QRP “Over the Top” for the Colorado 14er Event
After reading the August 2005 QST article by Chris Ormsby, K0CAO, and Bob Witte, K0NR, I thought what fun a HF low power (QRP) operation from a Colorado 14er (A mountain over 14,000 feet high.) would be. The “carrot” would be that an out-of-state 14er to 14er HF contact had yet to be made.1 After the N7UN and WG0AT fun-packed hike through the Canyonlands National Park in April 2008, Steve and I made plans to participate in the 2008 Colorado 14er operating event.2 It was after we heard that Brian Boschma, N6IZ, was planning to HF QRP activate Mt Whitney (14,491 feet) the same weekend as the Colorado 14er event that our mutual plans solidified. We would take a crack at making the first out-of-state summit HF QRP contact between a Colorado 14er and Mt Whitney in California.
Beginning in the early ’90s, the Colorado 14er has been a unique operating event each August. Attracting altitude-capable, outdoor-oriented hams with the desire to operate portable from the top of one of 54 Colorado mountains over 14,000 feet, it is primarily a VHF event due to the practicality of lightweight 2 meter and 70 cm FM handheld transceivers. Although several of the summits are vehicle accessible, notably Pikes Peak and Mt Evans, most hams climb to the top and operate for several hours or until the frequent afternoon thunderstorms force a run for safety to lower, less exposed elevations. Even nearby states get in on the fun, notably several western Kansas clubs that activate the “rarified air” of Mt Sunflower (4039 feet), the highest peak in Kansas.3
Steve, WG0AT, has a considerable ham radio following because of the use of his pack goats, Rooster and Peanut, to carry backcountry camping gear for those multiday hiking trips through Colorado’s backcountry.4 The obvious goal would be to establish a base camp, use the goats to carry the heavier HF gear, leave early for the summit climb to maximize HF and VHF operating time on top and descend before the expected afternoon thunderstorms. We also established an every 15 minute calling schedule with Brian, N6IZ, on both 40 and 20 meter CW for our attempt at the record.
Uncompaghre Mountain at 14,309 feet and located just northeast of Telluride was a perfect choice.5 We had requested N0B (pun intended) as our special event 1×1 call several months in advance. The summit climb, at just under 8 miles roundtrip from the base camp area, was remote enough to not have hundreds of hikers distracting us from our mission of making contact with as many HF and VHF folks as we could. Even then for the 30 or so hikers we encountered at the summit during our 3 hour stay, we put on our “ham radio ambassador hats” to explain what we were doing and why. It also amazes me how curious folks are about ham radio — or was it Steve’s pack goats?
How to Prepare for a Summit Climb
Preparation and physical conditioning are the first and most important considerations before attempting your climb of anything, whether it is your local hilltop, fire tower or scenic overlook. If you are planning a trip over 5000 feet in elevation, acclimation becomes another important criterion, especially if you are traveling from sea level. It takes several days for your body to adapt (at a minimum) so certainly plan your trip accordingly before undertaking your summit climb. Staying hydrated becomes more critical at altitude since it is very dry — drink often to minimize dehydration and altitude sickness.
Obviously, forecasted weather conditions can make or break your day. Summer rain with 40 degrees F temperatures and any kind of wind can produce life threatening windchills. During our Uncompaghre climb, at one point we were in the clouds, temperatures were in the low 40s and we had a steady wind of 25 mi/h for windchills as low as 25 degrees F. You must be prepared for hazardous weather by having clothing, hats, gloves and emergency thermo blankets along. Fortunately for us, the cloud blew through and the sun warmed us with temperatures in the 50s. Tall mountains in comparison to surrounding terrain create their own weather and dangerous weather conditions can occur in minutes.
You also want to minimize how much you are carrying in your summit pack as every pound at 10,000 feet requires much more physical effort than at lower elevations. So seriously examine everything you’re packing and don’t carry any more than what you need and your emergency 10 essentials.6 Most importantly, if you have no experience at mountain climbing, team up with folks who are experienced in these high-altitude environments. Altitude sickness is a very real medical malady — almost everyone experiences it to some degree. Experienced climbers learn to recognize its symptoms and take immediate remedial actions to get to lower elevations.
