I certainly had no idea it would be one of my most memorable activations ever–!
I knew I had a five hour window to play radio somewhere not too far from my daughters’ classes near the Asheville Airport.
I really wanted to do a SOTA (Summits On The Air) activation, but I’d pulled a muscle in my back and was nursing it a bit. I knew that an invigorating hike on a long, gnarly trail was not really in the books.
After dropping off my daughters, I sat in the parking lot running through the activation options in my head. There were 5 or so parks within an easy drive. I knew a POTA activation probably made the most sense since it wouldn’t require hiking or carrying a heavy pack.
Then again, I really wanted to do a SOTA activation–the weather was so amazing, I didn’t want to miss out on an opportunity to take in a summit.
I decided that if I took a minimal amount of gear and activated an “easy” summit, then maybe I could get away with a little SOTA without hurting my back. I thought this might be the perfect excuse to do a SOTA activation pairing my Elecraft KX2 and AX2 antenna. I had a lightweight chair and my kneeboard, so in theory, I could set up anywhere on the summit with my entire station on my knee.
Next, I only needed to find the right summit and one came to mind almost immediately…
Black Balsam Knob (W4C/CM-005)
The last time I activated Black Balsam was with my buddy, Monty, in 2021. I remembered that it was an easy hike with stunning vistas of Pisgah Forest (K-4510) and the Blue Ridge Parkway (K-3378).
I drove 55 minutes to the trailhead and was happy that there weren’t too many cars in the parking area yet that morning. Black Balsam is one of the most popular summits on the Blue Ridge Parkway, so sometimes it can be a challenge to find a parking space…especially with stunning weather like this!
The hike was very pleasant and my GoRuck GR1 backpack was pretty light.
I knew I’d chosen the right summit hike.
The views from the Art Loeb Trail do not disappoint. (Click images to enlarge.)
It’s only 3/4 of a mile one way, so it goes by quickly. Still… it’s why I chose this particular summit. I knew it would be gentle on my back (and it was).
Once I reached the summit, I started searching for a spot to set up. There were quite a lot of folks on the summit that morning, so I looked for a site just slightly off of the main trail.
I found an area on a side trail that provided just enough room to set up my folding chair without disturbing the flora.
Oh yeah…new chair!
This was the first time I had the opportunity to try out my new-to-me Helinox Chair Zero. These Helinox chairs are super expensive, but I’d only heard good reports about them. I had not planned on buying a Helinox because I’ve been using my trusty ALDI $20 chair that worked just fine.
But earlier that week, I found the Helinox in REI’s “garage sale” section of the Asheville store. It was originally $150 and was marked down to $45 or $50, if memory serves.
REI Garage Sale items are deeply discounted, but you cannot return them or get your money back for any reason–often they have serious damage–so you have to check out the item thoroughly in store.
I couldn’t find a single thing wrong with this chair, so I checked the return notes on the tag. The REI employee noted, “Customer said that the chair was too lightweight.”
This chair is incredibly lightweight–I doubt it weighs 1/4 the amount of my ALDI chair.
Having used this chair now for well over a month, I can safely say that this is one of the best purchases I’ve made for my SOTA pack. It is insanely lightweight, packs down small, and is very strong. It saved me from sitting on the ground or a rock that day when my back was sore. I hope it lasts me a lifetime.
I do talk about this chair in the activation video below.
Setting up was quick and easy. It’s an interesting experience to deploy your entire SOTA station, including the antenna system, on your right knee. It feels like it couldn’t possibly be an effective way to activate a summit.
- Elecraft KX2 with Windcamp X2 Side Rails and Cover
- KXPD2 Paddles
- Elecraft KXBT2 Li-Ion Battery Pack
- Elecraft ES60 Pack (Note that mine is a discontinued LowePro CS60 pack, the ES60 is identical and Elecraft branded)
- Tufteln N0RNM Folding Knee Board
- Elecraft AX2 with Bipod Adapter
- GoRuck GR1 USA
- GraphGear 0.9mm 1000 Automatic Drafting Pencil
- Rite In The Rain Top Spiral Notebook
- Camera: original OSMO Action Camera (the OSMO 3 is the current version) with Sensyne Phone Tripod
- Helinox Chair Zero at Amazon or REI
Note: SOTA spotting only
Black Balsam is also a POTA entity (K-4510). I’ve mention in other recent SOTA reports that when a summit also happens to be a POTA entity I do not schedule it on the POTA website. I do, however, submit the log to POTA afterwards.
