Saturday, September 26, 2015

Stock Investor Tips for the Ham Radio Operator

I've been working my way through the Wealthsteading Podcasts, by Jon Pugliano.

It wasn't until episode from February 5th 2015 that he spilled the beans that he was a ham.  It turns out that he is N7PUG, and his QRZ page links to a blog post that he wrote comparing ham radio and the stock market investing.

He also seems to be a bit of a QRPer, as he uses the FT-817, too.

Incidentally, I also listen to the Radical Personal Finance Podcast by Joshua Sheats.  Joshua is also a ham, and is also probably one of the most over-qualified financial experts out there, especially when you consider his age.

Friday, September 25, 2015

In the mail: Lithium Ion Batteries for the FT-817ND

I'm a reasonably happy owner of a Yaesu FT-817ND.  It's a solid, reasonably inexpensive all-band all-mode portable radio solution for the SOTA activator.  It's also very rugged, built like a tank.  But it does have its downsides.  Two related issues are the current consumption of the radio and the batteries which power it.

The radio does have a fairly high receive current consumption, around .3 amperes.  This might not seem like much, but mix that with a reasonably amount of transmitting, particularly on CW (or data modes), and you'll see that the supplied internal battery packs aren't the best.  The supplied battery is the FNB-72, rated at 9.6 volts and 1100 mAh.  Later, Yaesu did a slight upgrade with the FNB-85, which raises the capacity to 1400 mAh.  I used the -85 for about six months when I got frustrated with its capacity for multiple-peak activation days (around Big Bear Lake in California there are numerous easily-accessible high-value peaks.  The XYL and I would bag a few, camp out, and then head out for a second day of activations.  If I recall correctly, I once earned 56 SOTA points in a single weekend).

At any rate, the FNB series of batteries for the -817 use the Nickel-Cadmium (NiCd) chemistry, which is pretty ancient battery technology (We're talking the 1890s, people!).

I suppose this is understandable given that the FT-817 was first designed in the 1990s and first sold in the year 2000.

So I searched around the marketplace for a good replacement.  The one I settled on was the W4RT Electronics OPP-817 battery pack and OFC-817 charger combination.  This internal battery solution basically doubled the capacity of the batteries to 2500 mAh (although they now advertise that they increased this further to 2700 mAh).  These batteries mount in the same compartment in the FT-817ND as the stock batteries.  Rather, a new battery compartment door is supplied which has a charging jack for the OFC-817 charger.  The W4RT batteries use the Nickel-Metal Hydride (NiMH) chemistry, which are have become lower-cost in recent years than the NiCd batteries.

These batteries have served me well for about 17 months, and have been through maybe 100 or 125 charge/discharge cycles.  I always followed the charging instructions scrupulously, and the batteries did a decent job of providing power for the longer activations without increasing weight, bulk, or otherwise ill effect.  But, on my activation of Old Rag (W4V/SH-012), I noticed that the voltage indicator in the 817 was rapidly declining.  Thinking it was an anomaly, I recharged the batteries and, on a different weekend, I planned on activating Hazeltop (W4V/SH-004) and Fork Mountain (W4V/SH-003).  Hazeltop went fine, but by the time I got to Fork Mountain, the radio would barely power up.  It was confirmed in my mind:  the W4RT batteries were finished.

So I looked around the marketplace and asked on the NA-SOTA forums.  I considered other solutions, including homebrewing an external Lithium-Iron (LiFe) battery pack and charger, and using a setup much like Matt, K0MOS uses.

I settled on the HamSource WLB-817 pack, mainly because it offers a 3000 mAh capacity with higher voltage (approximately 11 volts) in an FT-817-friendly package.  The chemistry is Lithium Ion Polymer (LiPo), which apparently is good for high-current applications (like the LiFe and NiMH batteries mentioned above).  The WLB-817 seems to use the same charging methodology as the W4RT system, utilizing a replacement battery hatch door to facilitate the connection to the external charger.  It is slightly more expensive than the W4RT batteries, too ($92 for the battery pack, charger, replacement battery hatch, and shipping & handling).

