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GM trip part 2

A Scottish Adventure by Carolyn (G6WRW) and Helen (M0YHB) – Part 2

So where were we?

In part one last month Helen described our journey north up through the Scottish borders on to the Cairngorm National Park and then over to the Orkneys via a number of SOTA hills. So far we had done 6 summits, 44 caches and covered 800 miles (1280 km). The over night ferry to Shetland left at 23:45 and the weather had turned rainy. Once we had boarded I quickly settled on one of the seats in the bar area and sprawled myself out, I’d learnt long ago that the best way to travel at sea was horizontally! We were now getting towards the main reasons for our adventure: to meet up with friends at the most northerly hill on the most northerly inhabited island in the British Isles and to activate a very special summit on Noss Head.

Having caught the overnight ferry we arrived bright and early in Lerwick on Mainland Shetland, when I say “bright and early” it was early but it was decidedly grey outside and mizzling, quite a change again from the nice conditions we had on Orkney. For this part of the trip we had allowed 6 nights to explore the islands, with caching and SOTAing along the way, before returning to Aberdeen, then onto Ben Nevis and finally our way home.

We had arranged camping near Eshaness on the northwest side of the mainland so had to go past the never-been-activated before SOTA summit of Mid Ward (GM/SI-215) on the small island of Muckle Row. This hill was on our hit list but we hadn’t really planned when we would do it. On checking out parking and access we decided to do it there and then. What usually takes me days to get over is the Scottish right to roam laws. We are so used to signed rights of way, always being careful not to go where we shouldn’t (or should that be not getting caught where we shouldn’t), that we (sometimes) feel guilty just walking anywhere, but by this point I was well over that. After parking where we wouldn’t be a nuisance and making sure we had all our wet weather gear with us (it was still drizzling) we followed the track southwest past the sheep (I know, not a very good land mark) and up to the rocky summit; we decided to set up the antennas on the peaty area just down from the summit as by now the drizzle was accompanied by strong gusts of wind.

Just before midday I started proceedings making 26 contacts on 20 metres followed by 26 for H on the same band, I then took over again to make an additional 26 contacts, not a bad start. H decided to try 40 metres but conditions were not good and only 5 QSOs followed; we quickly realised that 20 metres seemed to be the band to use given that we were now 550 miles (900 km) north of home. After sightseeing and a few caches we arrived at the campsite and after food we settled down for a relaxing “night”; night is a loose term because at this time of year it does not really get dark, with the locals calling it the “simmer dim”.

The next day started better, the clouds had lifted and we were greeted by lovely views of the Drongs, a group of rocks out in the bay. One of the reasons for being a bit off the beaten track was (apart from the scenery and the quiet) to be closer to the county top of Ronas Hill (GM/SI-086). To achieve this summit you have to negotiate an arctic-like terrain, not unlike the plateau you cross to reach Ben Macdui. To start the walk requires a drive along narrow lanes, which turn into a gravel track, bringing you to the base of a large radio mast; from here you make your own way on foot. There are no obvious paths because of the lack of visitors so while visibility was good it was easy to aim for a particular point on the rising ground. I had studied the topography on memory map the night before and had plotted a number of waypoints taking us around one of the smaller false summits to reach a col just below Ronas Hill avoiding a deep gully. Just before the trig point and covered cairn the cloud descended obscuring the views, a little bit of déjà vu! While setting up my big dipoles the clag closed in, and the drizzle returned, by now we had become accustomed to operating in damp conditions. Helen began the activation on 5 MHz making 9 contacts before things went quiet. While she operated I erected the 20 metre vertical. My turn came and first call was replied by HA7UG who kindly spotted me. I then had a quick run of 12 calls in the log before things went quiet for me, a band change to 40 metres livened things up again with me finishing up with a total of 52 QSOs including a S2S with GM0IJZ/P on An Sgurr (GM/SI-114). Countries included HA, DL, ON, F, OE, G, GW, GM, EI, PA, HB9, OH and OZ, quite a nice mixture of near and far-ish.

By the time we started to pack things away the visibility had reduced to around 50 metres. We were going to have to put our well honed navigational skills to the test again and this was a good time to practice navigating with map and compass. Now I’ve been on mountains in all sorts of horrendous conditions, bumped into other usually well equipped (mad) people but today was one of the strangest encounters I’ve had. A chap emerged out of the mist asking (in a thick local accent) about the antennas, not really strange you may say, but he was dressed in jeans and a t-shirt carrying a plastic carrier bag and looked decidedly damp; we in contrast were in full wet weather gear! I was half expecting him to ask directions to the nearest town!

