BEN NEVIS via the Mountain Track on 8th September 2015
GM/WS-001 on 60-40-30m QRO & 2m-QRP.
SSEG Club-call GS0OOO/P & GM4YSS/P (the latter used for database).
All times BST (UTC plus 1hr, UOS).
Previous G4YSS-WS1 Activations:
G4YSS: BEN NEVIS GM/WS-001 - 19-May-10 (19 May 2010)
G4YSS: BEN NEVIS GM/WS1 & CMD WS3. Atvn, 23-Sep-08 (23 Sept 2008 inc WS3)
http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Summits/message/11656 (10 Feb 2006)
FT817ND HF/VHF/UHF 5W Transceiver without internal batteries.
MX-P50M, 50 Watt HF Linear Amplifier.
Link dipole for 80-60-40-(30)-20m Bands
Four section x 5m home-brew CFC mast with 1m end sticks
Unitone 'D’ shape ear-cup headphones.
FT817ND HF/VHF/UHF-5W Transceiver.
Reserve Rig: IC-E90 4-Band, 5W-VHFM H/H (not used).
3-element Sotabeam for 2m-FM.
PVC mast ext’n for use with FM-vertical atop the lower two mast sections.
One 6Ah Li-Po (Fully discharged)
One 2.2 Ah Li-Po (Part discharged)
12.2 kg (27 pounds) inc. 2 litre fluids
We decided to spend our Ruby (40th) Wedding Anniversary in Fort William, booking a month in advance with Lochs & Glens. A late self-drive deal got us 11 nights half board for 28 GBP per person per night at the Highland Hotel. Astonishing value! This attractive hotel occupies a commanding position overlooking the town and is no more than a 5 minute walk to the main shops. The food is great and the staff are helpful, efficient and very friendly. Though the main clientele are coach-bound, there are parking spaces outside for a dozen cars and free Wi-Fi in all rooms. We were lucky enough to be allocated a large room under the apex on the top floor looking out over Loch Linnhe.
At 4,408 feet ASL, the weather for Britain’s highest mountain needs to be favourable. The long-range forecast for the first week of our holiday included a fair amount of mainly sunny weather followed by an unsettled period with low-pressure systems coming in from the Atlantic Ocean. Driving up on Sunday the 6th in sunshine made me worry that we might be too late to exploit the period of high pressure but fortunately after a day’s rest, Tuesday the 8th was set fair and selected for the activation.
The original idea was to include WS3 (Carn Mor Dearg) and go from the Torlundy car park but as the time drew closer, I doubted whether I was fit enough to carry HF-QRO around two summits. After a busy winter I had gone into my usual summer mode which is normally one summit in one day and these activations were few and far between. The forecast was ‘good’ but I find walking in sunshine somewhat debilitating.
There was also the time factor to consider, especially after weeks of dreadful HF band conditions. The latter could work two different ways of course. Either you’re delayed by spending more time repeating reports with a slow QSO rate or you get very little at all and can move off quickly after qualifying. The prospect of facing that a second time on WS3 wasn’t an attractive proposition. The hotel breakfast could easily be skipped but I was loath to forego my evening meal at 18:30. In the end, limiting my efforts just to Ben Nevis and despite missing out on that wonderful Arete, did not take much deliberation.
A GPS route marked from my Feb-2006 activation, with its skull and crossbones waypoints defining the edge of the North Face, was used again. This is what used to be called the ‘Tourist Route’ but is now known as the Mountain Track. You can start at the Glen Nevis Youth Hostel at around 25m ASL, walking via Lochan Meall an t-Suidhe and up nine or ten zig-zags to the 1347m summit. Keen mountain men find it unpleasantly crowded. True, traffic is often heavy but to me it’s a means to an end, the purpose being to place a radio station on the summit via the easiest method possible.
The alarm clock was duly set for 04:45 and I sneaked out of the hotel fifteen minutes later. There is no night porter but I was careful to check the procedure in advance. A green button must be pressed to open the main door, then there is a disconcerting ‘click’ 10 seconds after passing through. ‘I hope I haven’t forgotten my car keys.’
The drive to the Youth Hostel in Glen Nevis takes less than ten minutes. It was early but I was surprised at the number of cars parked there. I barely got the XYL’s car into the last available space, though there were vacant places at the layby a short distance away. After final preparations, including swapping a fleece base layer for a walking shirt topped with a fleece and downing 1.3 litres of cold water (an unpleasant but necessary task) I was underway, crossing the Youth Hostel Bridge at 05:25 by the light of a headlamp.
