SOTA Activation – W6/CT-226 Cerro Negro Benchmark

On Valentines Day, February 14, 2014, I found myself 3,000 miles away from my sweetheart trying to activate a Summits on the Air (SOTA) peak in southern California.

My goal was to get at least four contacts from the summit of Cerro Negro Benchmark, W6/CT-226. I failed at achieving the minimum required contacts to get the points for the effort and I scored negative points by not having a Valentine’s Day present for my wife back home.

Here's the summit. It's a small knob next to a large flat area. The concrete monument holds the actual USGS bronze benchmark. A shrine was also on the summit. More on that in the story. Photo credit: Tim Carter, W3ATB

Here’s the summit. It’s a small knob next to a large flat area. The concrete monument holds the actual USGS bronze benchmark. A shrine was also on the summit. More on that in the story. Photo credit: Tim Carter, W3ATB

Trio Hike

I hiked to the summit with two of my very good friends, Dan Murray and Steve Loyola. Steve lives just four miles away in Altadena, CA, as the hawk flies, from the Cerro Negro summit.

Dan Murray lives in Boulder, CO and we’re all part of a secret mastermind group intent on, well, I can’t tell you any more.

A Bump

Because everything is relative, I called this summit a mountain, but native southern Californians call it a bump, or small hill. After all, Cerro Negro is only 575 meters, or 1,886.48 feet, tall. The mountain peaks in the photo above are about 5,000 feet above sea level.

Steve is a technology wizard and had his smartphone EveryTrail application running to track and chart our entire hike. You can see a map, trail statistics, and exactly what we did by visiting the page at the EveryTrail website.

Sunny Southern California

It was a very warm day, with abundant sunshine, when the three of us started up the gravel maintenance road communication workers use when they need to service all the commercial antennas crowding the summit.

Lots of antennas up on this hill that cover the Pasadena, Glendale and Altadena, CA vicinity. Photo credit: Tim Carter, W3ATB

There are lots of antennas up on Cerro Negro blanketing the Pasadena, Glendale and Altadena, CA vicinity. Photo credit: Tim Carter, W3ATB

Lost Password

The day before we climbed to the top of Cerro Negro, I tried to login to my SOTA account to announce I was going to be there. For some reason, it would not accept my password.

When you publish your intentions to climb a SOTA peak in order to activate it via the SOTA website, the website publishes your itinerary to other ham radio operators. The ham operator climbing the peak is called an activator.

Back on the ground, the other hams who want to talk with the activator are called chasers. They can be in their houses, cars, outdoors in their backyard, or even on other SOTA summits waiting for you to get on the air.


SOTA awards the activator, the person climbing the SOTA peak, and the chasers points if they make a valid communication or contact with each other. It’s a fun way to blend hiking with ham radio.

Active SOTA chasers can amass many points in a day as they sit in their shacks in their skivvies while the activators have to often invest hours to get one or more points climbing, setting up their radios, and descending from a peak. Each SOTA summit has a point value based on all sorts of factors including the height and difficulty of scaling the peak.

Two Radios

I brought two radios with me as I wanted to try long-distance HF using Morse code and then use a small handheld radio on the local 2-meter frequency.  My HB-1B four-band transceiver was perfect for the job as it’s a compact radio made for hiking and outdoor radio.

The multi-band thin wire end-fed antenna allows me to make contacts using Morse code on the 20 and 40-meter bands.

Small Handheld Radio

To work other operators in the southern California Los Angeles basin on 2 meters, I also had packed my Baofeng UV-5R. With all of this equipment, I was confident I’d be able to gather the four needed contacts to activate the peak to get my two points. But without having my intentions published on the SOTA website, it was a crapshoot.

It didn’t work. I was able to hear plenty of Morse code conversations on 20 meters, but when I transmitted my 1.5 watts of power couldn’t be heard or other operators decided not to come back at the slower CW speed I’m using at the current time.

Failed Activation 🙁

I then jumped on 2 meters with my small handheld radio but was only able to get one contact. The operator who came back was in the midst of an ARRL 100th anniversary contest trying to get as many contacts as he could.

He was kind enough to let me take over the national calling frequency, 146.520 Mhz, to see if I could get my other three contacts. I was not successful and yielded the frequency back to him.

On the summit, there was a nice sitting bench. Next to the bench was a poured concrete pedestal that held the official USGS bronze benchmark. Someone had built a shrine with four white plastic skulls, a smaller painted blue skull, color photographs, a tiny elephant, a piece of pottery, and a metal cap to a beer bottle.