I digress - We decided to forgo the GPS and plotted a course back down the hill and managed to hit all my waypoints on the way back. Usually the greyness lifts the lower you go but on this occasion it got worse. We knew we were parked under a 150’ plus radio tower but it wasn’t till we had got 100 metres away from it that it came into view. The foggy conditions didn’t clear till we were right off the hill and looking back the cloud hugged the summit like a large quilted blanket.

It was now well after lunch. What to do for the rest of the afternoon? “I know”, said H, lets cache down towards Lerwick, “ok” I replied “but isn’t there another SOTA we could do as well”? We had cached out the islands last time we were here (two years ago) but a few new ones had popped up since then (actually another 28 of them!) and two happened to be on Scrae Field (GM/SI-194) with a third not too far away on an adjacent hill. Scrae Field has on its ridge the remains of a WWI radio station, all that is left are two derelict buildings and the bases for the radio masts. The site was a back-up for the underwater communication cables in case they were cut by the enemy; how things have changed from the reliance of copper-wire systems to radio links and now optical cabling.

We managed to find the original steps cut into the hillside which would have been used by the radio operators. This quickly gave us some elevation up the steepest part of the assent. As we neared the old station the ground became ever boggier and it was hard work picking our way across very wet marshy areas. After stopping to find one of the caches hidden in the ruins we picked our way to the trig point on the highest point of the ridge. On the way I caught out of the corner of my eye what appeared to be a deer running along. I quickly realised it was an enormous hare which on seeing me stopped, reared up on its hind legs as if to say “want some?” then ran off . It was late in the afternoon and the sun had come out. From this vantage point the old capital of Shetland, Scalloway, was easily seen below us and the surrounding islands were surrounded by shimmering seas. 200 metres beyond the trig was another cache, so while H went off to find it while I set up the station; this time I made sure she had left me all the details on the hill unlike the last time I let her wander off.

I began the activation on 40 meters and I worked my way through a pile-up of very strong signals. On Helen’s return I passed the microphone saying there were still loads calling, with H adding 19 to her tally on top of my 21 contacts. Again while she chatted away I set up the vertical knowing the early evening would be good for a few longer distance exchanges. I wasn’t disappointed; plenty of eastern European calls were logged and as a cherry on the cake a mobile in Saudi Arabia (HZ1SM/M) called in and I had a very pleasant chat with him. Between H and myself we had worked 78 calls spread over G, GW, GM, PA, DL, HB9, ON, SM, HA, S57, S51, OK, 9A, UA, OE, I, SP, OH, F and HZ, another very successful activation. Part way through the activation we had an unexpected visitor, a para-glider pilot flew over us waving as he went; he would’ve seen our antennas from miles away.

We had a lovely walk off the summit via the old buildings towards a cache on the adjoining hill over looking the connected islands of East and West Burra with Foula (and its two SOTA summits) further in the distance. We sat a while enjoying the tranquillity then made our way back to the camp site for food and a beautiful simmer dim. Tomorrow we would travel to Unst, via two ferries and a dash across Yell.

We were up early for breakfast and the morning greeted us with stunning views across the bay. With everything packed away it was time to head off to the ferry port in the northeast of the Mainland Island, Toft. Until now we had prearranged campsites, mainly to be able to have mains electricity to charge batteries and shower facilities, but on Unst we would be wild camping where ever we could find. I know it is not real wild camping when you’ve got all mod-cons built in but the one thing we lack is a bathroom. After the short hop over to Yell we quickly made our way across the island to the north. On the way we made contact with a few people on HF including a chat with Steve (GW7AAV). We had used the mobile set up quite a bit while travelling, our best DX contact a couple of days earlier with a station in Japan (JR6GIM) on 17 metres. We had made good time crossing the island and arrived at lunchtime to catch the ferry to Unst. During the crossing we were accompanied part way by a very curious seal that seemed happy to watch us as we passed. We disembarked the ferry and within a few hundred metres we came across Shetland Ponies just wandering freely by the side of the road; we had to stop by this really nice photo opportunity.