Progress in cool conditions (for late summer) increased after the junction with the main path. At 06:15 as it got light, I entered the bottom of a cloud layer but well before the Lochan I was back out in the clear again. The parting of the last wisps of cloud revealed the towering bulk of Ben Nevis with a sliver of moon just above it; a stunning sight.
An hour’s steady walking brought me to the start of the first zig on the mountain proper and I began to feel like I was getting somewhere. There were miles and miles of mountaintops sticking up through a blanket of fluffy white cloud. The waters of Red Burn didn’t cover much more than the boot soles but by now a breeze, completely absent on the first section, was making the physiological aspects of the work a little more pleasant.
Near the hairpin at the end of the second section is a path that takes you straight up beside Red Burn. Perhaps foolishly, because it looked OK at first, I took this option but it soon got so loose steep and rocky that I was forced to cut across a boulder field to the right in order to regain the main path at its fourth zig. Nothing lost but little gained? ‘Stick to the plan!’ I told myself.
There is little that can be said about ascending a track of loose rock and gravel other than if it was anywhere but Ben Nevis, you’d just hate it. On the plus side the gradient allows for non-stop albeit slow travel and it would be very difficult to get lost here even in cloud.
By now the sun was impinging on adjacent mountains but the route remained in shadow. Thus far I’d had it all to myself which is far from routine in summer but on emerging from the top zig-zag, I spied two figures ahead. Two young men were on their way down having started their climb at 05:00; making the top in just two hours. I could have done with some of their energy and to be rid of the heavy pack.
Five minutes later I met a man, also descending with an expensive looking camera and lenses. His 03:00 start time was even earlier than the first two but I suspect little is unusual for this mountain. He had been successful in his intention of photographing a Ben Nevis sunrise. A short time later I too was treated to a sunrise, delayed by the topography of course, just before topping out at 07:53.
BEN NEVIS, GM/WS-001, 10 pts, 07:53 to 14:34 BST, 9 to 12 deg C, 5 to 15 mph wind. Sunshine throughout. Cloud in the valleys below until noon then clear. WAB-NN17/ Trig-TP1289, LOC-IO76LT. Intermittent Orange mobile phone coverage at the trig point but none at the QTH.
The steady plod had brought me up in just under two and a half hours; half an hour quicker than 2006’s ascent on snow. What’s more the summit was deserted apart from a solitary Raven; or so I thought. An hour later with still no one in sight, I saw some items of clothing hanging neatly from the summit refuge. Going over I noticed the open door with someone sitting outside in the sun. This turned out to be a French Canadian called Francis who had been in there all night. We chatted for a while and he told me he’d spent a comfortable night, despite the temperature dropping close to zero in the early hours.
Knowing that the intention was to stay for several hours and taking into account the number of people that could be expected around the trig, refuge and ruins on a day like this, I set up the station on an open rock field, a short distance to the SE.
VSWR checks revealed a serious antenna fault and my heart dropped. Surely I hadn’t climbed Ben Nevis just for equipment failure to ruin everything. With 40m in such bad nick, I wanted to start lower in frequency, hoping that the leftovers of night-time propagation would bring in some of the closer chasers before the sun really got going. The link dipole had worked faultlessly the last time out but now I could only get a match on two bands, namely 20m and 30m. The immediate conclusion was a break in one of the outer (LF) sections but that later became inconclusive. Worse still, to save weight, I’d thrown my dipole test and repair kit out of the rucksack the night before which now made continuity checks impossible.
I didn’t discover this until the following day when an investigation showed that the coax had taken in water. The braid was black, rotten and falling apart. There was no DC continuity but perhaps sufficient capacitive coupling for the higher frequencies to work unimpeded while 40 and 80m showed sky high SWR readings. I had a 2m beam as backup but decided to get on the air ASAP using a band that still worked, namely 30m.
