SOTA Report: New QCX-Mini, new Packtenna EFHW, and pileup insanity on Mount Mitchell

Do you know what it’s like when you have a new radio and you can’t wait to take it to the field?

Yeah, me too!

Even before I received my QCX-Mini in October 2021, I already knew where I’d take this pocket-sized, single-band QRP CW transceiver for its first field activation: Mount Mitchell (W4C/CM-001).

Mitchell is the highest summit east of the Mississippi river and only about 6 miles from my QTH as the crow flies.  I had yet to activate Mitchell this year for SOTA although I have activated it for POTA/WWFF several times. As I’ve probably mentioned in the past, Mount Mitchell park is my “happy place.” Our family loves this site and we visit it frequently to hike in the spruce-fir forest.

On the morning of Wednesday, November 3, 2021, I realized I had enough room in my schedule to swing by Mount Mitchell for an activation, so I quickly assembled my SOTA pack around the QCX-Mini.

There was one piece of equipment in my kit that I didn’t completely trust: my small battery-powered, amplified external speaker.

When I finally located the speaker that morning (it was hiding in my KX1 pack), I gave it a quick charge and hoped it would get the job done.  Most people using the QCX-Mini probably use earphones which is unquestionably better than an external speaker. In my case, I planned to do a real-time activation video, so using a speaker just made it easier to do a one-camera, one-take shoot.

For the first time that I can remember, I actually announced this activation here on QRPer morning of.

The drive

Although Mitchell is close to the QTH as the crow flies, it takes nearly an hour to drive there via the Blue Ridge Parkway.

In fact, this is one of the reasons I knew I needed to fit in a Mitchell activation soon. The BRP has no equipment for removing snow/ice from the road, so this time of year, portions of the parkway close with little warning if there’s even  a threat of winter weather.

Mount Mitchell State Park–while theoretically open all year–is often inaccessible in the winter. Their weather, being the highest point in eastern North America, is fickle and even extreme at times.

I always check the BRP and Mitchell Park websites for closures before hitting the road.

In fact, that Wednesday our first little winter weather front was moving into the area. Although I knew there would be no snow or ice on the parkway yet, I knew rangers might close off the section between Asheville and Mt. Mitchell in anticipation of accumulation later in the day.

After passing the last set of open BRP gates en route to Mount Mitchell, I was able to breathe a small sigh of relief! I knew I should at least be able to drive to the park.

And the drive was absolutely beautiful.

That is, until I reached the cloud ceiling at a low 3,000′ ASL.

I took the photo above before the fog got thick. Most of my drive to Mount Mitchell was in some of the thickest fog I ever encountered on the road.

Thankfully, the Blue Ridge Parkway was almost void of vehicles. At the end of the day, most sane people drive the BRP to take in the views and there were none to be had that morning.

There were times when visibility on the curvy road was so poor, I had to drive at 15-20 mph. It was tedious and even fatiguing.

I had hoped that the summit of Mitchell might be above the layer of clouds. Turns out, it was not, but the fog was a little less dense and I could care less because I was incredibly pleased to find their front gates open!

Mount Mitchell (W4C/CM-001)

I reached the main parking area to find only two other vehicles–a true rarity at Mitchell. Indeed, I believe those vehicles actually belonged to some of the crew working on the new visitor’s center.

Again, I’ve activated Mitchell numerous times in the past–in fact, I believe I may be the Park Leader for number of activations in the POTA program.  I normally set up my radio gear in/around the main picnic area near the summit for a park activation, but for SOTA, of course, I needed to be within the summit activation zone (AZ) which is actually quite large.

If you read notes from previous Mitchell activators (and there are many) you’ll see that park rangers discourage radio operators from setting up around the observation tower on the summit.  The reason for this, I’m sure, is because it can get very busy up there on a normal day and even feel quite crowded at times.  If you choose to activate Mitchell, I would also discourage you from setting up around the observation area unless you’re doing an activation with your handheld VHF/UHF. We like to keep the rangers happy.

Of course, I was one of the only people at the park, but I knew exactly where I could set up right off the top of the summit trail and very well within the AZ.

This was a “welcome back to winter conditions” SOTA activation.

The temperature on the summit was a respectable 33F (0.5C) when I arrived but was falling fairly quickly. It was gorgeous up there as the summit was covered in hoarfrost.

