The SOTA experience

If the incidence of global spots on sotawatch.org is anything to go by, Summits On The Air appears to be a big success.   The world-wide program and community galvanises people interested in low power (QRP) gear, portable operation, and outdoor operating, each with its own long traditions in amateur radio. What is it about this relatively new competition that has caught the enthusiasm of radio enthusiasts world-wide?

SOTA is a new concept that reprises familiar themes.  Mountain-top amateur radio operating, most visibly in the USA, is certainly not new.  In the States, where large amateur populations, great roads and prominent peaks often overlap, the mountaineering radio ham movement could be seen as a consistent meme in the dog eared pages of ARRL handbooks in the 1970s and 1980s.  A flea-power culture emerged, featuring the apocryphal QRP classics such as the Rockmite, the Norcal kits, and a hundred different keyed oscillators crammed into Altoid tins.  Homebrew QRP, with all of its quirks, fueled the mountain-top and hiking brigade, adding a kind of  idiosyncratic craftsmanship to the mountain top stories.

20150406_164631VK3/VC-002 Mt Donna Buang, my first SOTA activation on Easter Monday (6th April) 2015.

Folklore has played a part.  Stories of improbably long distances spanned using a fistful of milliwatts gave the endeavor an almost heroic sheen, particularly when contrasting the mountaineer’s skill, determination and style with that of the QRO brigade’s heaving kilowatts down on the prairie below.  A combination of altitude, remoteness and something mystical in the atmosphere up there that seemed to breed a kind of synergetic performance from these tiny oscillators on a wire.  Just as the solitary fly-fishermen in the upper reaches of a mountain stream brought back stories of the fighters that got off the hook, the mountaineer QRPer’s experience was his alone. What he heard on the mountain stayed on the mountain.  Mere urban rag-chewers, in the shadows Far below, could only wonder.  That was how it seemed as I grew up in the 1960s and 70s reading the thumbed pages of handed-down post-war QST and ARRL Handbooks.

Today, microelectronics and digital design have blown he mystery off the mountaintop like a wind dispensing mist.  Digital has put a fully functioning HF-VHF-UHF amateur station in the backpack and reliable, global digital network links in the pocket.  These ubiquitous communication options make ham radio look positively archaic.

That we often use our 4G cellular services to broker and arrange inefficient, noisy and unreliable amateur band hookups, is surely ironic.  But it is this quaintness, and the willingness of like-minded people spread across the bands to reach out in conversation to strangers, that drives the hobby’s enduring appeal.  Perhaps it is part nostalgia, part irony and a healthy part of boyish fascination of speaking without wires.  We twenty first century radio hams and craftsmen are a kind of steampunk movement without the goggles but just as curious.  Whatever it is that keeps the hobby from finally expiring, mountain-topping under the SOTA regime might just be the shot in the arm that kicks it all on for another decade.

For me, SOTA brings together two of my life-long favourite things — small, home-built flea-powered radios, and mountains The peaks seem to enrich the experience of operating. For a start, it is enlivening to be on the top of a mountain where the views, crisp air and majestic forests below lift the spirits even before you reach out into the ether.  Then there is the way the radio comes alive on a mountain-top — the chaser’s voices through the ‘phones sound livelier than ever as they punch out above the almost non-existent noise floor.  It is like you have discovered and bypassed a previously unnoticed attenuation pad in the signal path.  And if we are truly honest, being in hot demand by the chasing hordes, finding ones-self under a dogpile of your very own making, is surely good for the ego.

SOTA creates a form of gentlemanly competition and a benevolent marketplace that sits well with the progressive side of the hobby.  It is already driving portable operating innovations, in the form of SOTA antennas, high performance digital QRP rigs and operating best practices for chasers and activators alike.

The SOTA model seems sound.  Being a physical activity, it is not something that can be overrun by commercial interests.  Point-scoring cannot be automated or delegated.  Mountain-tops  are, pardon the analogy, a level playing field for antennas, gear and operators alike.  You cannot (yet) lug a kilowatt to the peak, and even if you did, it would make no difference to your activation score.  It requires planning, physical activity and reliable hear.  The rules and structure encourages activity where other outdoor award programs lack something in incentive.

SOTA looks to be here to stay.  Thanks to its UK founders, the rule makers, and association volunteers.  Long may it prosper and evolve into new and better forms.

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