Mt Torbreck, Pyramid Hill and Sugarloaf Peak 2017

The Melbourne Cup, a hugely hyped horse race affords Melburnians with a three day long weekend, allowing yours truly, being disinterested in all things equestrian, a day in the Victorian mountains, my first activations for more than 3 months. Mt Torbreck VK3/VN-001 in the Rubicon Range just south of Eildon would start the day, followed by nearby Pyramid Hill and the peak in the Cathedral Ranges if time and energy allowed.  Leaving Melbourne suburbs early, I turned the ignition key at 6:10am and drove towards Eildon, then south down Snobs Creek Rd to Conns Gap Rd, parking at Barnewall Plains Track by 0812, 2 hours and 2 minutes drive time.  The temperature was 8.5C.  The gate was open and a proper 4WD would have ploughed up the first steep section, but I happily walked the kilometer or so to the camping area then up the track to the summit. Steep, but with rewarding scenery, although the summit was in mist and just under cloud.

Upon reaching the ridge (from where the summit is about 200 meters north) I tied a white hand towel to a tree branch as a marker of the track. On my previous visit Tony VK3CAT had commented to be sure to pick up the track when descending just below the ridge, as it is slightly indistinct, and there is no orange triangle marker on the downward direction.  The towel acted as a visual bread crumb ensuring I wasted no time on the descent.

At the cairn a chilling south easterly wind made it unpleasantly cold, and I was not dressed for it, so I set up on the west side of the huge rock cairn for shelter. Spotting for 40m CW I had no trouble quickly working Steve VK7CW, Gerard VK2IO, Rick VK4RF and VK4HA. Then to SSB, Nev VK5WG, Rick VK4RF again, Geoff VK3SQ and Phil VK2JDL. No more chasers, it was time to move on, passing two groups of climbers on their way up. 

Pyramid Hill VK3/VN-005 was next. David VK3IL noted in his recent (June) activation the blanket of regrowth. Last time I was here it was a walk in a field, well, other than clambering over all the logging refuse. The extent and consistency of the regrowth was impressive. A thick forest of 3m high broad leaved acacias (?) with the occasional eucalypt. I presume this is the result of the logger’s burning of logged areas.

On the rocky timbered summit, spotting around 1300, things were slow on 40m, it being the middle part of the day.  S8 QRN predominated from the approaching rain front but not a man made sound across 40m, to be expected, it was the middle of the day, and people are not typically around at the absorption peak.  Spotted, my keyer called for me repeatedly on CW… no action. Then on SSB, Steve VK7CW gave me 3×1, Nev VK5WG 4×1. Jerry VK7EE called from Hobart and gave me 5×8, highlighting the remarkably sharp propagation distinctions that 40m can deliver.  Called for a further ten minutes until Greg VK7FGRA saved the day with a 4×5 on SSB.

Steve is at Yolla on the north-west Tasmania, not far from Wynyard. Jerry is at Crabtree, west of Hobart, a straight line distance of 230km. The difference in my path to each receiving station was 208km (598-390). The difference in received signal strength was 42dB (signal strength 1 is -121dBm and s8 is -79dBm). I’m over-analysing this comparison and QSB might have changed the s-readings substantially, but a good illustration of how this radio game is all about what’s happening up there in the ionosphere at the time between the two stations.

Back up Snobs Creek Rd, and around the corner via Taggerty towards Buxton and Catherdral Range, a dusty drive to a busy Cooks Mill camping area and on to Sugarloaf Peak, VK3/VN-011. Left the carpark at 1510, from where you are faced with two options:

Canyon Track, 30 mins – Hard — This track climbs from Sugarloaf Saddle to Sugarloaf Peak. Although not easy, it is less challenging than the Wells Cave approach.

Wells Cave Track, 30 mins – Very Hard — This track also climbs from Sugarloaf Saddle to Sugarloaf Peak, the highest point on the range, but is a more challenging approach. Avoid this track if you are uncomfortable in high open and exposed places. Not recommended for backpackers.Recommended as an ascent route only.

It’s not often I tackle a SOTA summit where there are two tracks, one hard, and one very hard.  I went up the climb marked ‘hard’. I did the ‘very hard’ track about 10 years ago with a group, but these days, I don’t feel the need to repeat the feat, particularly with a backpack full of radio gear.

The ‘hard’ path was a great climb, with one exposed part over the granite schists where it is necessary to keep ones’ center of gravity low, and think about every hand and foot hold, but that section was soon over, and at the top, the rocky summit affords fantastic 360 degree views.

Here, I erected the squid pole with dipole against a lone snow gum, just off the main path, to get out of the gusty and cool wind. My CW spot brought VK7CW and VK2IO on frequency, then Rick VK4RF. I was hearing the guys OK, but my reports from them were weak. I put it down to continuing patchy 40m propagation and the S8 QRN from the storm clouds on the western horizon. After moving to SSB I worked Phil Vk2JDL who gave me 3×8. Another sub-standard report. VK7CW gave me 319, VK2IO 449, VK4RF was my best report at 519. I tried unsuccessfully to work VK5NMG on CW, I sent 539 but could not copy his response, so no QSO.

WIith the 6 points bagged I QRTd, keen to get out of the wind, and as soon as I stood up and looked around all became clear — the dipole had come adrift from the top of the squid pole and was snagged on a branch at about 2m. The ends were tethered  2m above ground but the legs lay across rocks and shrubs. I knew something was not right!

I was so busy copying weak signals and listening through QRN that I never stopped to look up at the antenna. I had been exciting a counterpoise.

This was especially annoying as the last mod to my rig added a built-in SWR meter to help detect antenna problems.  I did this after blowing the PA transistor on Mt Nelse by hurriedly transmitting into a partially erected vertical.  And I even used my new inbuilt SWR meter at one point, flicking back and forth between forward and reflected power, noticing that the reflected power was unusually high, but not so high that it gave me concern.

Lesson: if the SWR is anything other than very low (the normal situation on 40m as my dipole is sharply resonant on 7100) then look up! I was also annoyed that I’d made it hard work for the chasers. Nev VK5WG had told me he would be listening for me but with my ground-aligned antenna he wouldn’t have heard a thing.

The drive home was unremarkable, leaving me with happy feelings of CW activations of Torbreck and Sugarloaf Peak, but a tinge of regret that Sugarloaf could have been so much more enjoyable for all concerned if I’d tethered the antenna properly.

SOTA activations often run smoothly and can even become routine. But as soon as we relax our preparation or setup things are more likely to go wrong.

Lesson learned, I hope.  That night the approaching storm dropped a healthy 3.4mm of rain over Melbourne and probably a fair bit more on the mountains.

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