The reason for this, frankly, is that there are orders of magnitude more POTA hunters out there than there are SOTA chasers. (SOTA is a much smaller program than POTA). I find that when I am spotted on both systems, it’s challenging for some of the west coast and European SOTA chasers to bust through the POTA hunters to log the summit.
Of course, if the POTA entity was a rare one (K-4510 is not) I would also spot to the POTA network.
On The Air
I hopped on the air, started calling CQ SOTA, and a pileup ensued.
Honestly, it’s kind of amazing to be at the receiving end of a pileup knowing that you’re working stations with only five watts and a four foot telescoping whip that’s sitting on your right knee. This never gets old.
I worked my first ten contacts in ten minutes which meant that I’d already validated both my SOTA and POTA activations.
All in all, I logged a total of 37 contacts in 41 minutes. What fun!
Serious, SERIOUS DX–!
I’ll never forget this particular SOTA activation and here’s why:
After I’d been on the air for about 30 minutes, I replied to a callsign I did not recognize: YC2VOC.
I didn’t say much at the time in my activation video, but I felt like that prefix belonged in the Pacific. Intellectually, I knew there was no possible way I would be working that sort of DX with 5 watts into a 4 foot whip.
As I worked YC2VOC, I assumed he might be on some small Caribbean island–there are so many prefixes there I can’t keep up with them.
As soon as the activation was over, I looked up the call. It belonged to Galih Suryananto on Java Island, Indonesia.
What?!? No way!
Galih is a very active and accomplished SOTA chaser, so I was certain it was his call and I had not copied incorrectly. While on the summit of Black Balsam, I shot him an email to confirm contact and asked if he had worked me from a remote station or from his QTH.
Thanks for the nice contact. Propagations is good and your setup is awesome ..
Yes my QTH in Java Island Indonesia. I was using an Icom 7300 at about 25w and an Optibeam antenna ..
I’m one of your Subscribers on YouTube Tom..finally had contact with you, I hope you made video of our QSO…
Galih de YC2VOC
I’m grateful that Galih responded so quickly (and I’m honored that he’s a subscriber!). I had a spring in my step the rest of the day.
Here’s the irony: I had just worked the best QRP DX I’d ever made in the field and it was with my smallest, most compromised antenna.
By my calculations, I’d just gotten 2,071 miles (3,333 km) per watt. An all-time best on this end!
Thanks again, Galih, for making my day!
Here’s what this five watt activation looked like when plotted out on a QSO Map (you’ll need to click to enlarge this one):
Here’s my real-time, real-life video of the entire activation. As with all of my videos, I don’t edit out any parts of the on-air activation time. In addition, I have monetization turned off on YouTube, although that doesn’t stop them from inserting ads before and after my videos.
Friends in High Places
After I packed up my gear and started the short hike back to the car, I saw a fellow SOTA activator setting up a telescoping mast on the summit. I called out, “Is that an inverted vee?” He replied, “Well, yes it is!”
As I got closer I recognized this SOTA activator! It was Mike (N4DCW), the W4K Association Manager.
It’s not often that I run into fellow SOTA activators, but when I do it’s a treat, indeed.
Mike was in town for a service in memory of SOTA legend K1LIZ.
Watching Mike set up his mast with such ease made me realize that I need to brush up on this particular skill myself. It’s so rare that I need to use a mast for east coast summits, but I know when I venture out west, I won’t have the luxury of trees.
Mike, it was great running into you, then also spending time with you at the W4 SOTA campout only a couple weeks later.
I hope you enjoyed the field report and my activation video as much as I enjoyed creating them.
Of course, I’d also like to send a special thanks to those of you who have been 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 before, the Patreon platform connected to Vimeo make it possible for me to share videos that are not only 100% ad-free, but also downloadable for offline viewing. The Vimeo account also serves as a third backup for my video files.
Thanks for spending part of your day with me! Have a brilliant week ahead!
Cheers & 72,