This is the shrine that was erected in the honor of some man who was in the photos we found. Cerro Negro must have been a special place for him. RIP. Photo credit: Tim Carter, W3ATB

This is the shrine that was erected in the honor of some man who was in the photos we found. Cerro Negro must have been a special place for him. RIP. Photo credit: Tim Carter, W3ATB

I still had a great time with Dan and Steve. I got back to Steve’s house, and waiting for me in my email inbox from SOTA were instructions on resetting my password. I did that and now am ready to try again!

CW Pileup Story and Tips

It happened so fast it was over before I knew it.

I had about ten minutes to kill before I had to eat dinner and scoot to my monthly Central New Hampshire Amateur Radio Club meeting. Moments before I had raced up to my shack to drop off some 1-cent stamps for my QSL cards.

I jumped on 20 meters and went to 14.050. Nothing. Deader than a doornail.

I went up to 14.055 and had the same results. My CQs were like trees falling in the forest.

No one was listening, or if they did hear me, there was no pathway back to my zepp dipole 80/6-meter antenna.

I decided to give 40 meters a shot.

I tuned my antenna and was 1:1. Sweet.

After tuning to 7.058, same thing. Nothing. I was beginning to think everyone was eating dinner.

I gave it one last chance at 7.050.


Seconds later I hear someone tuning up.

Bingo. Even though I’ve only been doing CW for four months, I knew what was coming. This guy or gal was cracking his/her knuckles getting ready to come back.

I send out: CQ DE E W3ATB K

Immediately, I hear back:  N1EFX

Cool! I’m going to get this QSO in.

He sends his call one more time, then KABOOM!

All of a sudden, I hear three maybe four other operators pounding my call sign.

GULP! What do I do now?

N1EFX was trying to transmit, but I could hear nothing as the frequency was jammed tighter than two 16d sinker nails driven into a 1/4-inch concrete hole at the same time.

I panicked. How could I answer all of them? What should I do?

I did the stupid thing and turned off my rig thinking it was some ferocious animal that was going to bite me.

But as I was exiting the shack, I let out a huge Yahoo! and the grin on my face must have been wider than the 405 in west LA.

Down the steps I went and proceeded to make a quick salad with turkey cubes and croutons. I inhaled it and sailed out the door headed to my meeting.

Once in route, I turned on my 2M Yaesu 8900-FT and called to see if by chance my mentor, Jim Cluett – W1PID, would be listening.

“W1PID this is W3ATB calling.”


“Jim, can I call you in about ten minutes? I’ve got a story that I’m sure is going to make you laugh.”

“I’m driving now and can’t talk. I’m headed to the meeting.”

“Oh, okay, I’ll just talk to you there.”

Well that’s rare. Jim usually doesn’t go to the meetings, but then it dawned on me that tonight the topic was D-STAR and Jim is just getting into that part of the hobby.

I get to the meeting and just a few are there. Jim had beat me and was standing alone looking at his cell phone.

“I’ve got to meet with Adam for a few minutes, then I’ll catch up,” I said.


Jim is a man of few words most of the time. I can’t say as it’s a bad policy.

Once Adam helped me see if my new multimeter was accurate, I cornered Jim.

“Guess what happened?”

“Did you try to transmit and your antenna was down?”

“Oh no, I had my first pileup. It was amazing. I had no clue what to do so I shut off the radio.”

I fully expected him to break out laughing.

Nothing. Stone face.

Hmmmm, I wonder if his blood sugar is low?

“Well, pileups are normal. Did you at least get any portion of one of the operator’s call signs?”

“Oh yes, I got the first guy out of the chute, N1EFX.”

“Well, all you had to do was wait till the commotion died off and then call him back. The others would step aside and wait to work you once you finish up.”

And there you have it. The words of wisdom of W1PID dispensed matter-a-factly.

Now I know what to do and I can’t wait for my next pileup baby!

Morse Code 6 WPM Alphabet and Punctuation

Here’s a quick demonstration of Morse Code at 6 words per minute (WPM).

I just cover the alphabet and a few punctuation marks in this video.

Your takeaway should be that it’s not too hard to learn Morse code.

Years ago to get your novice license, you just had to be proficient at 5 WPM. That’s even slower.

My mentor, Jim Cluett – W1PID, told me that the test lasted five minutes and you had to copy perfect code for a minute straight at any point during the five minutes.

With a little practice you can do that. If you want to hear Morse code at different speeds, just go to the ARRL page that updates new Morse code practice MP3 files on a routine basis.