10.118 CW: - 10 QSO’s
After hobbling over rocks to the trig point to phone Roy G4SSH for a spot, offset the dipole by pulling the 40m link on the ‘LO’ side and the 20m link on the ‘HI’ side. At 08:00z I called CQ, half hoping that G4SSH might answer but signals proved to be going way over the heads of ‘G’ stations. Using 30 Watts at first then latter 50 Watts to ‘scrape up’ the following stations were logged: EA2DT; DJ5AV; OE7FMH; OE5CSP; HB9AGH; DJ7AL; F6EAZ; EB2CZF; IK2ILH and OE5WLL. Apart from two 599’s, incoming and outgoing reports were all in the range 559 to 579. Progress was slow averaging three minutes between QSO’s. Though I checked before starting and at intervals, it is not possible for the FT817 to ‘see’ VSWR through the linear without switching it off. However, it did seem that all was well throughout the 10 MHz session.
Antenna Healed Itself?
The plan now was to try VHF and maybe 20m in the early afternoon but further SWR checks revealed that 40m and 60m were now working! To what do we owe this miracle? Since it was the forenoon, I decided on the lower frequency first.
5.300 CW – 6 QSO’s:
The above frequency was chosen for both CW and SSB after a prior study of the UK 60m bandplan. Though I have used a couple of the original five fixed USB channels (FE & FM) in the past, until now I had never used the single QRG/ 2-mode approach on 60m. This was an easy to remember frequency which was alerted beforehand. The fact that it is not suitable for Eire only came to light afterwards. Care was taken to set the rig to CW and not CW-R. On 5 MHz, the fear is always going outside the frequency allocations. In case club stations are still not permitted on 60m, I used my own callsign.
Stations worked with 50 Watts of CW: G4SSH; G4OBK; G3RMD; M0BKV; G3NYY and M1EYP. Outgoing reports were mainly 579 with incoming ranging from 339 to 599. The ploy had worked. ‘G’ stations made good use of this band.
5.300 SSB – 8 QSO’s:
Power remained at 50 Watts but the rig required tuning back to 5.300 after the mode change. That wouldn’t have happened with the IC706-2G which always seems to display the carrier frequency.
Stations worked with 50 Watts of USB were: G8ADD; G3RMD; G8MIA; G3NYY; G0VWP; G0RQL; G7BGA and G4OBK. One or two asked for the trig point number which is TP1289. In the QSB peaks, everyone was 57 or better except Brian G8ADD (Birmingham 55/ 45). Great thought I; some G’s in the log. The 60m sessions spanned about 20 minutes apiece. Opening the 40m links, I checked the VSWR which was still good. If the rogue dipole could just hang on a bit longer, it would help.
At this point I left the radio for a walk around the summit taking lots of photos on the way. The real purpose was to phone Roy G4SSH so that he could post me on 7 Mhz but the phone signal was completely absent for about 30 minutes. Taking a look at the north face without getting too close, I could see large patches of snow in the gullies below. The cloud blanketing the valleys had now cleared giving fabulous views, both out over the Mamores and beyond or down into Fort William.
A bit of SOTA History:
Using the GPS, I wandered over to the place where Jon GM4ZFZ had spent the night of 30th July 2004 in a bivvy bag for the first ever Top Band SOTA QSO and an S2S at that. It didn’t look at all comfortable anywhere close to here as there were large rocks sticking up at all angles. I will ever remember working him from Fountains Fell G/NP-017 just before midnight. Jon’s account of events can be found here: http://www.gm4zfz.com/ (See left hand side menu, ‘Top Band on Ben Nevis.’)
7.033 CW – 5 QSO’s:
At around 11:30 BST, the mobile phone system decided to wake up again while I was near the shelter and I asked Roy to spot me on 40m-CW. I think he also added alerts for 7.160, 144.300 and 2m-FM in the notes. Conditions on 40m didn’t seem as good as they’d been on 60m but this time both G’s and Europeans were workable. Sadly not too many could hear me so I continued with 50 Watts. If it had been just 5 Watts, I doubt if I’d have logged anybody. The band was far from being properly open and was full of QSB.
Nonetheless I did manage to work: LA3NGA; F6EAZ; S52CU/P (Mirko S2S on S5/JA-029); OK1ZE and finally Frid DL1FU. Incoming reports ranged from 229 to 559 (QSB) with a single 579 and the session took 15 minutes. It was a pleasure to work Mirko S2S (559 both ways).
7.160 SSB – 6 QSO’s:
At noon local time, Bill G4WSB opened the SSB session for me with a surprising 59 both ways and Don G0RQL followed. I was then called by Glynn G4CFS/P S2S on G/SC-004. The exchange was 55/ 58 but just as I was giving him 73, the rig abruptly shut down. Dropping the power from 50 to 30 Watts (FT817 drive 5 to 2.5 Watts) got me a further three QSO’s - PA7ZEE; M3FEH and G0GMY - before it happened again. After fifteen minutes there were no further callers. QSO rates had been slow today with plenty of CQ’s required.
