Christmas 2011 in GI

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.

Tom M(I)1EYP

In reply to M1EYP:
Good to have worked you on 40M CW this morning. At first I couldn’t hear you at all. I listened for a while, was about to give up, and then suddenly you became a strong signal here in N Hampshire. Very strange that.

Anyway I hope you and Jimmy have a very enjoyable Christmas in NI. I hope to catch you on other NI SOTA summits.

Best 73s
Andrew, G4AFI

Cheers Andrew. Maybe not so strange. That sudden change was about the time daylight broke, so presumably a sudden availability of shorter skip.

Tom M(I)1EYP

In reply to M1EYP:

Hi Tom, I also listened after your first spot but couldn’t hear you. I checked the Chilton Ionogram & the F2 Critical frequency was only 5.8MHz at the time so 40m was not working for inter UK at that time. I switched off & took the opportunity to go back to bed, it’s great being on holiday! Hi!

Of course the critical frequency rose quite rapidly as daylight kicked in, hence inter UK NVIS propagation suddenly becoming possible as it passed through 7MHz on it’s way upwards.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

Best 73,

Mark G0VOF

In reply to M1EYP:

Hi Tom & Jimmy
I am also in GI, at ‘home’ for Christmas, staying with the inlaws in Lisburn. I had a SOTA day off today after having activated Eagle Mountain and Slievemoughanmore yesterday and Slieve Muck two days before that. All under the guidance of Brian MI0TGO (The Great Outdoors!) Brian is a great mountain man but doesn’t do much radio from the top. I am trying to convert him… I intend to do Slieve Croob on Monday and perhaps a couple more of the bigger summits on Tue and Weds. Eagle was a real challange for me and followed by the second summit, which was necessary to get home, nearly did me in.
Unfortunately, I have lost (left on Muck) one extension end of my 60m dipole so won’t be QRV on that band unless I can find a bit of wire lying about.
Have a good xmas and I will maybe hear you S2S in a day or two from unique number 104 this year - all as a result of the EYP’s presentation to the Warrington Club.

Boxing Day, Monday 26th December 2011, and the next 5am get-up for Jimmy M3EYP and Tom M1EYP. The whole idea of these 5am get-ups while on holiday is to be able to do a SOTA activation and still be back at the accommodation for around 10am, and therefore not impacting upon other family activities.

This time the target was Slemish, the steep sided volcano that was the “works QTH” of a certain shepherd now known as St Patrick. Every way up Slemish involves hand-to-rock, so tackling it in darkness was going to be interesting. We arrived in the windy car park at around 6.45am, and donned headtorches and packs.

We had studied the forecast for gales, and were prepared therefore for a 2m handheld only operation on the very exposed summit. The other kit was carried as back-up, even though we weren’t sure there would be any sheltered spot to erect it.

We climbed the relatively steep grassy slopes towards the volcano plug. But note I do say “relatively” - for it soon gets a whole lot steeper! We avoided the normal initial ascent route, which is a very steep and rather strenuous scramble. Instead, we wandered around towards the western end in order to pick a marginally more graded line upwards. It still required a bit of hand-to-rock and a couple of big steps though!

Once on the summit ridge, we were greeted by the awesome force of the gales. I would say that this was pretty close to the limit in terms of safety. But just the right side of that limit, so we pressed on, carefully. We reached the summit, but continued over to look for shelter. This was found under some rocks beside the summit, and we sat here and rested while we decided what to do next.

It was 0730 UTC, still dark, and there was no way that any antennas would remain standing and undamaged in that wind. So the first strategy was to try a HH+RD activation. Calls were tried by both of us on 2m and 70cm FM, but to no avail. The lack of early morning Belfast commuters was apparent. A bit of morning light began to poke through, and we could survey the scene for further operating possibilities. Bingo! Just a few feet from where we were, the land dropped sharply by about ten feet to a small grassy ledge that would take Jimmy and a SOTA Beam. It then dropped another 7 or 8 metres to a grassy area that would take me and a 40m dipole. But best of all, is that both spots were well sheltered from the wind by the main summit area. Thank goodness for that 25m activation zone concept!

As usual, the time it took Jimmy MI3EYP/P to gather his four contacts, was about the same as it took me to work 34 QSOs and clear my frequency. But that was the nice easy bit - we had the steep descent to follow. Many thanks to all callers. I finished packing away just as Jimmy was about to start, so I commenced my descent knowing that he would catch me up before the car park!

Walking back down the ridge the wind was even more intense. I felt grateful for my body mass, but feared that my lightweight son might be taken for an impromptu flight! Clambering down the sections of wet rocks and greasy peat was less then pleasant, but then the flatter grassy section from the volcano plug to the car park was worse, with both of slipping and falling at some stage. Back at the car park, radio station Q107 from Ballymena (formerly Seven FM) was noted on the car radio.

We returned to the holiday apartment in Ballygally around 10am, and were served with blue stilton on soda bread and a mug of tea by Marianne - delicious. The family activity today was a tour of the north east Antrim coast. This is a stunning drive in itself, but augmented with a walk up to Torr Point and a super lunch in Ballycastle. We then enjoyed a stunning walk along a rather violent North Atlantic Ocean to the famous rope bridge, and then another to the even more famous Giant’s Causeway. The towering waves that exploded against the tight tessellation of hexagonal prisms of basalt were almost as terrifying as the gales that thundered across the summit ridge of Slemish that morning!

Tom M(I)1EYP

then a 6m contest activation of Carn Hill GI/AH-010 on the evening of Tuesday 27th…

…but not in this weather. Seems that while G and GW have good wx for SOTA today, not so for this evening here in GI.

Jimmy and I will be QRV in the 6m contest tonight, but not from a SOTA summit, and not from the outside of the car. I would nonetheless be delighted to work SOTA chasers, even though there won’t be any points on offer.

Currently poring over OSNI 1:50000 mapping to finalise choice of site.

73, Tom M(I)1EYP

In reply to M1EYP:
Because you were to be somewhere I can “see” on VHF from the home qth (via a wormhole in the Cairngorms) you were on my list for trying to work during the contest. All set-up but couldn’t hear the NI beacon on 2m which was odd as it was well in the clear earlier in the day so had a quick foray into the garden to check the antennas.

Some little disfunctional b*****d had been in the garden & crashed my mast - not a failure, a deliberate act! Barry is one sore little bunny!

Hope you had a good one on 6m - one day we will make it!!

Barry GM4TOE

So much for only inner city council estates harbouring such characters! Hope you get it sorted.

As for the 6m contest, it was bobbins. Despite having a lay-by spot with a decent take-off in all directions other than North West - and we weren’t expecting much from the Inishowen peninsular anyway - few people were heard, and significantly fewer were worked.

M0GVG/P near Macc worked us without difficulty, as did G8APB (Congleton) and (of course) GI4SNA, but that was all that was in the log by 9.30pm, by which time the gales were of such a nature even at our lower position (IO74BU) that I decided enough was enough before another pole section was consigned to the history books.

Rubbish. And it hadn’t even rained by then, contrary to the Met Office, so we could have done another summit after all. Still, at least I had already hit the “perfect” 8000 points mark for the 6m UKAC series this year, so there was nothing to be gained anyway.

See you in the UKACs in 2012 hopefully.