We had arranged to meet up with friends at the old military barracks of Saxa Vord (now a holiday resort) at the north of Unst but there was the very tempting summit of Valla Field (GM/SI-195) to go past on the way. The sun was out and we had plenty of time so H found the turning off the main road and we were soon heading towards the hill. The rough gravel track snakes its way across the hillside. It was the service road to a disused radar site on the summit of Valla Field. I was in no mood to walk so was determined to get as far as possible along the track. After 2 km we came across a steep section with a sign that said 4x4s only past this point; ignoring it with my reasoning that if I could get up this “little bank” I would have less distance to walk I pressed on, the track was fine, no worse than what we had already been on. Not far from the highest point, the track had one last surprise another steep bank. This one defeated me; 4x4s had churned up the ridge and I lost traction and had to slide back down with H saying “told you we wouldn’t get up here!” But she had said that from the start and now we were less than 1 km from the top! I turned the ‘van round and parked up. We climbed the bank to find that not much further on was a locked gate so we were as far as we could go anyway. The summit of Valla field has a trig point and the remains of the plinth on which would have stood a radome which was an ideal spot to set up the antennas.

The activation started well with two S2Ss; Martyn (MM1MAJ/P) on Meall nan Tarmachan (GM/CS-015) and Robyn on Stob Beinnein (GM/SS-002). I had a nice run of 26 contacts on 40 metres finishing up with Caroline (M3ZCB/P) who was with Martyn. H then took over to work an additional 8. Once Helen had finished I changed antennas for the 20 metre vertical and had another good run of 43 including a S2S with Steve using the call DL/G1INK/P on Höhe Piesport (DM/RP-466) and my first transatlantic contact from a SOTA summit with N0ODK. When H took over she went one better than me not only getting a call from N0ODK but from W1OW as well. We reluctantly left the hill to find and join our friends for food.

Since the military left the old barracks have been converted into holiday lets, a hotel and restaurant, this was where a couple of caching friends were staying. We cleaned ourselves up a little and went inside and quickly found them. The food was excellent and afterward H, Linda and Henry took it upon themselves to try to drink all the local ale. While we were there we asked the bar keeper where there was a suitable place for us to park up and he told us just about anywhere but one of the nicest spots was at Norwick beach, the most northerly beach on the island which is where we ended up for all the nights we were there. We left the bar at 2am to make our way to the beach, it was already getting light!

We had only a few hours sleep as H, Linda, Henry and two other friends had arranged a boat trip out to Muckle Flugga (try saying that after a few drinks) lighthouse, the most northerly point of the UK (although Out Stack nearby is further north). I wasn’t going along, sightseeing trips are not for me; I see boats as a form of transport that gets me from one place to another for a purpose, if there had been the option of getting off I would have been first in the queue but to just bob about for 4 hours would have me feeling very queasy.

I had decided to do Saxa Vord (GM/SI-157) while everyone was on the boat so off I went to the summit which could be seen from where the boat was docked. Access to the summit of Saxa Vord is along a winding road which served the now disused radar station. The previous day we had driven part the way along the road till we came to a very official sign which said “no admittance without authorisation”, “4x4s only in winter” and “trespassers will be shot” (actually I made up the last one but at one time the site was very sensitive and armed guards would have been patrolling the area) so we didn’t go to the top. I had asked about access the night before and been told by a couple of locals that there was no problem going up there now the site had closed. The summit is dominated by a very large radome which once housed one of NATO’s main radars for monitoring aircraft traffic. Accompanying it is a large array of communication antennas covering from HF to UHF.

I managed to get as far as the top gates to the site where low cloud obscured any views. I set up my antennas, which for once didn’t look out of place. I started on 40 metres and worked mainly intra-G with the odd smattering of continentals till things dried up after 21 contacts. Aware of the time (I had to pick H up from the quay side at 12:30) I thought I would have enough time to try one more band. 20 metres had been better in the late afternoon so I wasn’t expecting the pile-up I had and very quickly worked 33 calls including a S2S with S52SOTA/P (what a brilliant call!) on Osolnik (S5/CP-022) before I reluctantly had to leave with people still calling; suffice to say I was late getting back to the quay.

After meeting up again with my friends we then walked over Hermaness hill to where our main “caching event” was going to be above the cliffs overlooking Muckle Flugga. The walk down to the cliff edge was stunning with the highlight being a very close encounter with some exceptionally friendly puffins which came out of their burrows only feet away from where we sat admiring the views. H wanted to go up Saxa Vord to claim it and after mentioning to my friends that I had been able to get almost to the very top we all set off in convoy. Thinking, late afternoon would mean good propagation on 20 metres, Helen set up the vertical while I sat with my friends eating smarties ice-cream enjoying the now clear views across the islands. Unfortunately conditions had changed with H making only 4 contacts (despite a self spot) with 3 into Croatia and one into Hungary before being greeted by very high levels of noise. The group of us ended the day by exploring another disused military site at Skaw and then a very enjoyable meal with me finally working my way through a really good single malt with Henry. Tomorrow we would head back to the mainland and then hopefully our special trip to Noss Head.

