Author’s Note: My very good friend and mentor Jim Cluett, W1PID, said, as I was writing this story, “Why is it taking so long? It’s simple. You hiked, it was hard going in the snow, you got to the top much later than you thought, you were too tired to operate HF and you took some photos. What more is there to say?”
Well, a lot more – maybe too much. Read for yourself and be the judge.
“Short notice. Do you want to do a SOTA (Summits on the Air) activation today of Mt. Morgan? Two of my non-ham friends would come. Be at the trailhead at 12:30ish.” It was April 6, 2014 and a gorgeous early spring day in central New Hampshire.
Cliff’s, N1RCQ, email had more important information in it, but that’s all that my brain focused on. His email made it to me at 10:53 am, so I had to choose what to do and didn’t have lots of time to dilly dally around.
I was excited to do more outdoor radio, especially HF (high frequency) using my HB-1B rig doing CW (Morse code). I had my first SOTA activation eight long months ago so I was itching to do another. Mt. Morgan is part of the Squam Mountains chain that guards Squam Lake’s northern shore and the 210-degree panoramic view from the north northeast to the southwest would be stunning today.
Those thoughts put up a barricade in my mind about what might be in store.
If you were to ask my wife when she saw me crawl through the door just before 7:00 pm, she’d tell you I chose poorly.
I failed to do the math to calculate what I’m calling the Summit Multiplier (SM). When conditions are perfect, you’re in shape, you have all the right equipment, you’ve got plenty of energy and water before you leave and have extra in your pack, the SM is 1.00.
Anything that makes the average outing more difficult adds to the SM.
Cliff’s an expert hiker. I’m not. Put 0.35 in the SM column.
Cliff’s friends, husband/wife team Kirk and Lori, are also very experienced hikers.
We still were in the throws of late winter even though the calendar said spring had arrived two weeks ago and there was not a cloud in the sky to block the warm rays of the brilliant sun.
I knew there was still abundant snow in the woods and on the mountains as I can see it from my home. Around my own house, the snow on the ground was still 18 inches deep in places with piles next to the driveway 4 feet high!
But just days before, I walked on some great hard pack snow with my good friend Jim Cluett, W1PID, to operate once more by the mystical Pemigewasset River at Profile Falls. How bad could it be going up Mt. Morgan late in the season?
Bad – very bad.
Cliff and I drove separately to the trailhead on State Route 113. You can find it about 5.4 miles from the intersection of 113 and State Route 3 in Holderness, NH.
This is a popular area for hikers as Rattlesnake mountain – it’s really a small hill – is just south of Mt. Morgan on the south side of Route 113. Hikers have their choice of Rattlesnake, Mt. Morgan and Mt. Percival and there is abundant parking on either side of the road at the trailheads.
“Did you bring your gators?” Cliff asked me while he was getting red gortex ones from the back of his Toyota SUV.
“No, I don’t have any.” I’ve meant to get some, but I just put it off the last few years. Add another 0.15 to the SM.
You may be thinking the animal with the big jaws and sharp teeth, but that’s not what Cliff had.
Gators are ingenious clothing accessories that keep snow out of your boots, they keep your lower pants legs dry and they can even be used to keep small stones from getting in your boots as you hike across scree when there’s no snow around.
Kirk and Lori arrived about ten minutes after Cliff and I and it took just a few minutes for all of us to be heading up the trail.
We soon discovered the snow was about 16-18 inches deep on the edges of the trail and slightly less in the center of the trail where hikers’ footfalls had compacted the frozen flakes that had fallen for months. By this time of the year it had turned to corn.
Imagine billions of bags of frozen baby corn kernels scattered on the ground and you need to walk on and up them. With the air temperature screaming towards 50 F, the melting of the snow/ice corn made for tough walking.
I was equipped with my Kathoola microspikes, but I felt more like I was walking through dry sand at OBX – the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
It was 2.1 miles from the parking lot to the summit, but I’m here to tell you it was like walking 5 miles, maybe more.
Late season corn snow definitely deserves 0.50 added to the SM.
A Three-Hour Hike
“When do you think you’ll be back?” Kathy asked me as I was scurrying around to get ready to leave.
“Oh, I should be back by about 3:30.”
