I'm a recently minted General Class amateur radio license holder, with such poor radio reception at home that I decided to try portable operation from a better location. Participating in the SOTA program, my eldest son and I mounted an expedition to transmit atop Stratton Bald in North Carolina at 5360'.

We hit the trailhead at 11 on Saturday, October 6, 2012. With radio and camping equipment, our packs were 58 and 35 pounds. For us, that's a lot. Combined with some wet leaves on wet roots, I took a tumble on the way in which left me with a minor abrasion and the ignomy of flailing on my back like an overturned turtle.

We were the first to arrive in the meadow at the summit, so we were able to claim the high ground. Visibility was about 50 yards, due to fog. We set up camp in a breeze I estimate at 10 MPH. It was chilly. After nightfall, the fog closed in and we had some heavy rain overnight, with a little lightning a mile or so away. Visibility fell to about 25 yards at dusk. It was typical weather for Stratton Bald.

The plan was to operate first with a vertical antenna and then with a W3EDP horizontal. We set up the vertical and staged the W3EDP, with one end about 20' up the tallest tree we could find. Since we were traveling light, we left the feed line at home. We attached the antenna wire to a BNC-to-binding-post adapter on my Elecraft KX3, and we set up four 17' radials near ground level (strung across the grass -- generally not in direct contact with earth). The vertical component was 33' of wire zip tied to a 31' Jackite pole, with 2 ft' running horizontal to the radio. We used 22 gauge stranded wire, with Teflon insulation. My radio's antenna tuner only managed an SWR of 4-to-1, which surprised me.

Shortly before airtime at 1 PM, we found a contester (K6LA) using our primary frequency of 14.285, and at 1900+ contacts, he showing no signs of fading anytime soon. I made a *brief* contact with him -- my first (lifetime) QSO. There was lots of noise on 14.345, our alternate frequency, so we called CQ on several nearby frequencies, with no response. At about 1:10 I decided we'd call CQ on my published frequency for 15 minutes, despite the noise and throw in the towel on the vertical, if we didn't raise someone.

N1FJ responded from west Massachusetts within a couple of minutes and gave us our first spot at SOTAWatch, and a signal report of 57. NT1K also spotted us, as did N2YTF.

I *think* it is fair to say that I had a small pileup. At least, it seemed that way to me. The wind picked up about the time we went on the air, so I had a little trouble hearing. As I mentioned, I'm a very new ham, so I messed up a lot. Experienced hams rattle off their call signs quickly, and I think that experienced hams also *hear* and remember call signs quickly. I had to ask for lots of repeated identification in order to accurately record the call signs. Everyone was very patient and helpful.

One way I messed up is that I was just scribbling call signs, locations, and signal reports on scraps of paper. I neglected to accurately note the precise time for each QSO, and since I scribbled on multiple pieces of paper, I can't reconstruct the exact sequence of whom I spoke with when!  I started with a notepad and at some point I lost it in the folds of my jacket, so I started scribbling contacts on my cheat sheet of licensed frequencies.  (Next time I operate sitting cross-legged with a radio in my lap, I want to use a kneeboard with pre-printed log forms -- on waterproof paper.)

The fog turned to mist. The mist turned to rain and the wind picked up, so I had to shut down. Since we'd spent a full day in a thick fog, everything was getting damp, including our sleeping bags inside the tent. We were scheduled to return to the air at 4 PM with our other antenna, and planned to stay a second night. Since we'd been shivering in an open field, with damp clothes/sleeping bags/tent, and my stove had been difficult to light, and I was experiencing gastric distress, I decided it was time to get us off the mountain before we had an emergency It took us about 90 minutes to strike camp in the rain and to hit the trail.

By 4:30, we were half-way down the mountain, the weather warmed, and the sun came out! If we could have seen the future, we'd have stayed and held our second session and we'd have gotten to see the stars at night. (Since Stratton Bald is in a wilderness area, if you're on top and the sky is clear, the stars are awe inspiring.) On the other hand, if we'd stayed and encountered more heavy rain with high winds, we'd have had a problem. I'd rather be in the valley, wishing I was on the mountain, than on the mountain, wishing I was in the valley. Plus, I'd promised Mom to bring our son home in good health!