More on FT-817NDs and battery chemistry can be found on the KA7OEI FT-817 pages.  And here.  And here.

We'll see how this goes.

As for other "modifications" to the FT-817ND, I also use the W4RT 300 Hz CW filter and the Palm Peg Leg.  (I like Palm a lot.  I also use their Mini Paddles.  And I'm trying to justify spending the money for their miniature Straight Key, too.)

Update:  I've received some email as well as a reply on the NA-SOTA forums urging caution with the LiPo batteries, mainly because of the hazards associating with accidentally shorting them out, improper charging techniques, and the damage that they can do to equipment.  Those are definitely valid considerations.

In the past I've been utterly scrupulous with regard to charging techniques, and with the safety issues involved in with the LiPos, I'll definitely continue to do so.  Those batteries pack a lot of energy into a very small package.

Thanks for the emails and the replies elsewhere!  -73, Nate N0PCL 

Update 2:  Here is another LiPo solution for the FT-817. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Lessons Learned: Spotting Techniques on Half Dome (W6/SN-040)

Climbing the cables.  It's a confidence-building experience.  XYL Photo.

Success results from experience.  Experience results from failure.  With that maxim in mind, I'm going to describe both successful and unsuccessful SOTA activations with the aim of reducing the "experience" needed to become a successful SOTA activator for the new-to-SOTA ham.

In summer 2013 my XYL and I (along with some family friends) took a summer camping vacation to Yosemite National Park, with a climbing of the famed Half Dome (W6/SN-040) as the pinnacle event of the trip.  For those that haven't climbed this peak, it's a bit of an experience.  Our hike took us up the Mist Trail, followed by the hike to the Sub Dome, the climbing of the cables, and then the summit.  We decided to return by following the John Muir Trail, not the Mist Trail.

Part of our party moving up the Mist Trail.  XYL photo.

One of the falls along the Mist Trail.  XYL photo.
At the time I was carrying my Yaesu FT-817ND, stock internal batteries, the hand mic, and the SuperAntenna MP-1D portable vertical antenna.  I didn't have an HT at the time.  I also had my 10 Essentials and my iPhone 4.  Take note that I didn't carry a CW key, as I wasn't proficient at CW at the time.  I didn't have an APRS capability.  I only had the '817 with hand mic.  The combination of equipment allowed me phone (SSB & FM) operation on 40 Meters through 2 Meters, plus 70 cm.

This was early in my SOTA career--I had a successful activation prior to this.  Notably, I completed an activation of Mt. Baldy (aka. Mt. San Antonio, W6/CT-003).  Still, this was my second attempted activation.  It was a rather ambitious peak to activate, too!

Baldy / Mt. San Antonio - My first activation!  Not too bad.

The hike up was memorable--indescribable, actually.  The Mist Trail is utterly beautiful, and climbing the cables to the top up 50-degree-steep slick granite is a surreal experience.  I was very excited to get to the top!

A permit is required to climb Half Dome.  XYL photo.

N0PCL and XYL in a photo at the bottom of the cables.  XYL photo.
XYL used a climbing harness and carabiners for safety.  Me?  I don't need safety.  I just carefully climbed.   XYL Photo.
N0PCL pulling himself up the cables.  My gloves are just gardening gloves.  XYL photo.
It's steep.  XYL photo.
After getting there, I set up my station and started calling "CQ SOTA" on 14.3425 MHz--one of the more common phone frequencies used by SOTA activators.  No one returned my call.  I pulled out my cell, and though I had several "bars" of signal strength, I had no cell phone data connectivity.  I didn't know about the SMS-to-SOTA gateway, either.  So I returned to the radio, hoping--praying that somebody would hear me.  I put out an Alert on SOTAWatch with my expected frequencies.  And I was on the summit at the Alerted time.  But still...

N0PCL calling CQ on Half Dome.  XYL was being understanding.  XYL photo.


I tuned up and down the bands.  I heard pileups.  I heard a Boy Scouts special event station.  I tried calling them.  No joy.  Nobody heard me.

