After Action Report: Four Corners Land of the Big Windy Talkers
The two lane highway stretched away before us with Utah in the distant gloom. It was getting late and the sun is going down behind the spires of Monument Valley AZ. If you squint your eyes it looks like the towers of a big city gone dark. The squelch breaks on 146.52. “ is it dinner yet? And on we rolled on passing Navajo Hogans (houses that look like yurts). Occasionally a deer would dart through the headlights followed by an even hungrier chuplacabra. We had just finished our first of four summits of the radio day. This day had been 6 months in expedition planning. We were in middle of activating and climbing four SOTA summits in four separate regions, in four states, in three grid squares, in one day.
6 months earlier: It is a cold winter day, in one of the driest winters in southwest history. The usual snow shoe summit expedition’s had turned into a exercise in tolerating dust and cold. A lot of Saturday afternoons was spent pouring over Google Earth, searching for easy pickings. In the far northwest part of my home state New Mexico there were just a handful of peaks, which lead to my mouse crossing the borders of Utah, Colorado and Arizona. Southern Colorado abounds with summits. The mouse slid over the San Juan Mountains, then Utah. The land was, barren like North West New Mexico with just a smattering of Island in the sky Mountain ranges. Finally in Arizona, just one mountain stood out. Pastoria Peak. The rest of Arizona’s peaks were hundreds of desert miles away. It’s as if the Great SOTA Spirit or worse Murphy had taken a butter knife and shaved the prominences to make the Mogollon Plateau. Don’t get me wrong, there is spectacular topography, in the form of holes in the ground… Like the Grand Canyon. Right smack in the middle of was the cross hair of the four corners. A geographic convergence of boundary’s, caused by wars, incursions and eastern politician’s in back room deals. The idea emerged!, How hard would it be to get to those Islands in a sea of sagebrush? Better yet how hard would it be to run the geographic SOTA table…. In one day?
Pastora Peak AZ W7A/AE-015 was almost thrown out as politically too hard. It was deep in the Navajo Reservation. Experiences with the Pueblos, was that “you can’t get there from here”. Or worse, “not just no but hell no”. However a quick search on Google, revealed that- not only were we welcome, but for 5 dollars a day we could get a permit to go where we pleased. It turns out the Navajo Nation has an extensive tourist industry and visitation is encouraged across a land that is half size of France. On Google Earth the road to Pastoria Peak looked like an all-weather BIA road. However close inspection revealed several dark spots, a sure indication of deep ruts and mud holes higher up on the mountain. Numerous zigzags also indicated a rather steep climb. With the exception of a few scattered hogans (Navajo Houses) it was desolate. The nearest service was at least 25 hard earned miles from the summit. The final climb to the summit was bushwhacking through Cedar and oak brush. There were a lot of ankle breaking scree fields and boulders. The summit did have a few pine trees good for hanging antennas. There is a probable camp site, but the nearest water hole may be 30 or more miles away. We bumped into one Navajo shepherd on his way back from town. He kept asking us if we had seen any “Big ones”….??? That is all he said, He may have read too many Tony Hillerman books.
Abajo Peak UT W7U/SU-014 was easy; On Google Earth there was a nice bright white line indicating a all-weather gravel and cliché US Forest service road. On the summit you could make out an extensive communication site. The town of Monticello lay at its base. When Google earth is in 3D mode the mountain shows it true stripes the East Face in near vertical and the drop is over 1000 feet and our “nice” road cuts right across the exposure. Activation was straight forward, but we needed to get underneath the radiation pattern of the antennas on the summit. There are plenty of fir trees, with a field of fire that could reach Las Vegas or Salt Lake City on VHF. However we did not hear a peep.
Park Point Colorado W0/SJ-019 was the only high speed choice in Colorado. Just to the north lay hundreds of expedition Grade Mountains. Colorado has fourteeners, and most are straight up leaving very few “little easy ones” Any one peak there would cost two days backpack travel and most likely a technical rock climb. Park Point is smack dab in the middle of Mesa Verde National Park. On Google earth it looks like city park with lots of convenient parking. It was. In fact it had a paved trail (Take note ADA folks) wheel chair access to the summit and lookout station. With benches designed for geezers on SOTA Operations. The fee to the park is 5 dollars per car. If you bring non ham family members this would be a good place to keep them busy while you pick off an easy 6 points.
Lone Tree Mountain NM W5N/NL-005 was a compromise. Our initial plan was pick 4 summits 4 regions, 4 grid squares. However the SOTA spirits did not co-operate. The one peak that did qualify was about 2 hours past our goal of 4 summits in one day. On Google early Lone Tree is marked by a Wikipedia icon, (as are the others). It is in a maze of roads. On Google Earth you can make out hundreds of well heads, Tank farms and very bright white gravel roads. There were so many roads in fact that getting lost in the gravel maze was a real possibility. However, one road leads right to the base of this little knob. Further research revealed a Geo Cache and the prolific Peak Baggers had been here just days before us. As it turns out it was a very rocky but short climb. It was so hot the snakes were hiding in their holes. There is only a stump left of the “lone Tree”. It is a crappie pole mountain.