We achieved a number of firsts:

  • First activation of Stratton Bald (summit ID = W4C/WM-020). My son is very excited that we're the first to transmit from there.
  • My first QSO
  • First QSO with my new Elecraft KX3 transceiver
  • First portable operation
  • My first summit-to-summit activation
  • QSO with Canada
  • QSO with England
  • QSO with Germany

As best I can reconstruct it, here's my list of SOTA QSOs:

Call Sign UTC Time Location RST for My Signal Comments
N1FJ 1713 West Massachusetts 57 N1FJ followed up with a kind email, with helpful suggestions.
DK1AX 1715 Germany  

Confirmed afterward via email.  Klaus says, "I was in Germany - had about 700 Watts and a 3 element yagi.  You had a good signal here in SW Germany... Good condx - but you must have also a good station."

I guess the KX3 did pretty well, and my half-wave vertical wasn't such a bad idea after all.  Plus 5360' of terrain helped. ;-)

N1EU   Albany 57  
W0MNA   Leavenworth, Kansas 59 His signal was 59 too.  I wonder if he had a beam or an exceptional antenna.
NT1K   Massachussets 55  
VE2JCW   Montreal 55  
G4OBK     44 G4 Oscar Bravo Kilo was very patient.  I had a tough time copying the 'B'.  Someone else was kind enough to interject and correct me when I read back 'R' instead of 'B' for the umpteenth time.
WA2UEM   New Jersey 56  

Mont Sutton, Canada

  I'd already called a sign off (QRT) due to the rain, but he called with a summit-to-summit activation, and I couldn't let that pass. Mont Sutton is SOTA ref VE2/ES-009

All this on 8 AA lithium batteries and 6 watts.  (Bad SWR caused KX3 to reduce power.)

There were more people to talk to, but the rain was a real problem.  For the last 2-3 contacts, I was peering at my radio under the edge of a poncho I'd draped over it to try an keep it dry.  The ink on my log was starting to smear and the pages were turning to mush, so I really *had* to quit.

The big observation from this trip -- Ham radio is really much more fun when you make contact that when you call CQ and get no response.  (Duh!)

The best part of the trip is that I've got a great Number One Son.  He did a lot of work, carried a heavy pack, was an extra pair of hands with setting up the antenna, and hiked for hours in the rain without a complaint.

All errors in capturing contacts accurately are entirely my fault, and the result of my inexperience.

I am *so* grateful to the hams who returned my call and patiently worked with me as I shivered and stammered and mis-copied.  THANK YOU!


Cell Phone Coverage
  • No cell coverage is available at the summit.
  • I could not reach 2 meter repeaters. If you have 2 beam, you might do better.
Getting There - Driving
  • From Atlanta, take I-75 north.
  • Take I-575 north.
  • Take GA-5 north.
  • In Copperhill, turn left on TN-68.
  • In Tellico Plains, turn right on TN-165/Cherohala Skyway
  • At 23.8 miles, you'll cross the TN/NC state line.
  • Park in the lot on the left at 35.34518, -84.03546.  (There's a real, paved parking lot.  It has a low, rock wall between the lot and the road.
    • The Benton McKaye trail is supposed to exit the lot on the north end (the end from which you were driving). In 2012, this section of the trail was closed.  You'll hike back up the skyway (northwest) about a tenth of a mile.  There's a gated road to your right.  (The gate is up the road a bit.) This was our trailhead.
Getting There - Hiking
  • Follow the trail along the state line.  (It is a two-track dirt road.)
  • There's a well-marked (in 2012) trail crossing in Cold Spring Junction, a couple of miles from the trailhead.  My memory is a little fuzzy here. There's a cross-trail, the Benton McKaye trail ahead, and a trail ahead and to the right, and it climbs.
  • The trail ahead and right is the old trail, from before the Benton McKaye trail re-routed the Fodderstack trail. You want the trail up and right.  It runs up the ridge to the Stratton Bald trail.  One of the guide books refers to this trail as being left nameless when Fodderstack was re-routed.  When we were there, this trail had a metal post with "54A" on it.   (It is #95 on some older maps, but 95 now continues straight, rather than going up+right.)
  • After lots of up-hill hiking, and duck-walking through rhododendron, you'll come to "the Bob Tee,"  with a trail running to your right, to Bob Bald and Stratton Bald.  Take the trail to your right.  (The other trail takes you back down to Fodderstack/Benton at Cherry Log Gap.)  As you walk it, pay attention to your left.  At about 0.1 mile, you'll hear running water and see a short length of white PVC pipe.  This is your best bet for water.
  • There is an alternate source for water just off the bald.  It was too cloudy for my taste, but it might be OK with a filter.  After you enter the open bald and climb to the very top, turn slightly to your right and there is a stand of green fir trees. In the hollow below the trees is the spring.  You'll find it as there are little side trails down to it.