N0PCL trying VHF.  No joy.  XYL photo.

I tried 40 Meters.  15 Meters.  10 Meters.  Even 6 Meters, 2 Meters, and 70 cm.  FM and SSB.  Calling frequencies.  Other frequencies.  Scanning.  Everything.

Nothing but static.

My family and friends were kindly waiting for me to complete my quest.  My XYL came up to me after some time (she had gone out searching for USGS survey markers), and she asked "How many do you have?"  She was asking about the number of QSOs completed.

Zero.  Zilch.  Nil.  Nada.  Nichts.  Nothing.

After spending perhaps an 75 or 90 minutes trying, I gave up.

A failed activation.  Completely failed.  Not a single QSO.  Not even a partial QSO.  Nothing.

Looking back, I don't think the failure was of my equipment.  It was a failure of operator skill and poor planning.  Perhaps propagation played a part of it, but I doubt that--I was hearing many stations out there.

I was a new SOTA activator--very new, actually.  I didn't realize how important a self-spot was to a new SOTA activator.

The deck is already stacked against the SOTA Activator.  He or she is almost always running QRP power, using a portable makeshift antenna, carrying his own equipment, and very subject to other considerations (weather, other people, critters, daylight, leaving enough time for hiking off the summit, etc.)  I know that self-spotting is forbidden in most contests--and that's fine and good.  But SOTA isn't a contest--it's an award's scheme.  The SOTA Activator needs every advantage he or she can get.  Self spotting therefore helps a great deal.

There are numerous self-spotting methods available:
  1. A cell phone with data connectivity can spot using either the SOTA Goat app, or another app. 
  2. Alternatively, you can load the SOTAWatch website and self-spot that way.
  3. A phone with SMS (texting) capability can assist with self-spotting provided you've registered to access the SMS-to-SOTA Gateway.
  4. A 2 Meter APRS-capable radio can also assist with self-spotting using the APRS2SOTA Gateway, provided you've registered.  The FT-817ND, by itself, does not have this capability.  But it could work using the WolphiLink interface and an Android smartphone.  Or you can just get an APRS-capable HT.  (I now carry a Yaesu VX-8DR.  But the Kenwood TH-D72A performs great.  Or you can pair up the WolphiLink with an inexpensive Yaesu, Icom, Kenwood, Alinco, or one of the new Chinese HTs, like a Baofeng or Wouxun).
  5. A proficient CW operator can self-spot using the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN), provided a SOTAWatch Alert has been posted for approximately the correct time.
  6. Lastly, you can completely negate the requirement for a self-spot if somebody can provide a spot for you.
From this list, it's clear to me that option 3 above, possibly option 4, and almost certainly option 5 could have worked on Half Dome.  Options 1 & 2 would not have worked there because of the lack of cell data access on Half Dome.

To be sure, some prior planning would have been required.

You need to register for SMS-to-SOTA and APRS2SOTA for those gateways to work.  Proficiency in APRS operation can be tricky at first, too.

To make RBNGate work, you also need to register for the SOTAWatch site and post an Alert there, and be proficient enough for CW operation.

I did several training hikes to get ready for the Half Dome trek.  But I neglected to appropriately prepare myself for the radio portion of the activation.

Lesson learned.  I've used all of the above listed self-spotting methods.  It's best to ensure you always have an option.  Then the SOTA chase can begin...

Still, hiking Half Dome was a tremendous experience.  I highly recommend it, and I hope to get the chance to reattempt an activation of that peak.

N0PCL enjoying a beer after the hike.  XYL photo.

Let me know if you have any questions, experience, or advice in the Comments Section below.


Monday, September 21, 2015

SOTA Activations of Robertson Mountain (W4V/SH-011), Stony Man (W4V/SH-002) and The Pinnacle (W4V/SH-005)

On 20 September 2015 I did a triple activation of Robertson Mountain (W4V/SH-011), Stony Man (W4V/SH-002), and The Pinnacle (W4V/SH-005).  Earlier in the week I posted a SOTA alert on SOTAWatch stating my intention to activate those three peaks, plus Pass Mountain (W4V/SH-013), but the XYL and I didn't finish with enough time.  We decided to end the day after activating The Pinnacle.

