SOTA Plan B: An aborted activation followed by an amazing (although gusty) alternative!

On the morning of Thursday, September 23, 2021, I had one thing on my mind: SOTA!

It had been well over a month since my last SOTA activation and I was eager to hike to a summit and play radio.

It had been raining for a few days but overnight, a front moved into the area that swept out all of the clouds. We were finally feeling proper fall weather.

It was gorgeous outside and I made up my mind I’d fit in a summit activation.

I was visiting my parents in Hickory, NC, so I knew I’d have to drive a bit to activate a unique (to me) summit. On top of that, I knew I’d be alone and trails would be very muddy after days of rain. I decided to stick with an easy hike, so picked Flat Top Mountain (W4C/EM-026) off of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

I announced my activation via the SOTA website and drove about one hour to the trailhead of Flat Top Mountain.

Aborted!

As I drove up US321 to Blowing Rock I noticed that clouds were hangin over the mountains. In the foothills, it was blissful: clear skies, sunshine, dry air, and quite cool. As I drove up the Blue Ridge escarpment, it started getting a little gusty outside–I realized that the mountains were still on the edge of the cold front.

By the time I crested the escarpment, I could see that trees were leaning in the wind and the gusts were so strong it was pushing the car around.

I told myself, “Go ahead and drive to the trailhead. Maybe this will pass in a couple of minutes?” Ever the optimist!

At the trailhead? 45+ mph gusts were reported and before I even stepped out of the car, I knew there was no possible way I’d do an activation on Flat Top which, surely, was experiencing even higher gusts.

Part of me loved the thought of setting up and operating in windy conditions–I mean, it wasn’t raining, right? Plus, I had the whole trail to myself–not a single person was parked at the trailhead. On a normal day, it would be hard to find a spot to park.

Then again, even though the path to the summit is essentially a carriage trail, I knew I’d have to hike under swaying trees. Falling limbs were a real concern. I didn’t want to meet a “widow maker.” Not on a Thursday.

I took this photo at nearby Moses Cone Memorial Park. You can’t see the wind in the photo, but you can see a lack of people. Normally this park would be much busier.

I stepped back into  the car, loaded up the SOTA Goat app, and looked for a summit in the foothills. The “Plan B” running in the back of my head was to simply activate the Blue Ridge Parkway for POTA, but I really wanted to hike to a summit. I had a limited amount of time to play radio, so needed a summit that was 1.) near my travels and 2.) in the foothills below the layer of gusty winds.

I then noticed Hibriten Mountain in Lenoir, NC, on the summit map. It was a very minor detour (maybe 20 minutes) and only a two point summit in the foothills.

Perfect!

Well…almost perfect. There were two things I noticed that can be red flags when activating a summit here in the States:

  1. There had only been two previous activations recorded in the SOTA database
  2. There were no notes about how to find the trailhead and few details left by other activators

This lead me to believe that there was a very good possibility Hibriten Mountain may be a difficult summit to activate without more research and more time. I would have expected many more activations of an accessible two point summit, and the fact there weren’t any directions to the trailhead in the SOTA database? I suspected the trail to the summit might simply be a maintenance road for the towers I noticed on top. Many times, these road are behind locked gates and, therefore, a big no-no in SOTA. We never activate summits that are off limits to the public unless given permission by the property owner.

I’m somewhat familiar with Lenoir, NC and Hibriten Mountain is a local landmark–an outlier of the Brushy Mountains. I decided to simply drive in the direction of the mountain, then sort out a possible trailhead once in the vicinity.

A search on Google Maps lead me to a dead end on private property. I decided just to follow my instincts and skirt the mountain along neighborhood roads. Eventually I found Hibriten Mountain Road and drove up it.

At the end of Hibriten Mountain road there was a very well-maintained and neat parking area with signs for a trail–success!

Here’s the Google Map location for the trailhead and parking area.

I grabbed my SOTA backpack and started hiking up the mountain.

Hibriten Mountain (W4C/EM-093)

At first, I thought, “this is too easy.” A well-maintained trail, with ample parking at the trailhead, with easy access from Lenoir–? It all seemed way too easy for a summit that had only been activated twice.

I passed a couple who were coming back down the trail and asked if the trail actually lead to the summit and they confirmed that it did. Absolutely brilliant!

The hike was effortless–what I would call easy to moderate. The trail is a wide gravel road bed that is well-maintained and has a gentle, gradual incline. There aren’t a lot of views on the way up, but it’s a beautiful hike and feels somewhat secluded despite being very close to town.

About half way up, I could see the towers on the summit via a power line clearing.

After about three miles of hiking, I made it to the summit which is chock-full of towers and antennas.