14.052 CW/ 14.265 SSB - NIL:
I tried these two frequencies after swapping the dead 6 Ah battery for the tiny 2.2 Ah reserve. Five minutes of CQ’ing on each spot with 30 Watts was all I could afford; sadly without result despite Roy‘s advanced alert.
With little power remaining and a plan to try 2m-SSB and FM, I reluctantly QRT’d and packed up the dipole.
144.300 SSB - NIL
Using the lower two mast sections and a 3-ely Sotabeam orientated horizontally, I called CQ on all beam headings for ten minutes without success. The maximum power available on VHF was the standard 5 Watts from the FT817. Roy had advertised this for me also but it was evident that my signal just wasn’t going far enough to reach anybody or there was simply nobody within range monitoring the SSB calling frequency. Sadly we have neglected 2m-SSB for far too long. How could I now expect it to work wonders for me, especially with such meagre power?
145.575/ 145.400 FM – 7 QSO’s.
Adding the PVC section to the top of the carbon mast and reinstalling the beam vertically, I tried a CQ on S20 while aiming south but to no avail. Hoping that Ray GM3PIL in Nairn had read the emailed alert sent the evening before, I aimed the beam NE and set the rig to the Inverness net frequency of 145.575 Mhz. To my surprise and delight, Ray came straight back to my first call, giving my 5 Watts a 53 report. Using his collinear, Ray was a steady 58 on Ben Nevis which he seemed pleased to collect; this being the first time. Ray helps me every year with skeds on 160m but regrettably, my Top Band coils had been left behind today with the object of a lighter carry. Just what difference 2 x 39 grams added to a few more discarded items, would have made is unclear as it’s mostly psychological.
I was not in a big hurry so we had a nice chat after which I was called by MM3ZRF Bob who lives near Inverness. The exchange was 59 plus, both ways. We continued with a 3-way QSO for a while before I gave Ray and Bob my 73’s in order to try the full compliment of beam headings.
Here I was lucky enough to chose a SW heading first which brought in GI4KSO/P. Darrell was S2S on GI/MM-003 and our exchange was 51/ 55. He told me that Nick G(I)4OOE (home QTH Scarborough) and Geoff 2(I)0NON were between summits and due up in an hour or so. I wish I could have stayed that long but I was now looking at my watch and also thinking about what power might be left in the 2.2Ah I was using. Darrell had been working Nick and Geoff at various times throughout the week and promised to pass on my 73’s when he worked them next.
After the S2S and a full swing around, I aimed south and worked GM4FSV - John in Stirling; G0UDZ - Mick in Newbiggin, Northumberland (18 miles N of Newcastle); MM6OOP - Austin in West Kilbride (nr Glasgow) and finally GM4VGR - Jim in Stirling who gave me 55; the previous three being 59 both ways.
I had been on 2m-FM for an enjoyable 50 minutes but with a long journey ahead of me, it was now time to pack up and go. I did so to the accompaniment of a Scottish pipe band complete with a sizeable drum. They had been playing just SW of the summit for the past couple of hours and it gave the place real atmosphere.
The Long Descent:
Despite being in Britain’s highest place for coming up seven hours, I was as reluctant to leave this special place in perfect weather. After one final visit to the summit, noting that the builders were still there fixing the trig point plinth, I dragged myself away at 14:34. Now it was just a case of getting back down safely.
On the face of it, once the north face is cleared, in good viz there are few real dangers but with all the gravel and rock steps ahead of me, there was plenty of scope for getting a wrong footing. Unfortunately it’s a five mile walk-off, and for some reason it always seems further than the walk up. One is psychologically better prepared for the ascent as well as being fresh at the beginning of the day.
I felt OK down as far as the Lochan, even cutting out a couple of zigs on a direct path but by the time I’d got onto the lower section I was feeling somewhat weary and becoming increasingly bored with the steps. There was no breeze here, only bright sunshine like the rest of the day and the warmth was fast becoming oppressive. This was the tourist path so there were plenty of people in the same boat. I would not be stopping however, eventually coming to the left turn down to the YHA Hostel. What a relief when the bridge came in sight. I dragged myself over to the car, threw the rucksack on the rear seat and hit the aircon button. Bliss! The time was 16:39 which made it 2hrs-5 minutes for the descent and I was back at the hotel for 5pm, precisely 12 hours after leaving.