Our Adventure Begins
We left camp around 4 AM, the goats packed up with water, my Elecraft K2 and Steve’s Yaesu FT-817 for VHF and HF. It was a moonless night and the Milky Way painted a brilliant swath across the black sky. We hiked by Petzl lamp and the tinkling bells of the goats. After a wrong turn in the dark and losing 90 minutes of climb time, sunrise came early and the alpenglow of Mt Uncompaghre pulled us up the mountaintop trail. What exquisite vistas as we climbed higher up the mountain, which was now socked in as Uncompaghre was making its own weather.
We climbed up the only difficult section, a Class 2+ rock scramble, and were very nearly on top as 20 to 30 mi/h winds and temperatures in the low 40s greeted us. Fortunately we located a couple of wind-sheltered rock walls to set up our antennas. Steve was quickly on VHF making rapid paced contacts with other VHF mountain toppers. I got my multiband dipole installed on my Jackite fiberglass pole in spite of the gusty winds and soon was on 40 meter CW calling Brian on our prearranged frequency and schedule. No luck so I changed over to 20 meter CW and was calling CQ on 14.060 MHz.
After several contacts and difficulty explaining our location (QTH) (How do you sound believable: “QTH CO, CO SUMMIT OF 14ER MTN”), I hear N..6..I..Z weakly under several stronger stations. I yelped “that’s Brian” with a fist pump into the rarified air. I called N6IZ and with a quick exchange to solidify the contact and a few “FB” congrats to each other, we were off to other callers. Steve took over the CW key on the K2 and then made a number of additional contacts.
We switched over to 20 meter SSB and also made a number of contacts throughout the US. But we were watching the weather closely as some dark based clouds were forming upwind from the mountain top. Around noon, we decided to start our decent just as a threatening dark cloud was forming. The descent was easy since gravity was working with us. We made it back to base camp, wearing the excited glow of accomplishment and a job well done. We exceeded our goals of not only climbing a 14er, participating in the Colorado 14er event as primarily a QRP HF station, but to also make contact with N6IZ and become the first for an out-of-state, summit 14er-to-14er contact.
Mt Whitney Field Report from Brian Boschma, N6IZ
It is 4 AM and 3 hours have been spent climbing to 11,000 feet from the 8000 foot trailhead. Next to a cascade of white water, that can only be heard, a short rest is in order. My 3 days of supplies are hoisted onto a rock as a cool breeze chills my bones. Nothing is visible. The granite walls are black shapes outlined by the disappearance of a stunning night sky. Wet from the hours of ascent, the skin is quickly chilled and nearly uncontrolled shivering takes over. A fleece top slides over my head and my climb begins again facing one more hour of switch backs. The White Mountains to the east begin to show contour as the sun casts a red tinge that also reflects a dark orange glow onto the vertical pinnacles forming the cathedral of rock whose north end is home of Mt Whitney.
The trail camp has been reached and the cold has only deepened. To recover body heat, I decide to dive into my sleeping bag. Quickly a campsite is selected, the bag separated from the full pack and this operator slides inside to warm up.
After a short nap a group of day packers awakes this trekker as they head toward the summit in the now sunrise ignited cliffs. Most have turned off the headlamps that were visible in the canyon below in the earlier hours. My sleeping bag is abandoned, the day pack containing antenna and KX1 are separated from the other gear and the second phase of the assault on Mt Whitney begins. At this famous point in the trek I’m faced with about 100 switch backs that turn a near vertical moraine of shattered slabs into a reasonably sloped trail. I wonder what brought John Muir this way or how he climbed such terrain.
The temperature is now 25 degrees in this first light and the dome tents of campers are coated with a thin frost haze. I forge ahead into the climb to try and summit in time to open the N0B 14er operation with Steve and Guy who are climbing Uncompaghre in Colorado. At this altitude the trip is felt deeply in the lungs and to overcome the thinning atmosphere I apply pressure breathing to help. In just over an hour the saddle at Trail Crest is reached.
