tonight and then 2 or three more on Saturday. I was hoping to arrive on the summit before the sun went down to make setup a tad easier. Adam knows the area pretty well and with a little help from the charts on his phone we were at the base of peak 7940 at about 0310Z (1810 local). We thought we might be able to use the access road to get closer but it was cut off so we drove around to the south west side for a fairly easy ingress.
Once on top, we separated by about 100 yds and setup. After getting on the air, I found an open frequency and “spotted” myself on 14.333 and called CQ for about 10 minutes but got nothing. I decided to dial around the band and see if I could find someone. I quickly found a station that was so loud I had to turn the gain down to understand him. The call sign was ZL2JA, a station in New Zealand! He was “contesting” so we didn’t do much other than exchange signal reports. I had forgotten this contest was going on and the band was very busy for so late at night.
My next three contacts were from Japan, and the fourth was from Russia. The next was from Kaneohe, Hawaii, then another station in Russia. It wasn’t until the eighth contact that I spoke to someone on the mainland US, W6RIP, Kevin, about 3 miles from us on the hand-held. He was letting us know that he was going to wait for us at camp and I put him in the log. I finished the night with a California contact, another from Hawaii and Canada. WOW, what a night for long distance contacts! This is the first time I’ve had so many non-US contacts in one activation and the first four that I needed to activate were all non-US. I was pretty stoked to say the least. Both Russian stations were in Asiatic Russia. One was a contest station, and the other belonged to Igor, located in Khabarovsk. I was greedy and trying to get a contact with a guy in Ireland that I could hear, but he couldn’t hear me over the other hams shouting out. Given the distance and my lack of power, he may never have picked me up.
During all of this, the moon was rising. What a sight! We packed up and started our nighttime exfil with our headlamps and Adam leading the way. The terrain was easy going, no cactus or cliffs. The total round trip hike was only a mile or two.
We loaded up and headed to base camp where Kevin was waiting for us. Adam’s girlfriend was still on the road from San Diego with the gate key so we hopped over the gate and setup our stoves, cooked dinner and told stories around the outdoor wood burning stove. Adam’s girlfriend, her friend, her friend’s daughter and another guy showed up later. They planned to do some rock climbing the next day. With no cell service, I popped a quick SMS to Jeanette via satellite using my Garmin Inreach device.
The sky was clear with no wind so none of us bothered to setup a tent. The girls shared one of the small cabins, Kevin was in his hammock, and both adam and I setup a ground mat, air mattress and a sleeping bag. I thought about setting up my tent but given I’ve never setup my backpacking tent before, I quickly cancelled that since there was no real need. I think the temperature got down in the low 30s. It was a cold on the face but I wore a beanie and base layer from Columbia that had flecks of reflective material that make it even warmer. I was very comfortable temp wise. Juan’s air pad was better than I thought it would be but given the car camping, I preferred my futon. For some reason I didn’t sleep very well until about 4AM, then I was dead to the world. A quick word on the base layer I was using. If you tend to get cold, I highly recommend it. I was very cozy in it. The only time I can use it is when it’s very cold out, otherwise I’m too hot.
I popped up at 7AM, one of the first in camp, and made some coffee. I love the Jetboil stove that I have. After seeing Jeanette’s boil a cup of water in 60 seconds I had to have one. I used it last night for dinner and it got a couple of cups of coffee water boiling in short order.
Adam and I decided that we would head up to Arctic Point (W6/CT-051) and then he would drop me off for Bertha and he would do Delamar. Since Kevin had already completed some of those, he headed over to Onyx Peak and we would contact each other for a summit-to-summit via VHF handhelds.
After some goofing around on a zip-line setup for kids on the property, we hit the road at about 1000. The road up to Arctic got pretty rough. The clearance on Adam’s Subaru is only about 7 inches and we ran into a area that would have been difficult for all but the giant rock climbing vehicles. This probably added to 1/2 to one mile onto the route. We walked up the road for 2.2 miles and then broke off and did a little light bushwhacking. The forest wasn’t too dense making it easy, and it’s always nice to be on the soft sponge of pine needles. The summit was a rock pile of course. I setup on the peak to do voice contacts, and Adam setup not too far away to do some CW. It was almost 11AM local and the “CQ World Wide DX Contest” was in full swing. The airwaves were PACKED with guys exchanging call signs.
