A SOTA road trip from Berlin to Tuscany via the Alps and back
by Leo (DL2COM)
Flashback March 2021: I am sitting on a couch in the countryside 2h north of Berlin, Germany. It’s a rainy day and my 1-year-old kid just fell asleep on my chest. I am watching Youtube and enjoying the feeling of just having maintained the chainsaw after a productive run preparing firewood.
Then suddenly something special got washed into my feed: Adam K6ARK activating a summit in CW somewhere on the U.S. West Coast. I thought: I have no idea what this wizardry is but this is exactly what I want to do. Right here, right now. Well I have a child to take care of, the next mountain with a prominence of >150m (~500 feet, min. requirement to be a valid SOTA summit) is 3h away, I don’t know what ham radio is, I have no license and what the heck is CW.
Jump to July 2022: I am sitting in my car commencing a vacation road trip to the south of Tuscany, Italy. Due to the chaotic luggage situation at EU airports and unreal prices for rental cars my family and I had decided that we would be better off if I drove down while my wife and kids took the plane without having to check in any bags (btw: best decision ever).
Our schedule allowed for me to leave a few days early so I could make room to do a little bit of hiking and throw in a few casual SOTA activations because why not. On top I saw that there were a few never activated summits in close proximity to where we planned to stay. I could feel my heart pumping already followed by a strong reassuring feeling radiating from the well-thought-through contents of my backpack in the trunk. Am I ready? Who cares. I am on my own now. I had completed a quick 1-pointer activation in May and a few POTAs but what was planned now was a different level.
Going into detail about every summit would go beyond the scope of this article so here are just a few highlights: The first leg down to the Garmisch-Partenkirchen area went by in a wink (7h drive). I passed most of the time rehearsing CW by singing license plates out loud. The fun peaked with plates along the lines of M-OT-9990 or E-SI-5545. It’s all about melody and timing, remember. I met up with my buddy Chris whom I hadn’t seen in a long time and who agreed to join me on the first hike up Zirbelkopf (8-points summit) to witness the cult activity I had tried and failed to explain to him beforehand.
In addition to spotting what felt like ~100 salamanders and a beautiful pack of chamois disappearing in the fog, my personal highlight included Chris acting as an antenna mast during our 9-minute (9 QSOs) activation. We had to break it up fast due to unfavorable WX and I couldn’t bother hoisting the mighty 6m Carbon mast (which was used in almost all following activations). A rustic BBQ and cold beer was waiting for us down in the valley as a reward.
In contrast to this quick one I was able to operate >2h with perfect WX from 10-points summit Kellerjoch in Austria on my way back to Berlin. With SOTA you never know what to expect.
Further south while I stayed in a small mountain hostel in Italy I was so motivated to get back down from the mountain quickly, because of the promised dinner cooked by an old Italian lady, that I slipped on a wet grass patch and lost my phone. Once I noticed the missing item I literally ran back up the mountain and found it on the trail just to return in time for the dinner, all sweaty and tired, together with a bunch of other Italian hikers. The old lady looked at me with kind eyes and without asking served me an extra portion of homemade pasta as she immediately saw: This guy obviously needs to be taken special care of. Later I was the happiest man in the crappiest room ever lying on the bed after having showered, eaten tons of good food, the battery charging silently and me reminiscing about the successful activation. It’s always good to set your priorities straight.
Later in Tuscany I ran into a wild boar and was amazed by how dark and thin they are compared to the ones I see regularly in Germany. It was of a friendly nature and quickly went its way after it spotted me. Shortly after I had my first SOTA CW DX contact with a Japanese station who kindly fought for completing our contact with many repeats and QRSing under heavy QSB on 20m mid-day. The inverted V config performed super well for EU operation but wasn’t really cut out for DX it seemed and condx were poor. But hey, QSO in the log. What a milestone. Still gives me goosebumps today.
Back at the house I unloaded a bunch of stuff and spotted a black scorpion crawling out of my backpack. This sneaky friend must have found a way in as I used it as a cushion during the activation. It then unknowingly hiked back down with me and accompanied me in the car. Before letting him go off into the beautiful vineyards of Tuscany I could show it safely to my kids who showed no fear at all. That’s the beauty of such a young age. Everything is pure and interesting. Let’s remind ourselves of that. Still from then on I hung the backpack into the trees with a piece of paracord to make sure I wouldn’t have many more unwanted hitchhikers.
Every summit was very special to me and my heart is full of fond memories. I am happy that I can share some of them here with you.