The western Sierras now appear and the deep shadows of the morning light cast stark outlines of the peaks across the valley floors below. To the north the John Muir Trail slopes down to Guitar Lake and leads eventually to Yosemite Valley. The eastern ridge forms the support for the ribbon that meanders up another 1000 feet to Whitney’s summit. This portion of the climb is in deep shadow and the cloudless morning sky, so clear after weeks of smoke that had filled the Sierras, paints a deep blue back drop to the treeless ice-polished igneous domes and spires that poke 4000 feet above the tree line. What a stunning playground upon which a HF operator can cast a signal. The last 1000 feet of the path, while requiring modulation of pace to keep the dizziness at bay, is uneventful.
The operating locations at the summit are somewhat limited. There are visitors arriving in groups of two to five with clusters of hikers floating around the summit markers. In order to operate a 32 foot vertical antenna, 10 feet of altitude above the operating position is needed. A pile of rock will serve as a mount for the 20 foot fishing pole. A bit off to the north and a few 10s of feet below the peak the KX1 is placed into service. Three radials are laid on the granite boulders and antenna wire slopes off to the north. It is not long before I hear signals.
Conditions are long as Russia and Japan are loud and clear. JA1NUT, always a mainstay of 40 meter morning CW is there with his killer signal. A few calls are made but he does not hear this small QRP station. A few Midwest stations are worked but Colorado, the target of all this effort, is not to be heard in this first hour. K0UIF is my first contact in Colorado. He asks about N0B as neither of us has heard the Colorado 14er event station.
Over the next couple of hours stations from California, Missouri, Kansas and Arizona are worked. Some are aware of the Colorado 14er event, some not. 20 meters is now tried and sure enough I bump into N0B calling CQ but initially heavy fading (QSB) takes away the path. A few minutes later we are in contact. Guy was at the key and we exchanged information. A record has been set. The weather on Mt Uncompaghre sounds more pressing than the calm conditions experienced here on Whitney. Somewhat later Steve is heard on the 20 meter SSB HFpack frequency and we do a quick SSB to CW QSO to close out the operation. N0B is packing it in as am I.
The descent to trail camp, or base camp, is uneventful. Many hikers are passed as they ascend to the summit. A team of Aussies are encountered at the junction of the John Muir Trail and the Whitney Peak Trail. They have just spent 16 days trekking from Yosemite to Whitney in the Muir Wilderness. They all have great memories of the vistas, lakes and wildlife encountered. All have nothing but positive comments about the care invested in the national forests to preserve the natural setting.
After an evening spent at the 12,000 foot trail camp with friends who hiked up in daylight, all the gear is mounted on the pack frame and Whitney Portal is the final destination. The trail down, even though it had been traveled once already, was eye opening as it now is in daylight. It was enjoyable to watch the plant life return to the harsh granite finish of these hills as the tree line was reached. Now streams draining the basin were lined with a variety of pines, ferns and mosses.
With one more night ahead, this last hike was terminated in a camp very near the access road. Night fell once again on the cloudless sky and the usual star fields emerged. Sleep came quickly, but was punctuated abruptly a bit after midnight when a stunning scraping sound filled the tent. A glance through the tent door brought a rush of adrenalin as a bear was spied 8 feet away browsing through the pack containing radio gear. Politely a request was made of this predator to move on, but to no avail. The KX1 was beginning to look like it may become a snack. A head lamp was flashed at the intruder and he opted to head off in silence. It was amazing that a 300 pound animal could saunter off in the dark and not make a sound.
Overall I had a great time in the Sierras combining mountain topping, vistas spanning several western ranges and radio operations with the N0B team. The time with old and new hiking companions made the investment in time and effort well worth it.
So What’s Next?
This is a fun event. Many of the Colorado 14er mountains are relatively accessible and don’t require a great deal of technical skill to summit. Obviously some acclimatization is necessary, but most folks in good physical condition can participate in this unique operating event. Even several of the drive-up mountain teams were looking for HF operators to help out. So plan your August 2009 portable event on the top of one of the Colorado 14ers for a truly great and certainly memorable experience. Now if we can talk Brian, N6IZ, into a climb of Mt Shasta, California or a ham in Washington to activate Mt Rainier, we could make this into a truly breathtaking event (pun intended).