I actually prefer winter activations over hot/humid summer ones, but this being my first chilly activation after an incredibly toasty summer, I knew my hand would send sloppy CW and it did indeed!

For this activation, I was super excited to finally use my PackTenna 20M EFHW. Earlier this year, I ordered the PackTenna 9:1 UNUN random wire antenna and when the package arrived, I discovered that George (KJ6VU), included an EFHW as well at no charge. He included a note saying that it was a little gift because he’d been enjoying my activation videos and field reports (especially the Discovery TX-500 ones).  George is a great guy; not only is he the owner of PackTenna but he’s also one of the hosts of the amazing Ham Radio Workbench podcast.

Thanks again, George!

I knew the 20M QCX-Mini and 20M PackTenna EFHF would make for an effective and super compact SOTA combo!

Gear:

On the air

Without a doubt, this is the busiest I’ve ever been during a SOTA activation.

I called CQ SOTA only a couple of times and was then slammed with a steady–and rather unruly–pileup with big signals from Europe.

The QCX-Mini and PackTenna performed amazingly well, but as I feared the little amplified speaker connected to the QCX-Mini struggled with the variation in signals and tones.

I was too busy working stations to even think about taking a photo of the rig. This image is a screen grab from my video.

The little speaker, combined with so many contacts zero-beating me, turned into a 5-7 second long  steady tone in the pile-up.  I seriously contemplated running split to spread everyone apart, but I’ve never seen that done with POTA or SOTA and had no idea how I could even announce that, so didn’t attempt it.

Seasoned SOTA CW activators would’ve certainly found the pile-up much more manageable.

The wee speaker sort of fell apart on me at one point. I suspect its internal battery was also dipping because audio quality degraded rapidly.

So that I could continue my activation video, I switched out the QCX-Mini with my Elecraft KX2 which has an internal speaker.

I’ll allow the video below to show you how the activation played out, but in a nutshell I logged 45 stations with 4 or 5 watts of output power and here’s how it looked on a QSO Map:

Click to enlarge.

The QSO map is actually missing a number of stations on the west coast, for some reason.

By the way: if you chased me and I wasn’t able to copy you, my apologies. It was tough to hear signals via that little speaker–everything simply blended together.

Activation Video

Here’s my real-time, real-life video of the entire activation. If you’ve watched my videos before, you’ll know that I don’t edit out a single contact. Even though I know this doesn’t appeal to people with short attention spans–hence, the majority of folks on YouTube–I want to give my subscribers an opportunity to truly experience field activations by virtually sitting next to me for the whole thing. If I had any self-respect, I probably would edit this one because it was a proper struggle and tested my skills! 🙂

Click here to view on YouTube.

Whew!

After going QRT with 44 stations bagged, I turned on my Yaesu FT-60R HT while packing up. The SOTA simplex frequency was locked in.

Two seconds after turning on the HT, I heard KN4LRO on Round Mountain (W4T/SU-029) calling CQ SOTA and worked him S2S. I almost dropped the HT! My first VHF S2S! Thank you KN4LRO!

Amazing fun!

From the Mt Mitchell park website later that day.

As I left the park, I found it odd that I was the only visitor there.

As I approached the front gates (again, in heavy fog) I saw why: the rangers had closed the park and were only allowing people to leave, not enter.

As I left the park, the rangers waived to me, then closed the gates behind me. I was the last visitor in the park for a couple of days.

I felt pretty darn lucky to have snagged Mount Mitchell that morning.

Better speaker

I’m going to donate the little speaker I used in this activation to a charity shop. I’ve already purchased a better amplified speaker that should serve me well. Thank you for the many suggestions of speaker options!

In the end, I purchased a small Insignia Bluetooth/AUX-in speaker from BestBuy. It’s rugged, water resistant and has much better audio fidelity. It’s also on sale for $8.99 US in a  Black Friday promotion. With a promo credit, I was able to purchase it for less than $5.00.

Thank you

I hope you enjoyed coming along with me to Mount Mitchell.

This activation reminded me that we never really know what to expect when we hop on the air in the field. It being a Wednesday morning in early November, I would have never guessed I would be hit with such a pileup on 20 meters. What a crazy trial-by-fire for the QCX-Mini! (And for the activator, for that matter!).

It was amazing fun and really pushed the limits of my CW skills, pileup management, and field adaptability. It was a shame the little speaker failed me, but I’m pleased I packed the KX2 as a backup radio. Without it, I would have been forced to stop the video and use earphones.

