Happy New Year to you.
As several others have said, I also recommend you to take the plunge and start activating. You will surely end up copying some callsigns and completing some QSOs.
In my opinion, Andy’s (MM0FMF) advise about asking for a number in case you can’t copy anything in the pile-up is a good one, but I fear it may be a better advise for activators in Europe than in the US, because asking, for instance, for a number 4 in Europe, may produce answers from almost any area and any distance in Europe, i.e. G4, DL4, EA4, IK4, ON4, HA4, SM4, UA4, and it’s also quite unlikely that there are too many callsigns with the same number in a SOTA pile-up. May be 2,or 3 max, but never 8 or 10, I believe.
However, if you are activating a summit in W0, depending on the band you are working on and the propagation conditions, you may ask for that same number 4, and have either nobody or have loads of people hearing you and calling you from FL, AL, NC, SC, KY, VA, GA… the #4 US callsign area States (sorry if I forgot mentionning some of them).
Although it’s true that this has changed lately and it’s becoming more and more common to find a W6 or a W1 transmitting from the #4 call area, these are still a minority, I believe.
Imagine you are activating on 40m at noon in the area of San Francisco, California and you ask for a number 6… you’ll probably get about the same pile-up, I guess…
Bear in mind, Joe, that no matter how huge a pile is and how long do you think you’ll need to pick up at least a couple of letters in a calling callsign, there will most of the times be either a very strong signal calling you, much stronger than the others and therefore perfectly copyable by you in spite of the others calling underneath, or a tail ender who’s callsign you’ll be able to pick up because he/she’s calling you alone after all the others have already stopped calling.
You take the plunge, Joe, you’ll surely sweat your clothing that first time, but you’ll make it, you’ll enjoy it, you’ll learn a lot from it, you’ll be eager to repeat the experience and when you’ll do it, you will surely do it even better. And so on and on…
As Andy said, you must always be in charge. The pile-up need a consistent operator, otherwise chaos is guaranteed. If you ask for WB4?, don’t give up and keep asking 3 or 4 times if necessary until you have copied and worked the WB4, ignoring any other possible indisciplined hams calling you when you have already asked for that WB4?. If the WB4 doesn’t show up after those 3 or 4 calls, you can proceed by calling CQ again or QRZ?
Do never pick up breakers in a pile-up.
A good practice for you will be listening to other activators while they are dealing with their pile-ups. Think that you are the activator and those chasers are calling you. Try to copy and write down the callsings of the chasers calling that operator, the signal reports and summit reference info in the case of a S2S.
Getting familiar with the callsings of the regular chasers is also very helpful. Try to make a list of the 20 TOP chasers of the activations other hams have previously carried out recently in the area you are planning to activate, as most of those TOP 20 chasers will very likely chase you too.
Well, I won’t get longer. Welcome to CW SOTA and I’ll be looking forward to chasing you soon from the other side of the Pond.