We woke early, the sun had been up ages and it was quite warm. Two of our friends had tented right on the beach and we had promised them breakfast. Paul, whose original idea was to go caching this far north, decided he wanted to go swimming off the most northerly beach in the British Isles and asked if anyone wanted to join him? I said yes and said I’d get changed. Now I knew the sea was going to be cold but I was prepared, we had a cache to do back on the “main” mainland which needed “special equipment” so I went to fetch it. A laugh rang out when I reappeared in my diving dry-suit; I wasn’t going to get cold or wet! Too soon it was time to leave this lovely island and return to the main island but not before we had met up with the people responsible for the “Unst Bus Shelter” (http://www.unstbusshelter.shetland.co.uk/), one of the main tourist attractions on the island. If you saw the recent “Islands” programme with Martin Clunes you would have seen both this and Muckle Flugga.

The weather had been improving all the time we had been on Unst and it seemed it would continue. We had e-mailed Scottish National Heritage about taking radio equipment over to Noss Head (GM/SI-210). The only real concerns they had was that we wouldn’t disturb the birds and that we would have the minimum environmental impact, on what is after all, a wildlife reserve. At the time we were asking about operating from the island we had no idea what the propagation was going to be like, and to have a better chance of getting permission, we said we would only be about an hour. In the end we pushed it to an hour and a quarter before we said we had to go.

We were lucky with the weather as it was holding up well and after yet another early start after a late night we caught the ferry to Bressay and drove across the island to arrive early at the pick up point opposite the Isle of Noss (http://www.nature-shetland.co.uk/snh/noss.htm) not long after someone else arrived to visit the island who we would chat to on and off all day. The warden had been forewarned of our arrival and on seeing our bits and pieces said that if she had realised who we were she would’ve collected us earlier. After a chat by the warden covering what to see and where not to go, mainly because the Bonxies (Great Skuas) still had chicks on the ground and they are very aggressive; we were advised to stay close to the coast and to walk anti-clockwise round the island to avoid them. The island looking from the west appears to be just a large sloping hill but what is hidden from view are the sea cliffs which drop vertically from just beyond the unusual trig point 181 metres directly to the sea below. For part of the pleasant walk we were followed by a group of inquisitive seals who played happily in the sea. The climb up to the summit from the south followed the cliff edge which was covered in birds and the sky was full of gracefully gliding skuas and gannets and unstable, plummeting puffins.

There was plenty of room at the summit so we set up just below the trig and settled down drinking in the vista and getting ready for the activation. I started on 20 metres getting 7 calls in the log before handing over to Helen to get 6. Now both of us had qualified the summit the microphone was handed back to me to enjoy a good run of 43 contacts before the pile-up finished. Wanting to give as many people a chance of the summit as possible during our limited time we swapped antennas from the vertical to the dipoles. H called on 40 metres quickly working 19 before I took over adding another 6. While the big dipoles were up I called on 60 metres but only managed 5. We were now pushing our time but we were all alone on the summit and, not wishing to overstay our welcome and causing a problem for any who wishes to follow us, packed things away and headed back. Between us we had 85 QSOs spread over; G, GM, GW, 9A, ON, UA, EI, PA, DL, HB9, HA, OH, OK, S51, SP, I, YL and F. On return to the warden’s house we took some time to look round the pony pund where the Shetland ponies were breed for the coal mines in Durham, and the small museum containing artefacts that had been found on and around the island.

We are very grateful to Scottish National Heritage for giving us permission to operate our radio from such a beautiful and special location and the wardens who made us feel so welcome.

We had a wonderful day but it wasn’t quite over yet. After getting back to the camper there was a cache to do on a hill overlooking Noss before leaving Bressay. Just after parking up at the start of the path which takes you to a look out tower on Ander Hill we again bumped into two friends who had come over just to do the cache. On the way back to the mainland the ferry was boarded by hoards of Vikings on their way to the festivities in Lerwick; they seemed a very friendly bunch. We finished the day with fish and chips by the quayside then made our weary way back to the campsite very satisfied.