Mini statistics of radio operation during the trip:
- Period of trip: July 21st – August 11th 2022
- 7 Summits, thereof 4 first activations
- 174 QSOs (total of ~6h fully active operation time)
- thereof 19 Summit-to-Summit QSOs
- 56% CW, 42% SSB, 2% FM
- CW 5W (rarely 10W), SSB 10W, FM 5W
- most distant DX Station: JH1MXV (20m CW, inverted V EFHW, 14:26 UTC)
Overall I am very satisfied with this result and looking forward to get more action on 2m FM in the future. To be honest I did not spend enough time calling CQ on 2m and did not bring a proper antenna. However I was very surprised to see how well APRS2SOTA works – a service to register a SOTA spot via APRS. I signed up for it before my trip and actually had to use it twice due to a lack of cell phone coverage and because I wanted to give SSB a try (remember: SOTA will spot you automatically via RBN if you operate in CW but not SSB). It instantly spotted me via nodes sometimes >100km (62mi) away. If you intend to use this service make sure to email Stewart beforehand so he can add you to his database (see link above). Otherwise it won’t work.
You can get a more detailed look at statistics incl. summit photos & all QSOs (login required) on a website I cannot recommend highly enough: SOTL.AS by avid SOTA activator and programmer Manuel HB9DQM.
SOTL.AS is also a very helpful resource during an activation and even before. It shows most hiking trails to the summits and allows for real time geo tracking while on the move – right from your phone’s browser. Sending a spot is made a lot easier since most information will be pre-filled by the website. All data is synced in real time with the main SOTA database.
- Elecraft KX2 & QCX-Mini (20m)
- 3-Band 17’ Vertical antenna (QRPGuys) incl. 4 radials & Par EndFedz Trail Friendly EFHW 40,20,10 usually as inverted-V or in sloper configuration
- Lightweight arborist throw line kit, incl. extra paracord and tent pegs
- Carbon6 ultra-lite mast by Sotabeams
- Lifepo4, 4Ah by Eremit
- Headphones!! (helps so much with wind and digging out weak stations. Will have to find a proper model which is compact, lightweight and better than in-ears)
- Add water, sandwich, some extra layers, sun/bug protection, Leatherman, head lamp, sit pad, notepad (desperately need a knee board solution though!), folding chair (only some hikes) and it all adds up to only a few pounds of weight.
I am so impressed by the performance of the two antennas in combination with this mast for this special use case. So lightweight, so effective and fast. It goes without saying that the KX2 and the QCX Mini held up to their promise.
Wait, but why?
SOTA is what I like to call an “intersection of joy”. Why? Well everything that is fun comes together in one activity:
- Spending time outdoors and in scenic nature including having to (or better yet “getting to”) deal with all unexpected things mother earth might have in store for you.
- Getting the blood flowing and pushing yourself physically. It is amazing to feel the magnetism coming from the summit which is literally pulling you up the mountain in anticipation of getting to do an activation. You can leave your energy bar in the backpack.
- I really love the “mission” or “expedition” character an activation brings with it: Preparation, execution, learning, repetition. Having done a thorough preparation and seeing things come together in the field just as you imagined them is so rewarding. What is even more rewarding though is having to deal with unexpected situations: You’ll either tackle it or learn from it. There is no loss involved – ever (except maybe a broken mast tip, hi).
- Establishing an effective yet lightweight QRP station in a rough environment which allows for worldwide comms is a contrast that acts as a direct fuel for me and for many of us I believe. I can’t get over the powerful nature of HF propagation – esp. if our friend the sun is giving us some support from above.
- Knowing that there are many folks out there worldwide who are putting their backs into getting a QSO done with an activator. Whether or not you’re in it to gain more points at the end of the day a QSO is a human interaction which never disappoints and the chances for QRP DX are always part of the game. In addition it is a great chance for new ops like me to gain experience handling pile ups with very patient operators on the other side.
I have set three focus areas for me after having done this trip:
- Get better at CW (general copying but also sending accuracy over speed, increase speed down the road),
- dive deeper into radio settings and resonant antenna building in order to give DX chasers a better shot at reaching me &
- getting my butt off the couch more often.
In addition, a buddy of mine who is the human equivalent of a mountain lion agreed to do a basic climbing / safety course with me which would extend my vertical reach. My goal: Get a 10-pointer first activation done some day on HF.
Get out there folks! I am happy to answer any questions about these summits should you want to activate them or other topics. You can find me on QRZ. THIS is exactly the stuff that got me into ham radio and dive into CW. Last but not least: Chasers are so appreciative when you activate. You won’t regret it.
– 73s es dit dit de Leo DL2COM/p