SOTA weekend at HOTHAM Heights

This usually annual event is known as a SOTA “summit” and also as a S2S-fest in that it attracts up to 20 frequent activators, and you know what sota operators do when there are operators on nearby summits. It is held in the high country of Victoria (VK3), an area that is well populated by high value summits.

My plan for this weekend was to activate several summits en route to Hotham, activate whatever summits I could on Saturday and Sunday then activate more on the way home. My plans changed a bit during the weekend, but my overall goals were to meet with a bunch of like minded SOTA enthusiasts and earn around a hundred activator points and several hundred S2S points.

The plan started with activations of some VK2/RI summits on Thursday, followed by overnighting at Albury or Wodonga, on the NSW/Victoria border, then activating more summits on Friday. My nominated and alerted summits for Thursday were Mt l VK2/RI-016, followed by two more summits /RI-005 and /RI-003. I also planned to call in to see Bernard VK2IB at Holbrook.

My first summit was Mt Burngoogee VK2/RI-016, which is not far from Tarcutta on the Hume Highway. It used to require a short walk from the locked gate up to the summit. However the gate was open and there was no problem in accessing the summit.

I operated about 100m north of the towers this time in a fairly clear spot. Made 8 contacts on CW and 5 on SSB.

After finishing there I drove to Holbrook and texted Bernard vk2ib to let him know I had arrived (I was running late). We met in a cafe in the main street and we had a good chat and planned an activation of Mt Jergyle VK2/RI-004. I had planned two other adjacent summits but by then, Gerard VK2IO was at one of those making good progress to the 44 contacts for his parks log, so I decided to give him a reasonable chance to do that without someone else nearby creating QRM. So I took up Bernard’s offer of navigation assistance to Mt Jergyle which I had never been to before. We went there in convoy and activated using Bernard’s equipment and antenna.

After completing the activation we headed back to Woomargama, where Bernard turned right to Holbrook and I turned left to Albury. I visited Bunnings on the way to my motel, to buy some heatshrink tubing for an antenna feedpoint repair that night. I had a gas soldering iron and other small tools for such repairs.

On Friday morning I drove to Mt Big Ben and set up my sun shelter to operate from. Rain showers were in the area and it turned out to be very useful.

Setup on Mt Big Ben, west of all the towers

At Big Ben I made 7 contacts on 80m, 6 on 40m, 2 on 20m and 2 on 17m. The mode split was 8 on CW and 9 on SSB. No VHF contacts made.

Departing Big Ben after latching the gate.

Leaving Mt Big Ben – this is a few km down from the summit, almost back to the main road.

With rain looking more likely by the hour, I found a way to Mt Stanley and arrived there just in time for a downpour that dictated donning the rain pants and a raincoat. Then I erected the sun shelter (should have had an enclosed tent) and the antenna. Finally I carried the rest of the backpack over to the shelter and set up on HF.

On switching on there was noise from lightning at about s7 so I hoped I had enough time to qualify and get out before it got closer and more dangerous. But after making 3 CW contacts there was a closer and stronger lightning crash and my reaction was to immediately unplug the antenna from the radio and put the feedline away from me. Then the easterly I had set up for (with shelter opening to the west) moved around to the west and a few squalls blew rain all over my radio and logging tablet. I picked up the radio and put it inside my jacket for protection. Then I sat in the shelter for 44 minutes waiting for the storm to abate and get back on the air.

a bit damp everywhere on Mt Stanley.

After about 30 minutes the storm seemed to have moved on, then 10 minutes later it seemed quite distant and there was only light rain left. So I hooked it all up again, made the remaining contacts (3 more on CW and 2 on SSB) and finally closed down. After packing up there I drove to Bright and bought a coffee, filled up my fuel tank, then headed to Hotham Heights. Note that I had learned my lesson from my previous trip to Hotham, arriving there with only a half full tank of fuel. There is no fuel at Hotham.