After this activation, I felt like I’d just finished a sprint. It was exhilarating!

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. As I mentioned int he last report, I’m currently plotting a few upgrades to my field video equipment that should improve both the video and audio quality. Your generosity helps make that a reality.

Thank you!

73,

Thomas (K4SWL)

18 thoughts on “SOTA Report: New QCX-Mini, new Packtenna EFHW, and pileup insanity on Mount Mitchell”

  1. Great article, thanks.

    Good small set of head phones instead of speaker might be considered. I do like being able to use spkr for others around to hear what is going on, but often like in the article no one else to work with so head phones can offer good rcv audio.

    1. I much prefer headphones, but until I sort out an *easy* way of recording the radio audio and voice with the video, I’ll be using an external speaker.

  2. JBL GO2 – Waterproof Ultra Portable Bluetooth Speaker
    I have a couple of these in backpacks. The thing I like about them is they have a 3.5mm plug so you can connect to the transceiver. And the charge last quite a while.

    Now on to the the vid.

  3. I saw in your gear listing about the weight and line for getting EFHW over the tree. I am going for that one on Amazon.

    I have not tried a EFHW antenna, but see many having good success with it. I’d like to compare performance to my 40m 65 ft OCFD and also the EleCraft AX1. AX1 is new to me, just got it, will be first vertical I have used.

    1. EFHW antennas are super popular because they are a very effective antenna that’s easy to deploy. They’ve never disappointed me. A 20M EFHW is actually pretty short, which made it easy to deploy in the short spruce-firs of Mt Mitchell.

      The arborist throw line? Never leave home without it! 🙂

  4. Thank you. My QCX-Mini should be arriving on Tuesday. Looking forward to getting it out there and on the air. I have the same speaker that fell apart on you, so I’ll try it, but will also have the other one you suggested along with me (and cheaply headphones).

    A wonderful article. I have a couple of antennas I will try, and do have the arborist weight and line to play with also. Again thanks for all your informative articles and your activations
    God Bless and 73.
    WB8YXF

  5. Is there a tried and tested method for getting that line over a branch? Was looking at a large tree on my daily dog walk in the local country park (not been activated yet) and wondered how you do it with accuracy.
    Regards,
    Gav
    GM0WDD
    (My back garden backs onto GM-0058)

  6. Great activation. I did a forest service road, roadside activation over the weekend in Talladega NF. I had a similar pileup. Cold hands and other distractions (it’s hunting season here) adds to the pandemonium. As your hands get colder, they lose dexterity. I have a set of fingerless gloves that help but the real secret is dressing up one layer warmer than you need. That helps to keep warm blood going to your hands. Thanks for the video.

    1. You’re 100% right. If your body can stay really warm, it spreads to the extremities. Very good point.

      I’ve been looking at a variety of fingerless gloves that fishermen use because onlt the thumb, index finger, and middle finger tips are exposed. That might be about right for CW and handling a pencil!

  7. Love the video. You inspire me more every day to get back on CW. Love watching you do videos on the QRP rigs. I got a Xiegu G90 about a month ago. Love it but wished I had spent the extra money and got the KX2.

    Thanks again
    Dennis
    W0HL

  8. Great article which struck a chord having owned a QCX Mini for a similar period. They are great little radios and run well from a 5v batter pack and power buck to 12v. Whilst I normally used folding headphones, I’m also looking for a suitable mini speaker, for when I’m just monitoring in the field.
    Interested in your use of an arborists line -what cord do you use with that? I’ve had varying success using Parachute cord taped to a golf ball, so would welcome any comments Tom (or indeed any of your readers).

    Many thanks,
    Richard M0RGM

  9. That was a great example of having backups. I had the same problem and bought a blue tooth/corded speaker. It is a great speaker but with CW it has a delay that makes it so I cannot use it in the field.
    Please let us know how the speaker works on CW.

  10. Just out of curiosity, what kind of camera are you using to record with? Is it a cell phone, GoPro, or other?

    Another great video, inspired me to brush up on my Morse Code!

    1. Hi, David!

      Excellent to hear you’re going to brush up on your code!

      I primarily use an OSMO Action camera–that’s what I used in this video. I’ve been very pleased with it and I believe it natively handles wind noise better than some similar GoPros. Check out my Hibriten Mountain activation and you’ll see that it handled the gusts there quite well.

      Cheers,
      Thomas

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