The overall plan was for my XYL and me to drive from our home in Northern Virginia to The Limberlost trail head, which is just a bit south of the Skyland Resort on Skyline Drive, the main thoroughfare that runs north-south through Shenandoah National Park.  From the Limberlost trail head we would hike to Robertson Mountain, activate it, and hike back to the jeep.  From there my XYL and I would split up, with me proceeding by jeep to the other trail heads, where I would do shorter hikes and activations, while the XYL would just hike the Appalachian Trail.  Given that the Appalachian Trail basically connected all of these peaks together, I was planning meeting up with her on the trail as she progressed and I activated.  It was a good, solid, executable plan.

We departed at about 0630 local time and made it to Limberlost trail head at about 0845.  Weather was nice--mostly cloudy at first and mid-50s Fahrenheit.  There were several apple trees at the trail head, which isn't surprising given that Shenandoah National Park, prior to the Park Service taking it over, was a cash-cropping area for apples.  Several varieties exist there.  The XYL particularly likes to find these, and she's been known to grab one or two for a taste (not sure about the legality of that, but whatever).  After a few minutes of fun by the trees, we suited up and started hiking.

XYL holding one of the apples.
We followed Old Rag Fire Road, a gravel road which connects Skyline Drive with Old Rag Mountain (W4V/SH-012), following that road for about 2 miles or so until reaching the Robertson Mountain Trail, a steeper path up to the summit

N0PCL hiking the Old Rag Fire Road.
Just prior to reaching the Robertson Mountain Trail I noticed a large shadowy object move across the--a bear!  My XYL was a bit behind me a this point so I called her forward and we continued to have a nice loud conversation so that we wouldn't startle the beast.  The foliage in was pretty thick along the edge of the Old Rag Fire Road.  We didn't see the bear until we were immediately passed by it--it was standing in the foliage maybe 10 feet into the forest.  It was probably an adolescent, but young enough that we were very concerned about any larger adult bears in the area.  It was maybe 3 or 4 feet tall, and it just looked at us.  We picked up the pace, continued the conversation, and then embarked up the trail to the summit.

N0PCL XYL hiking Old Rag Fire Road.
Hiking up the Robertson Mountain Trail.

Robertson Mountain Trail is moderately steep but not too bad.  Though the trail was heavily wooded, it became a bit more rocky near the top.  The top of the peak is crowned by some nice grassy ground, a few trees, and some large boulders--basically an ideal site to set up for SOTA.  I broke out my radios (Yaesu FT-817ND & Yaesu VX-8DR), accessories (auto-tuner, telescoping 2-meter antenna, Palm Mini paddles, hand mic), my antenna (home-made EARCHI matchbox, coax, 30 feet of wire, and a crappie fishing pole), and notepad and ARRL mini-log.  I bungee-corded the crappie pole to the tree, slung the wire from the tip of the pole through some trees to make a sloping vertical antenna, and then cabled up my portable station.

Sloping antenna off of telescoping crappie pole.  XYL photo.
Bungee cords are great for lashing antennas up!  XYL photo.

Robertson Mountain had a very pleasant summit area.  XYL photo.

Trying to work stations.  Cell phone provided spotting and was my clock.  XYL photo.
XYL snapped this photo from Robertson Mountain summit.
Cell signals were spotty (I use AT&T).  I generally prefer to self-spot using any of several methods available on the iPhone--for me it's more reliable than the Reverse Beacon Network (RBN).  Cell service was good enough to spot using the SMS-to-SOTA gateway, so I did that.  Where I normally expect to get a moderate pileup of 5-10 stations, I got only single chasers today.  My normal activation policy, particularly on days with several activations, is to work four stations, or, if in the midst of a pileup, to work the pileup until it's gone.  No pileups today, though.

No pileups today!  40 minutes to get four stations.