On Sunday, August 9th, 2009, the Old Goats DXpedition team (including Rooster and Peanut) is off to participate in the Colo 14er special event ham radio activation of Humboldt Peak (14,064 feet) using our 2008 call sign of N0B.7 After setting a first for a low power HF out-of-state, 14er-to-14er contact in 2008 (Mt Whitney, California to Mt Uncompaghre, Colorado), this time we hope to make a three way contact between the summits of Mt Shasta, Mt Langley (both in Californa) and Humboldt Peak in Colorado. The Colorado team of Steve, WG0AT, and Guy, N7UN, will hike to an 11,000 foot base camp on Friday and set up antennas for Friday and Saturday radio fun. Then at 4 AM MDT on Sunday we will start the summit climb of Humboldt with the goal of an 8 AM MDT summit activation using the special event call sign N0B. At the same time, Brian, N6IZ, will climb Mt Shasta (14,162 feet) and Mark, AF6AX, will climb Mt Langley (14,062 feet). Guy, N7UN, will be carrying a portable APRS unit and will use N7UN-9 for the SSID for near realtime route tracking. Anybody that might be interested in participating, even if it's base camp activities in support of the climbing teams, please contact Guy, N7UN. See our blog for the latest information and a spectacular picture of Humboldt Peak.8 Look forward to working you from the summit!
All photos by Guy Hamblen, N7UN, except as noted.
Guy Hamblen, N7UN, an ARRL member, has been a ham since 1963 where the deep hum of big power supplies and the dazzling meter lights of his first Elmer in Idaho captured his imagination as a teenager. Hiking, mountain climbing and the outdoors has always been a part of his life. Guy was first licensed as K7YYK, then AA7QZ, then finally N7UN. After relocating to New Jersey with his job at the UPS Information Technology center, he began hiking in the Catskills and Adirondacks of the Northeast, always taking his trusty Elecraft K1 transceiver to have some QRP fun in the field. It’s always fun when you get to answer the inevitable question: “You’re doing what?” That in itself is the reward for QRP in the field. He can be reached at 16 Dongan Ln, Newfoundland, NJ 07435-1630.
Steve Galchutt, WG0AT, an ARRL member, adventure into ham radio all started back in the early ’50s with a one transistor crystal set he got for my ninth birthday. Steve roamed the neighborhood clipping on to fences, down spouts and anything metal to see what he could pull in on that tiny earphone. He was enamored with radio waves. QRP has been his main focus over the years, along with building his own gear and operating outdoors. He has built numerous QRP rigs from scratch and kits including several Elecrafts (K2, K1 and KX1), KD1JV’s little ATS series of SMD designs for backpack/trail use.
The “magic” that happens when, out on the trail, miles from nowhere, you are able to make contact using just a simple wire in a tree and a tiny CW rig you’ve built yourself. That is the excitement for me. It’s that same thrill you got from having your very “first QSO” all over again. Several years ago he got interested in pack goats and now Rooster and Peanut share his load when they go backpacking or for a QRP/goat hike; see QST for pictures.9 He can be reached at 3360 Schilling Ave, Monument, CO 80132-7113.
1C. Ormsby, K0CAO , “Going Up! The Colorado 14er Event,” QST, Oct 2005, pp 49-50.
2See www.arrl.org/news/features/2008/07/29/10230 for the Canyonlands QRP article.
3See www.highpointing.com/Kansas/Mount_Sunflower_home_page.htm for great pictures of Mt Sunflower.
4See N0b-14er.blogspot.com for links to numerous videos capturing the ham radio escapades of Rooster and Peanut with the alpha goat, Steve, of course.
5See pictures of Mt Uncompahgre at www.14ers.com/photos/peakmain.php?peak=Uncompahgre%20Peak.
6See www.rei.com/expertadvice/articles/ten+essentials.html for a good list.
8See note 4.
9S. Galchutt, WG0AT, “Up Front,” QST, Jun 2007, p 20.
Guy Hamblen, N7UN and Steve Galchutt, WG0AT