Idiot. Did you even do the math? Did you not remember Cliff thought it could take well over an hour to get to the top? Add 1.25 to the SM.
Because I was short on time getting ready and had a late breakfast, I skipped lunch. I had three delicious Peanut Toffee Buzz Clif bars in my backpack so I was in good shape, right?
Wrong. Add 0.25 to the SM.
I was soon to discover we’d not even summit until 3:30 pm and it’s a strong 40-minute drive to get back home to the delicious bacon potato soup that was to revive me from the low-energy coma I was soon to be swallowed by.
No Mile Marker Signs
I now know why most trails don’t have mile markers on them. If they did, most rookie hikers would turn back and go back down to their cars. The rookie hiker’s psyche is very fragile and fatigue screams at you that you’ll never ever make it to the top.
In certain situations, the mental battle that rages in a person’s brain between bravado and sanity causes distress and all too often death. Every year bold hikers die on trails thinking they can do it, when in fact they’re walking towards their doom.
I routinely walk 3.3 miles around the block at my home, so in my head the 2.1 miles was child’s play. Maybe Mt. Morgan miles are measured in Jupiter miles.
You know how one human year is equal to about seven dog years, well, maybe hiking miles are like that because after hiking what was undoubtedly only one mile, I felt like I had gone two.
It was glorious hiking through the forest, but I soon discovered the hard pack snow was only about 12-16 inches wide. If you strayed from that pathway – and it was easy to do in the slippery corn – you post holed.
Post holing is why you wear gators. When you post hole, your foot drops down 16 inches faster than a peregrine falcon dives to get its supper.
If the sudden drop catches you off guard, you can easily go off balance and fall into the snow.
Are we having fun yet? Oh yes, we’re on a SOTA and CW adventure. It’s worth it!
Part way up the trail, Cliff told me to go ahead as Lori and Kirk were struggling a little bit in the corn because they had no ice traction devices on their hiking boots.
I had no issues going ahead alone and bathed myself in the glory of the woods, the natural beauty and the vision of operating soon from the summit. The trail was clearly marked, I was wearing my lime-green Milwaukee heated sweatshirt, so there was no danger I’d get lost or not be found.
Fifteen minutes later I heard a couple of sprite-like voices and there ahead coming down the trail towards me were two fit middle-aged women.
“Hi! Are we pretty close to the summit?” I asked because by now I surely must have gone 1.6 miles.
There was a long pregnant pause and the one woman cast a quick sideways glance at her friend. I knew I was not going to like what she was selling.
“Uh, you’ve still got a ways to go to hit the summit. We crossed the ridge some time ago.”
“(MENTAL GROAN) Oh, well I’m closer than I was a few minutes ago!”
We parted ways and undoubtedly they said, once I was out of earshot, “Oh, that poor old goat’s probably not going to make it.”
I slogged on and put that minor mental setback deep into my mind. I’m going to get to the summit in no time I thought.
Hunger was clawing at me so I stopped and gobbled down one of my Clif energy bars. I wanted to devour a second one, but thought the better of it. I might need it later. That proved to be a very good decision.
Ten minutes later, Cliff caught up.
“Lori and Kirk are behind and will meet us up top. Let’s get going. It’s close to when we’re supposed to be on the air.”
When you decide to do a SOTA activation, you post your intention on the SOTA website and other operators on the ground wait for you to get to the top so they can work you.
It’s smart to put in an approximate time for when you think you’ll summit in case of issues like:
- snow corn
- no lunch
- no gators
- first hike of the season
Little did I know, but when Cliff and I had this brief exchange, we were probably standing at mile 1.2. The ladies were right, not only did we have a ways to go, we had yet to tackle the steepest parts of the trail.
I decided to get out my cute Baofeng UV-5R HT and I keyed it up to see if anyone was out there on 146.52. This is a small handheld ham radio that costs right around $35.00. It’s a great little radio that does 80 percent of what my more expensive Yaesu VX-7R can do.
Sure enough, KB1RJD, Herm up north, came back.
“Tim, you’re 5 over 9 and sounding great. Are you at the summit?”
Hah! I wish.
“(Huffing and puffing) No Herm, Cliff and I are not yet there. I think it could be another 20 minutes.”