Conditions were crummy, but I didn't know that until later.  I captured the propagation conditions later in the day.  Pretty bad, particularly the K index.:

 My inkling that propagation was bad was from a report kindly provided by NG6R on SOTAWatch:

I worked the necessary stations and then we continued back to the jeep.  On the hike back we noticed three more black bears--all small ones.  One of them was probably the one we saw earlier in the day.  They were all smallish, about the size of the first bear we saw.  These were further off the trail, and kept to themselves.  Sorry--no pictures of those critters.

After reaching the jeep we split up.  I headed up to Stony Man trailhead for a quick few-hundred feet of elevation gain.  Stony Man is one of the busier peaks in the Shenandoah National Park.  From the trail head near Skyland Resort it's a mere .6 miles to the summit, and only several hundred feet of elevation gain.  It's probably one of the easiest 10-point summits in the SOTA universe.

View from Stony Man looking directly west.  My XYL took this photo.
Views from the summit are spectacular.  Lots of people though.  As a military guy I have a pretty good appreciation of terrain, and it's interesting for me to look below into the Shenandoah Valley to look at the military significance of the terrain.  The valley is a breadbasket, with very fertile soil and many farms, but more importantly, it is a valley that is basically southwest-to-northeast in orientation, and it terminates in the north to the northwest of the suburbs of Washington DC and Pennsylvania.  This valley provided food as well as a well-protected route for Confederate cavalry and other units to sortie into the Union states during the American Civil War.
Many humans on Stony Man summit.  Too many, actually.
View looking south from Stony Man.
View looking north from Stony Man.  The clouds cleared up, but the temps stayed cool.
A woman offered to take my photo on the summit.  So I obliged.
After taking a moment to savor the views, I went into the treeline to get away from the crowds.  I don't mind operating in public, but sometimes onlookers can detract from the SOTA experience with their questions.  (My XYL does a great job explaining my strange subset of my strange hobby when she's around, but I was alone at this point.)  I slung my wire in the tree and started doing what I could to get my QSOs.  Again, pileups were not to be found.  I presume band conditions were bad.  AT&T cell phone coverage was very strong, though, as was APRS access, so there were numerous methods to self-spot, as well as observe the SOTAWatch spots.  I saw several stations operating on summits, including Gary--K6YOA, Frank & Lynn--K0JQZ and KC0YQF, and also N0AIS and AD5A.  No joy with them.
Again, no pileups.  51 minutes to get four QSOs.

In the middle of my activation I noticed my XYL hiking along the trail to Stony Man.  She joined me briefly and went on my way.  After getting the four QSOs I packed up and hiked back to the jeep.

Next up was The Pinnacle.  While the XYL continued to hike the AT, I drove up to Jewell Hollow Overlook.  To get to The Pinnacle, you basically hike down the hill from the Overlook to pick up Appalachian Trail, and then follow the AT north a little less than a mile to reach the summit.  Simple.  Well, not much to see at the top here.  A peak name like The Pinnacle might imply to you that it's a fairly dramatic summit.  Well, that's just not the case.  It's a very rounded summit with lots of brush, trees, shrubs, and basically no view, although my XYL did say that it opens up a bit if you continue to follow the AT over the summit for some distance.

View from Jewell Hollow Overlook.  Follow this trail down to pick up the AT.
I hiked off the AT a short distance and set up my shack.  Here's my logbook.

Pileups?  Not so much.  But a little DX with the EA2 station.
Just after working N6KZ, I again saw my XYL hiking north along the AT.  She came over and snapped a few photos doing my SOTA thing.  We decided at this point to cancel activating Pass Mountain.  I was going to finish my activation, hike down to the jeep, and drive to Thornton Gap, where I would pick up the XYL.

My shack:  A rock.  Not much of a view.
XYL snapped this photo of me working CW.
One of the pleasant things about this activation was working EA2IF.  I love working European DX.  My favorite SOTA DX worked have been Germany and Finland from Palomar Mountain and Middle Peak in Southern California.  But I'll take any DX I can get, particularly with the craptacular conditions.

After completing the activation I packed up, hiked back to the jeep, and met the XYL.  We drove home, had some chili (which was cooking in the Crock Pot) and watched the Packers pummel the Seahawks into submission.

