So here we are in Ballygally, County Antrim, Northern Ireland, in a Christmas holiday apartment with a stunning view over the bay. Preparations are almost complete to host my father-in-law Jimmy (who lives four miles down the road in Larne) for Christmas dinner tomorrow. We had driven up the M6 and A75 down to Stranraer for a B&B stop, before crossing with P&O (Cairnryan to Larne, 2 hours) yesterday.
The journey saw us work some SOTA and WOTA activations. There was Mickey M6MMM/P on Shining Tor G/SP-004, Brian GW4ZRP/P on Moel Famau GW/NW-044 and Foel Fenlli GW/NW-051, while Phil G4OBK/P kept us entertained from Fairfield G/LD-007 plus WOTA LDW-221. We missed him on St Sunday Crag G/LD-010 as we were inside Westmorland Farm Shops (Tebay) services having a coffee. On the broadcast radio I heard Eden FM 87.7 while on that part of the M6, and later Dayze FM 105.3, suspected to be a Belfast pirate, after the crossing. While in the queue at Cairnryan port, a very readable signal was heard on 10m SSB from VR2XMT in Hong Kong. My 5 watts, unsurprisingly, did not make it back to him.
Jimmy (the EYP version, as opposed to his grandad) and I hadn’t alerted anything in advance, favouring taking later decisions based on family plans and local weather. But those things conspired for a first outing on the morning of Christmas Eve, Saturday 24th December 2011.
At odds with all the forecasts and rain radars that had been carefully monitored, we drove south from Ballygally to Larne in heavy rain at 0530 UTC on Christmas Eve morning. By the time we had climbed up the A36 and onto the road that passes to the north of our target, it was now very light snow, so more acceptable.
The first hill therefore was Agnew’s Hill GI/AH-005. There is a walled pull-in at the side of the road with room for one car. From there, we walked 200m along the road to the big stile signpost Ulster Way. Now the climbing in wet boggy grass could begin. As us two headtorch donning walkers gained height, so the wind gained ferocity, causing self-doubts amongst us.
The “fun” began after climbing a third stile, which we knew signalled that we were nearly there. But the so-called Ulster Way was barely defined on the ground, and this featureless lump of peat with its plateau summit was shrouded in thick mist, as well as the pre-dawn darkness.
After a bit of calm logic, using the wayposts and our compass, we eventually found the elusive summit cairn, although several peat banks in the area have the look of being higher. We instinctively dropped away from the prevailing wind, and soon recognised the exact same spot where we had operated from in our 2008 activation.
So up went the antennas, but not without difficulty. Jimmy battled for agea to untangle his guy lines for the 2m SOTA Beam, while a known weak section in my SOTA Pole snapped completely. I managed to get the 40m dipole hung at about 4m AGL, and even then it was fragile. Fortunately, it lasted te activation.
Jimmy and I then managed to co-exist inside the same bothy bag without any tension. Of course, this was my new 4-6 man bothy bag, and Jimmy and I could both sit in it, operate our radios, and move about without touching each other or breathing on each other. Much more harmonious!
My own stress levels were not tested, for the lower 40m dipole on the broken mast performed as it would do normally, and Jimmy quickly had four contacts in his logbook - one in each of GI and GM, and 2 in G (Cumbria). My own activation was a satisfying one, all 40m CW from 0805 to 0833 UTC, and 30 QSOs, so slightly better than one per minute. 14 DXCCs were worked, which were DL, F, G, HB, I, LA, OE, OK, OM, ON, OZ, PA, S5 and JA!
The descent was easier in clearer skies and daylight, but still not without incident. I kept putting my foot confidently on what I assumed to be bits of white rock poking through the peat, only causing me to skid and tumble over, for they were not rock, but shreds of wet snow! Three times I ended up on my backside. I remembered something similar happening the last time I descended this hill in 2008.
After driving back down the hill into Larne, we availed ourself of an Ulster Fry before heading back up to Ballygally.
Skeleton plans for the remainder of the trip are an early morning activation of Slemish GI/AH-007 on Boxing Day, then a 6m contest activation of Carn Hill GI/AH-010 on the evening of Tuesday 27th. It would be good to work the chasers then, as it was this morning. Many thanks for the contacts.