Rather than do the usual SOTA thing and setup on an open frequency (there were none), I opted to just contact any contester that was calling CQ. I didn’t expect that it would be so hard to break through the pileups. Sure, I’m up at 8,000 feet with a 100 watt radio, on a omni-directional antenna but I was competing with guys that were pushing over 1,500 watts with specialized beam antennas. I got my contacts but I had to be patient, waiting my turn between calls and shouting out when the operator was ready for the next contact. As an example, picture the old days in a trading house on Wall Street where one trader is unloading a large block of shares at a bargain and other traders are shouting to be heard. The loudest guy in the room is going to get picked. It was pretty crazy. I was waiting for a long time and tried to contact a DX station starting with CN but never got through. I have a feeling it was a "DXpedition", which can be very popular.
I did get through to a guy in Puerto Rico and I think Finland. The reason that I say “I think Finland” is because I would put call signs in my logging software on my phone and wait my turn. If I got through I would press save and start another one. If I didn’t get through, I’d overwrite it with the next guy. Finland seems like a long way for the conditions. Hams confirm contacts by uploading them to a couple of websites. If the log entry matches another guy, then the system shows you. I’m pretty sure all of these contesters will use those systems and I upload to both as well. I’ll update this article if I get a confirmation on the Finland contact. I can always email the guy, but I’ll just let the system do it’s thing. I already have some confirmation on the Japan contact.
After getting our required contacts and then some, Adam and I packed up and headed down. It was fun exchanging info about our contacts and Adam’s CW contacts, and I was trying to think of how I could build a portable beam antenna for this sort of thing. I don’t want more power, which comes with the weight of an amplifier and more batteries, just a better antenna. Better antennas are the never ending quest of all hams.
The trip down was easy and we quickly hit the road. Not all descents are easy but this one thankfully was. After a round trip of about 5.8 miles (see the track here and notice I missed about .1 miles). Not being able to drive up closer and climbing around on the rocks at the top slowed our progress, sucking up a good part of the day. It was 1PM Adam needed to get home to San Diego, do laundry, and pack for his business trip the next morning. Rather than do another hike we decided to do a “drive up” on Keller peak on the way back. It has an excellent view from the top and we could get another peak in without burning up the rest of the day hiking.
The paved road up to Keller (W6/CT-013) was pretty. The fire lookout at the top was open and there were several people milling around. Given the location over the valley, it was bristling with antennas of all sorts. The ham community has one up there and I can get into it from my house, over 86 miles away, so the coverage is fantastic.
I decided to use a beam antenna on my handheld VHF radio rather than setting up the HF rig. It worked really well. Rather than send a tiny bit of power in all directions, it sends all the power in one direction (more or less). All of my contacts reported that I pegged their meters and was “full quieting”, meaning no hiss or static. I called Jeanette, 86 miles away, and asked her if she would turn on my radio at home and listen to see she could hear me. I broke the squelch but I wasn’t readable with just 5 watts. I’m sure if I had Adam’s little booster hooked up she would have had a good copy on me.
Adam tried his goofy custom loop antenna. After no success, he got his four required contacts on his HT using a custom antenna for it. Keller was a quick, fun excursion.
After loading up, we headed out to have something to eat in Redlands. We stopped at an awesome hamburger joint called "Eureka!" where we had some burgers, hydrated with different liquids and headed home. We got back into San Diego at about 8PM. I was kinda bushed. I didn’t sleep much the night before and definitely got enough exercise.
I’m looking forward to the next SOTA-fest with Adam. We’ll try to make it a multi day event next time but this worked out fine. I made some great DX contacts on this trip and had fun talking shop with other hams.
IAF - 34.30909, -116.89857
IAF - 34.30909, -116.89857
IAF = 34.20375, -117.08808
● Yaesu FT-891D HF Radio at 100 watts
● 30’ of coax feed line
● 3 L of water (8 lb)
● SOTA Dog
● iPhone with All Trails, MotionX GPS and sota goat
● MFJ-939Y auto antenna tuner for 891
● Trekking poles
● Extra LiFePO Battery
● AnyTone AT-868UV DMR radio for testing.
● Delorme Inreach satellite tracker and communicator.
● Camping gear but not on my back :)