Although I was familiar with Hibriten Mountain (having grown up in Hickory only 30 minutes away) I never realized that it has long been a recreation spot for locals.

Turns out, there used to be a pavilion on top  where gatherings and dances were held (learned about that via this website).

There is a fire tower that dates from 1927–it’s long been closed to the public as it’s in need of repair.

There’s also a large metal framework/grid where strings of lights display a star during Christmas holiday, and a cross during Easter each year.

There’s even a cave, but I didn’t bother checking out (this time!).

The biggest surprise for me?

The hang glider ramp!

The ramp looks like it’s in need of repair, but it offers up phenomenal views of Lenoir and the Blue Ridge Escarpment. In fact, I could see where I was earlier that morning near Blowing Rock–notice the clouds hanging over those summits?

The other discovery I made on the summit was how strong the wind gusts were. They weren’t as powerful as those earlier in the morning at a much higher altitude, but they were persistent.

I searched and found a good spot to operate at the base of the large metal grid.

It was fairly well protected from the wind gusts and the concrete base made for a nice bench.

Between the wind, the power lines, and the webwork of guy lines, my options were actually quite limited.

I set up the Chameleon MPAS Lite, deployed the Elecraft KX2, and used my new N0RNM knee board!

Gear:

New knee board!

A week or so prior, Carolanne (N0RNM) sent me a 3D-printed knee board like the one she mentioned in her recent guest post. It’s custom made for the KX2. I was really looking forward to using it in the field and Hibriten Mountain was the perfect location to break it in.

Set up was super easy and the included rubberized grippy gel mat held the KX2 so well, I didn’t even need a rubber band.  That is, I wouldn’t have need a rubber band had I not been recording a real-time, real-life video of the activation. 🙂

So that the camera could pick up the KX2 speaker audio, I deployed the KX2’s leg to hold the KX2’s bottom-mounted speaker off the mat. This gave the gel mat less contact with the KX2, so I used the rubber band for a little extra security. Had I been activating this summit alone and without a video, I’d lay the KX2 flat on the board and simply use earbuds for audio (which is actually my preferred way, especially on activations with wind noise).

On The Air

I found out after the activation that we were having very unstable propagation while I was on the air.  Despite this, I was very pleased with the results. The CHA MPAS Lite has never disappointed me and I can say it held up very well in the wind gusts which were testing its flexibility.

I started on 20 meters and quickly worked WB6POT, N0RZ, KE0FXN, and KF7WI. With those four contacts, I already had a valid SOTA activation.

I then moved to 30 meters for about 15 minutes and worked N1AW, K4MF, K0LAF, and AC1Z

Finally, I did move down to the 40 meter band and worked my buddy K8RAT.

I would have liked to play radio a bit longer but I had an afternoon appointment and frankly, my “Plan B” travels and hike took a bite out of my free time. I’d originally accounted for a 4 mile round trip hike on Flat Top mountain, but Hibriten Mountain was a 6 mile round trip hike. Between finding the trailhead and the extra hiking time, I’d easily lost an hour or so of my activation time.

QSO Map

Here’s what my 5 watts into the MPAS Lite vertical yielded during rough propagation–not too shabby!

Video

I filmed a real-time, real-life video of the activation (sorry about the wind noise):

Click here to view on YouTube.

A few more photos…

I took a few extra photos from the hike. Click images to enlarge…

Thank you

Radio aside, part of the fun for me with summit and park activations is discovering amazing outdoor spaces in/around where I live and travel. Hibriten Mountain was a real treat! I met a hiker on the summit who has hiked this trail weekly for many years. He shared details about the history of the mountain and  how it’s now protected as a park. When I spoke with my mother later that day, this jogged her memory and she mentioned that my grandparents had both been to Hibriten Mountain for events when they were young (circa 1930-1940s).

And Carolanne, thank you so much for sending me the knee board! This is such a welcome accessory especially for SOTA activations where I’m typically sitting on a rock, a log, or on the ground.

Although it takes time, I truly enjoy putting these field reports together and sharing them here on QRPer.com.

Thank you for coming along on the journey!

Also a special thanks to those of you who are supporting the site and channel through Patreon and the Coffee Fund. While certainly not a requirement–as my content will always be free–I really appreciate the support.

Here’s hoping you get a chance to play radio outdoors soon!

73,

Thomas (K4SWL)

5 thoughts on “SOTA Plan B: An aborted activation followed by an amazing (although gusty) alternative!”

  1. One of the things I really like about POTA/SOTA is the CW ops are really patient. I am getting back into CW and still make mistakes. Everyone is polite and helpful. I like your videos. I use them to help me develop my CW ear. Your videos are the next best thing to being on the air.

  2. Tom. Best Youtube channel bar none. You have a one of a kind approach. Makes you feel like we are right along with you.

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