“No problem. Merle and I are here and will just monitor waiting for you to summit.”
Cliff and I pushed on. We were on a mission.
Soon the trail got steeper. My microspikes saved the day. The steep sections were like giant steps. You’d scale a steep section that was about 200 feet long, and then the trail became slightly less steep.
After about 20 minutes we came to a trail intersection indicating we still had 0.4 miles to go.
What idiot came up with that determination. Surely we had already gone 3 miles.
We were at the intersection of another trail and the summit cone was still up a few of the giant steps. The trail incline got even steeper as we marched on.
I was so fatigued by this point, I didn’t even bother to look at my watch. I didn’t want to waste any energy. I was just focusing on moving up. Perhaps 15 minutes passed.
Up ahead was another trail marker. We were now just below the summit cone. In good weather, you have two choices at this point. Climb a very steep rock face plucked by the Wisconsin Continental Glaciers that covered much of North America, or you can add an additional 0.2 miles to your afternoon walk to get to the top.
It was too dangerous to climb the rock face. Cliff decided to sprint the remainder of the way as we were well behind our planned transmit schedule.
I was close. I could feel it. My brain did the right thing and shot some adrenaline into my blood. This magical chemical masked the fatigue and I made it to the summit perhaps five minutes behind Cliff.
When I broke through the trees and saw the deep blue sky I was overjoyed. I had made it!
The stunning views were magic eye candy that rewarded my aching body and growling stomach.
Cliff was getting ready to transmit as he didn’t want to loose the chance of activating this peak. We had worked far too hard to not get the required SOTA simplex contacts for the official activation.
As I was trying to recapture some strength, I was overpowered by the stunning views stretching from the north northeast all the way around to the west.
Once I caught my breath, I took a few minutes to soak up the natural beauty. It was a perfect day, although it would have been nicer had it been about 15 degrees warmer and no wind. But still, the early spring sun was bathing us in warmth.
I love views as you see in the photos and probably would have been happy with the hike even if I didn’t gather my required contacts to activate the peak. It was time to do it.
I retrieved my Baofeng UV-5R from my pocket and started to log contacts one by one. Cliff would grab them first, then hand them off to me. We were on 146.52 MHz and I was operating at 5 watts with the factory rubber duck antenna. I should have brought my Yaesu VX-7R with the 1/4-wave antenna to ensure maximum transceiving capabilities.
After making the required SOTA contacts, I finally took time to sit down and enjoy the view. I had been on my feet for at least three hours and it was just great to sit down. It was pretty much impossible to do this on the trail unless you wanted to be soaked sitting in the wet snow corn.
Thirty minutes later Lori and Kirk summited and we all chatted about the stunning views.
Cliff asked me if I was going to set up my HB-1B and do HF, but I was so exhausted, I decided that was for another day when the temperatures were warmer and I had the needed energy to concentrate on the incoming Morse code.
Before heading back down the trail, I inhaled another one of my Clif bars. It really hit the spot.
I looked at my watch and it was now after 4:30 pm. One of my contacts was a club member, Frank Towle – KC1AAQ, and I asked him to call Kathy to tell her I’d be very late getting home. I didn’t want her worrying if a yeti had eaten me like in the older video game Ski Free.
Cliff, Lori and Kirk decided to hangout more at the summit, but I decided to head back. Little did I know it was a wise thing to do.
I started racing down the mountain, and that proved to be almost as much work as it was going up. The snow corn was treacherous, and combined with my fatigue, I started to stray from the trail and post hole.
Soon my wool socks were soaking wet and my feet started to get chilled. The sun was getting lower in the sky and the shadows in the forest got longer and longer.
Believe it or not, I had to take five breaks going down the mountain. I would have never guessed that would be the case, but the walking in the snow was exceedingly difficult.
I thought it would take forever to arrive at the parking lot. My mind was being flooded with thoughts of rest, food and warmth. I can see now why hikers fall, and get disoriented. Your brain does funny things when you stress it like this.
After an hour and ten minutes, I made it back to my truck. I felt like a sack of rags as my friend Jim Cluett would say. Wet, hungry rags at that.
Will I do it again? Will I do more SOTA summits? You bet.
Next time though, I’ll try to keep the Summit Multiplier closer to 1.0 instead of 2.60!