Our final day on Shetland wasn’t going to be a quiet one. We still had a number of caches to do and at least one SOTA before catching the overnight ferry to Aberdeen, caching out the island was the priority though. We cached out the islands by early afternoon and being to the south and on a time limit we decided to activate Ward of Scousbugh (GM/SI-171). We knew this was an easy summit to access because there was yet another service road to an ex-military communication site. Up until very recently the hills along this ridge were dominated by enormous parabolic antennae which were part of NATO’s ACE High (900 MHz-ish) tropospheric scatter communication system that spanned the country connecting Europe to Scandinavia. When we were here two years ago they had just been cut down and the twisted metal was strewn across the landscape. Now the area had been partly cleared and very little remains of the massive structures leaving some small towers with BT dishes. This by necessity was going to be a quick activation but even so between us we operated on 3 bands and made 41 contacts in nearly 50 minutes.

It was now time to say goodbye to the islands. We had a brilliant time meeting up with friends, meeting loads of new people, caching, SOTAing and most of all enjoying the stunning scenery. But before we got home there was one last adventure to be had.

We boarded the overnight ferry to Aberdeen a little sad to be leaving. I managed a reasonable night sleep and woke just before the boat docked at 7am. We moved the camper off the ferry and then re-boarded to join the others for breakfast. The plan was for us to travel to Speyside to finish a large multi-cache and then journey down the length of Lock Ness from Inverness to Fort William down to Glencoe where we would be camping not too far from Ben Nevis (GM/WS-001).

We had three reasons for climbing Ben Nevis: we hadn’t done it before; it is the UK’s highest mountain (and SOTA); and yet another geocaching event. We started the walk at 9am from the car park adjacent to a public house. There was quite a large group of us climbing that day and very soon we were all spread out due to individual fitness levels and abilities. The walk up is in roughly three parts. The first section is up a narrow pathway which has been made into rocky steps (and horrible cobbles) in many places, the middle across a wide grassy area with the final part a steep zig-zag path (which they are currently repairing) to the boulder strewn summit plateau. Just before the plateau we had to climb a large snow covered area which was a reminder of just how high we were. We were among the second small group to arrive on the busy summit after 3½ hours and while waiting for the main group to arrive we set up the dipoles away from the trig and cairns. After photos and good byes to our departing friends we settled into the activation. I started on 40 metres and quickly made my first four contacts before handing over to H so she could qualify the summit. We finally ended up with 45 calls in the log including 5 on 60 metres for H and 2 S2S’s with GW0IBE/P on Corndon Hill (GW/MW-013) and GM7PKT/P on Stob Choire Claurigh (GM/WS-005) before it was time to leave. As we descended back to the car park the ambient temperature increased dramatically, the summit had just been on the cool side of pleasant but on the lower slopes it was baking! By the time we’d got to the pub I was dehydrated, tired from carrying a heavy pack and nearly in tears from the pain in my knees. I had picked up an insect bite on my ankle a few days before and compensating for the discomfort my knees took a bashing walking down the lower stepped section. The walk down had taken almost as long as the walk up and since chatting to friends they all had a similar experience of the conditions. While we were recovering in the pub with a welcome meal and drinks we chatted about all the things we’d done over the last three weeks and began formulating plans for our next big adventure.

Our trip home was broken by a one night stop-over in Keswick and while the mountains were beckoning to be activated my ankle wasn’t going to be up to anymore punishment and (by the way) it was raining again!

And so our adventure had come to an end: almost three weeks of caching, hills, all sorts of weather from hail and rain to sunshine, lots of driving and ferries to and from the most northerly islands of the UK, and climbing the two highest mountains in the country. During the whole trip we had travelled some 2100 miles (3360 km), walked about 72 km (45 miles), found 112 caches and climbed 3700 metres (12000 ft) to get to the 14 summits (combined height 6456 metres), a total of 888 QSOs between us over nearly 20 hours of operation, 10 summit-to-summits and 6 first activations.

Thank you to all the chasers and spotters because without you SOTA would not be fun.

Pictures of our adventures are here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/g6wrw

Activations from 22nd to 30th June: 8
Total height: 3127 metres
Actual ascent: 2065 metres
Total points: 17
Total distance walked: 38 km
Total number of contacts made by Carolyn: 397 (mean: 49.6)
Total number of contacts made by Helen: 149 (mean: 18.6)
That is a total of 546 contacts over 11 hours 20 minutes

Equipment used between us: Yaesu-FT-817nd, HF Packer amplifier, hybrid 80, 60 40 metre fan dipole, 20 metre vertical, 7 Ah and 4.5 Ah SLABs.

Carolyn (G(M)6WRW) and Helen (M(M)0YHB)