At Hotham I met with most of the others who would be members of the SOTA party all weekend, including Brian 3BCM, Peter 3PF, Tony 3CAT and wife Nan, Glen 3YY, Allen 3ARH, Compton 2HRX, Gerard 2IO, Rick 3EQ, Leigh 3SG, Phil 3BHR and John VK5HAA who had driven over from Adelaide that day. The consensus was that a meal down at the General store would be well received so that’s where most of us went. Planning for the weekend was largely around a set of loops around sets of summits, which had been documented by Peter VK3PF and really simplified the discussions about who would go where the next day.

Loops: unlike an antenna loop, these are sets of summits that can be activated more or less in sequence, some being drive-up, others requiring some footwork.

On Saturday morning Ken VK3KIM and his daughter Chantelle arrived and joined with others heading out for the day.

Compton and I had decided to attempt three summits on Saturday. Setting off around 9am we arrived at the unnamed vk3/ve-070 in time for S2S contacts on 2m fm, then a string of cw contacts on 40 and 20m including of course, ZL1BYZ.

Packing up and moving to the next summit, Albion point VE-080, we were in time for S2S contacts with nearby summits, contacting 2IO, 3PF, 3YY and 3CAT on 2m fm, then 6 cw contacts with VK3 and VK5, ending on 20m cw with ZL1TM and ZL1BYZ.

Compton snapped a pic of my setup. The tarp is the one I’ve been using for several years. KX3 transceiver, 4.2AH LiFePO4 battery (which happily did 3 activations on Sunday and Monday), light pole for 2m antennas, 7 inch Lenovo logging tablet running VK Port-a-log. A balun is connected to the antenna terminal, then 300 ohm ribbon goes up to the doublet terminals on the 7m pole.

vk1da at Albion Point ve-080

With these two summits successfully activated, time to move on to the next one. unfortunately after quite a drive, we came to a roadblock. After lowering the tyre pressures to be sure of traction back up the hill, we retraced our path back towards Albion point, to look for an alternative route to our planned summit. There are many ways to become lost in these forests so only the most likely tracks can be considered. Later we found out where we took the wrong turn, but too late by then, of course.

Road closed

I used my new air compressor to air up the tyres once we got back on the sealed road.

The wx was threatening rain so the traditional drinks and nibbles event on Mt Hotham was postponed to the Sunday.

On Sunday morning I activated Mt Hotham for the purpose of making contacts on 144 and 1296 mhz with VK1 operators. Andrew VK1AD was planning to operate from Mt Ginini and I expected contacts with hm to be very easy as the path is not obscured. Also, Al VK1RX was going to be at Mt Ainslie in Canberra, Chris VK1DO would be on 144 and 1296, Jim VK1AT/3 was operating from near Lakes Entrance and Andrew Vk3JBL was at Connor’s Plain also to the south.

All these contacts were made relatively easily, with only Al VK1RX on Mt Ainslie being a very low signal level and VK1DO was worked on 144 but not on 1296. Antennas used at Mt Hotham were an oblong loop on 144 and a 4 el yagi on 1296. Power levels were 25 watts on each band. The radio on 144 was a kenwood TR751A. On 1296 I was using an FT817 driving an SGLAB transverter and the SGLAB 25w amplifier.

After making these contacts, a number of other portable operators from the Hotham group were active, including VK3PF/EQ/2IO group and another larger group (HRX/ARH/SG/5HAA/3KIM/3BHR at Blue Rag Range, not far to the south of Hotham. For these “line of sight” contacts either SSB or FM was used. There was no need to move the antenna to make these contacts as signal levels were so high.

Messy setup on Mt Hotham in the morning sun.
Camera tripod and 4 element yagi for 1296
working a few locals on 2m FM with the HT
L-R 7m pole with HF antenna, tripod with yagi for 1296, short pole holding rectangular loop for 144. Trig slightly uphill in distance.

Having made 39 contacts over 3 hours, many on 1296 and with some duplicates, I finally packed away at about 11AM and walked back down to the car.

A nearby summit I’d never been to was VK3/VE-024, another 10 point summit. It was described in Peter’s notes in terms of where to park and how to navigate up to the summit. Much of the walk was through knee-high vegetation and you had to just have faith that your boots and jeans would protect you from any local wildlife that didn’t like your presence. No such problems occurred and I rather regretted wearing the jeans by the time I had reached the top. It wasn’t a quick walk.