Our fist problem was just getting there. Again the Google help. As it turns out about a third of the trip was on dirt roads and half of that was all weather Forrest service. However, Pastora peak presented an unknown. The Peak Baggers alluded to a road that was rutted and even muddy. Apparently that had summit-ed in the early spring. For us, a standard passenger car was out, even a high clearance pickup or SUV is not adequate. Then as if by Magic the SOTA spirits produce two brand new 4X4 vehicles. Like manna from heaven… no Toyota and Ford from heaven. We were blessed and the first problem solved.
George, WB5USB whose home mountain range just happened to be the San Juan’s began to work the Navigation problem. It appears that Mr. Garmin has not been to a lot of places in the Southwest, and in some cases he may have been drinking heavily when he was there. So George began to tease accurate way points out of Google Earth, plugging them in to the GPS and Maps. In many cases he used a single Line of Position to indicate a turn. This is actually a nautical technique. We used this method in the oil field maze. We had some paper Maps, but they were vague. The BLM maps did not arrive in time. Never the less George strung a feasible route together with printed Google Earth Photos. We decided not to bivouac in the rough, rather we would hit a motel in Monticello UT. The good news was that George grew up in this region. Thanks to him there were no real surprises. GPS is a adjunct to navigation, Keep your heads up and look for landmarks. You can always use the GPS breadcrumbs to find your way back. But! If you run out of batteries and its dark, you will become chuplacabra bait. Make every effort to get 24000000 scale USGS topo maps on paper.
We kept the vehicles filled up especially before each summit. We probably had near 30 gallons of water and enough snacks to keep us alive for a few days. We had lot of ice and cold soft drinks. I believe that two liters per day of water may not be enough. I drank liquids almost continuously. We did stop for fast food. However we had dinner in Monticello UT at ……… Here we had prime rib that was out of this world and must have come off a brontosaurus. We definably needed the protein after Pastoria Peak. For those that camp, there were plenty of sites, as well as supermarkets to replenish vittles. Randy K5RHD brought his band new Toyota as a backup vehicle. His skills as a Alpinist and ski bum in Montana had sharpened his off road skills. Gasoline stations in Arizona are few and far between. Make sure you gas up and not fall below half a tank on the approaches of any these peaks. This is a safety issue. You must be able to self rescue on Pastoria. This was the primary reason we took two vehicles. Redundancy may save your life.
I wish I had been on CW! George WB5USB settles in and bangs out contacts and is QRT before I can even saddle up. The other reason I would like to be on CW is there is less interference and more punch through in bad signal conditions. We tried VHF and only picked up one station that was just down the road in Mesa Verde National Park. We tried 24 MHZ with no joy. I did manage to pick up a few on 40 meter phone. Never the less we all had more than enough contacts. We really tried to work everyone. Our equipment included two KX3s and a FT-817 loading into Endfedz half waves on kite poles. I also had a SLV. Randy K5RHD launched his antenna on Abajo Peak with a slingshot. Randy was also the primary Phone operator and is becoming very skilled at teasing a call sign out of a pile up. He also experimented with his Alex Loop. There were Plenty of Fir trees on Abajo. However the summit is unusable because of the high RF environment. It was like Sandia Peak, and bricked our radios, phones and altered our genetic future. So we drove a down the hill just inside the activation zone. This was under the field of fire of the commercial antenna farm. During the approach phase we were able to access New Mexico’s Mega link. We maintained a constant chatter on 146.52. We maintained a solid APRS track never missing a squawk. Cell coverage was spotty, never the less I was able to get a Text spot out from Pastoria. We worked on average about 15 stations on each peak, mostly on 20 and 30 meters.
We completed the entire operation with an hour and some change left.
Planning in detail prevent most Murphy related incidents.
Some antennas are not field expedient in high winds (Loops for instance)
Paper logs might be a good idea. Jury is still out.
Paper Maps are a must as is a good compass, hard to orient with a tiny GPS window.
Vehicles need an upgrade for this type of off road use.
Redundancy in equipment is a must, Radios, Vehicles, Water.
We needed a basic crash box, tool kit, which was planned for but forgot.
Check list needs to be current.
Without a doubt this was the most fun I have had with SOTA, not just activation, but the whole pie. Planning and working out the details. Developing team work between three very quirky nerds (Network Analyst, Field Biologist ,Logistician) and then executing a plan near flawlessly was nothing short of a miracle. We had our doubters! However, now it is in the log books and APRS track. In the future I would like to camp out with a substantial antenna farm. We had wanted to work EU/VK DX and the lower bands, however as tactics developed we put these ideas on the side. Next year we have a top secret plan to run it up to 40 points. Now if only the great SOTA spirit with send us a helicopter.
QRP ARCI #10970
« Au-delà des montagnes il y a montagnes »: proverbe Haïtien
"Beyond mountains there are mountains" Haitian proverb