10 on 30m CW
6 on 60m CW
8 on 60m SSB
5 on 40m CW
6 on 40m SSB
7 on 2m FM
No answers to CQ’s on 14.052; 14.265 or 144.300 SSB
Ascent & distance: 1325 m – 15 km.
Elapsed time: Walking time – up: 2hr - 28min. Down: 2hr – 5min. Summit time: 6hr-41min. Gross time: 11hr-14min.
This was my fifth climb of WS1, the fourth for SOTA and the third time as a solo summit (I.e. not adding CMD GM/WS-003 via the Arete.) The mountain still holds a fascination for me and this was such a perfect day that I really didn‘t want to leave. The sound of bagpipes, the men cementing the trig plinth in warm sunshine and the colourfully dressed Ben baggers, combined to create an almost surreal impression. At times it seemed like I might have been attending a village fete, rather than being four and a half thousand feet up in the air. A slow pace on the radio interspersed with walks around the summit just added to this.
HF band conditions have been dire for months now and almost without respite. What was once the accepted main SOTA channel of 7.032 (+/-) has been almost deserted at times in past months. No longer can you ‘cold-call’ on there, expecting to pick up a shed load of contacts. Arguably, 10.118 has been the more reliable option of late. As far as short skip is concerned, there has been little to be had anywhere and even the 7.160 WAB net has been more or less absent for weeks now. Critical frequencies have been very low.
For this expedition I thought of reviving 60m for the closer chasers. Since then I realise that I am far from the first activator to think of this. In this instance 60m was a worthwhile option. The bottom line is that many ops have simply resorted to simple 2m-FM kit throughout the summer, albeit sometimes with QRO mobile rigs.
At 42 QSO’s my tally is somewhat pathetic, especially considering the number of hours I was up there and the power used but I did notice better 40m band conditions the day after (13th Sept), managing to work Walt G3NYY/P on GW/WB-022 from a layby on the A82, using just a 1m home-brew whip on a mag-mount.
After a thorough examination of the dipole spread out on the hotel lawn, I found what boiled down to a break in the braid at the mid point of the coax. There was no DC continuity at the time of investigation. This coax is high quality miniature RG316 with a PTFE dielectric and oversheath. Over the years, perhaps due to kinking and abrasion on many rocky summits, the sheath has been almost imperceptibly breached and water has entered. When opened up, the braid was found to be black, rotten and falling apart. The antenna will require a new length of coax.
Thinking about it, this dipole has seen operation in WAB area OV00 at least three times in the past 9 years and it is likely to have been immersed in sea water, albeit for short periods. It is well know what sea water can do to all but the most resistant metals and once locked in, it can do its work unseen. On a mountain like Ben Nevis especially, I was lucky that it seemed to give one last gasp of normal working after I thought that all was lost.
My reluctance to do WS1 ‘cold,’ that is without prior acclimatisation in the form of other summits, turned out to be correct. I was somewhat stiff and weary after finishing and for the next 36 hours or so. I had inner left knee niggle and sore feet from the seemingly never ending descent, proving once again what we always knew, that getting down can be harder than climbing. That’s especially true of the Ben Nevis tourist path or Mountain track as it now known and I think it is due to the lack of variation. Every step demands a similar response from the foot, which impacts the same areas over and over again. I always find relief with surface variations but there are few on that path. Yes, Ben Nevis wasn’t that easy but given half a chance, I will be back again (I hope!)
Thanks to all stations worked and to those who spotted me, namely Roy G4SSH; G4OBK; M0BKV; G0UUU; EI9GLB; G4WSB; M3FEH and RBN Gate KU6J. Thanks to G4SSH for telephone liaison, alerts & spots.
73, John G(M)4YSS,
Also using SSEG GS0OOO/P.
(This summit will be entered under GM4YSS/P for SOTA purposes)
Above: YHA Bridge - 05:25 Start
Above: The Summit at 07:53
Above: The overnighter - Francis
Above: HF Mast & Antenna
Above: Poor Band Condx - Radio on the Rocks?
Above: The North Face
Above: VHF-SSB. Nil QSO’s
Above: The Maintenance Men
Above: North Face Gully
Above: Long and Winding road
Above: The Lower Section
GM/WS-044; GM/WS-293; GM/WS-007; GM/WS-002 Reports to follow.