Contacts made from VE024: 7 locals on 2m fm and 23 HF contacts on 3.5, 7 and 14 MHz including 4 cw contacts, and including ZL1BQD, ZL1TM and ZL1BYZ. Good to hand the points out to the regular chasers also including Peter VK3ZPF, Garry VK2GAZ, Warren VK3BYD and my neighbour near Yass, Mark VK2KI.

lower sections of the walk, lots of dead timber
At the top of the first climb I found this marker. Seemed fairly permanent.
En route to VE024
That’s ve024 just up the hill a bit
Getting closer
No, not a better way
another sideways glance
Station setup at the top, sun shelter for radio and logging tablet put to good use
view from ve024
The small pole supported the naked flowerpot antenna for 2m fm
The 7m pole and the ZS6BKW in their usual setup. normally wrap the ribbon around the guy ropes to keep it off the ground.

I was fairly tired after getting back to the car so wanted to activate a third summit that was not too far away. I selected Blue Rag Range VE015, as my final summit for the day. It was a short drive away. I set up the shade tent there for the relatively short activation. Made 10 contacts on various bands, including 4 on CW. No photos taken.

After packing away again, I drove back to Mt Hotham where a group photo was being organised. I kinda missed the drinks and snacks part of this event, but we all went to dinner at the General store after that.

Dinner at the General store. L-R Allen 3ARH, Peter 3PF, 3AGS, Nan (CAT), Rik 3EQ, Gerard 2IO, Andrew 1DA, Compton 2HRX, Leigh 3GS, Brian 3BCM. Photo taken by Tony 3CAT? and shared with the group later
View from the lodge looking east at 06:50 local time
Some of the group’s cars packed at the side of the lodge

On Monday morning some of those attending had to head home. The hard core SOTA enthusiasts decided to stay another night or more, and Monday turned into another three summit day for me.

John VK5HAA and I drove out to Mt Blue Rag VK3/VE-021 initially, then to Basalt Knob vk3/ve-039. Hot on our heels were Peter VK3PF and Gerard VK2IO, who activated the same summits but went first to Blue Rag range, which is on the road to Mt Blue Rag. Meanwhile Compton set off to find the summit we failed to reach on Saturday. Tony went in another direction to find more summits.

en route to Basalt Knob

At Mt Blue Rag, my log showed 15 contacts, the first 6 on 2m FM and the rest on HF CW and SSB. ZL3MR, ZL1TM and ZL1BYZ are there too with regular chasers VK3BYD, VK3GTV, VK1CT and VK2KI. Also YC2VOC from Indonesia is in the log, a welcome addition.

At Basalt Knob we set up in a fairly densely wooded area with trees and grass making things “interesting”. VHF/UHF fm contacts were followed by contacts on 80, 40 and 20m and again working ZL1BYZ, JH1MXV, VK2HRX on the found summit, Steven VK2STG and Mark VK2KI.

Using tarp as shade at Basalt Knob
antenna just visible among the trees and grass

Before long Peter and Gerard had caught up with us and we had a chat and arranged to meet back on the main road, as Peter was departing in the Wodonga direction but the rest of us were planning a third activation.

Our third was Mt Loch, which appears to be fairly close to Mt Hotham and is clearly visible from the road. The walking track took us to Mt Loch after about 45 minutes and we set up next to the trig. Early evening gave us good propagation on 80m.

My log showed two contacts on 146 fm followed by 6 CW qsos on 80m.

John demonstrated amazing flexibility by showing how he could send with a paddle whether it was configured in right hand or left hand mode. ie. dots on the thumb or dashes. We all made our 4 CW contacts towards our CW qualification.

It was getting towards sunset and we knew it would take a while to get back to the car, so we reluctantly closed down at 6:30 local time. As it was I think we reached the car well after dark.

On the following day, I returned home driving up the Hume Highway, visiting Bernard VK2IB at Holbrook on the way.

The stats for the trip were:

Summits activated: 12

Activator points earned: 96

S2S points earned: 361