So:  25 SOTA activation points, 3-4 bears, some fresh wild apples, three peaks, and a Packers victory.  Not a bad way to spend a weekend.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Throwback: 8 December 2013: Activating Mount Woodson (W6/SC-187)

This morning I'm heading to the Shenandoah National Park to activate some summits there, but in the meantime, here's a post about some activations in December, 2013.

I was conducting a joint activation on Mount Woodson (W6/SC-187) with fellow SoCal SOTA activator Gary, K6YOA (ex-KK6GXD).  Meanwhile, Adam, KJ6HOT was activating El Cajon Mountain (W6/SC-115).  He shot this video while activating.

You can hear me about 50 seconds into the movie, and again at about 3:38 into the movie.  (I'm slightly embarrassed complaining about an A Index of 6 in the movie, but earlier in the day it was very low.  6 was a bit of a spike, although I've seen much higher A indices since then.  More on A and K Indices here.)

(Credit is due to Adam, KJ6HOT, for filming and editing the movie.  You can see more of his videos here.)

On my activation of Mount Woodson that day, I worked the following stations:

I remember it being a bit chilly, maybe in the 40s or low 50s Fahrenheit, and a bit breezy. There are two major routes to the top of that peak, the longer and gentler approach up the west side, or the very steep eastern service road to the summit on the east side.  Gary and I hiked up the east side.  Afterwards we went and had some beer and grub in Poway, California.  It was a pleasant activation.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Hello, World!


I'm Nate.  Among other things, I'm an amateur (ham) radio operator, operating with N0PCL as my callsign.

I'm a married guy in his mid-30s.  I've been licensed since the early 1990s, but was dormant in the hobby for most of that time.  I was 11 years old when I earned my no-code Technician privileges, and for my birthday, my parents purchased a Yeasu FT-411E handheld radio for me.  (It was a VERY extravagant gift for me.  Looking back I'm a bit embarrassed at their largess).  Living in the suburbs of Saint Paul at the time, I used the N0JVR 145.31 repeater to chat with other kids with ham licenses.  It was all great fun until I destroyed that radio (I incorrectly wired a home-brewed power supply for it).  With my radio toasted, my interest shifted to computers and other things.  Time ticked on, but whenever the time came to renew my license, I always did.

Fast forward to August, 2012.  I was a Captain in the Marine Corps fighting in Afghanistan when I realized that I needed to get back into the radio hobby.  I ordered the ARRL General and ARRL Amateur Extra study guides with the intention of learning the material, rapidly upgrading, and getting back on the air.  After returning from that Afghanistan deployment, I rapidly earned those license upgrades.

In the midst of studying, I found the small group of radio amateurs that were doing the Summits On The Air (SOTA) activity.  Given that I lived in Southern California (stationed at the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base at the time), and that there were many SOTA peaks in the immediate area, I decided to set my sights on that part of the hobby.

Marit's (XYL) photo of us departing Vetter Mountain.

After upgrading, I headed to the San Diego Ham Radio Outlet and purchased a new Yaesu FT-817ND portable transceiver and a SuperAntenna MP-1 portable antenna.  My re-entry to the hobby was immanent.  I started activating SOTA peaks in the spring, 2013.  My XYL has accompanied me on many of my activations.  She's a superb photographer, and I'll be sharing some of her photos on this blog, too.  Though I love to hike, she's a very hardcore hiker--probably even more so than me.  She has many unique hiking accomplishments to her name.

For SOTA activations, I've done reasonably well.  I have just shy of 600 SOTA activator points to date, with over 100 activations.  I'm well on my way to Mountain Goat status: earning 1000 activation points.  I've also learned CW and I have aspirations toward getting into other parts of the hobby in the near future.

This blog will chronicle those adventures.

I'll also discuss other aspects of amateur radio, including antennas in CC&R locations, portable operating, digital modes, APRS, and other topics.

Lets get going!

N0PCL operating from Tahquitz Peak in January, 2014.  Marit took this photo.