Bennachie (Oxen Craig) GM/ES-061
Tuesday 6th February 2024
The forecast was ok for today. A bit breezy, but with sunshine forecast for the afternoon, an early start and early finish was rapidly arranged at work.
I re-checked mountain-weather.com at 1100. Oh! The afternoon wind speeds over Bennachie were now forecasted to be 50mph (80kph). At least the sun was still in the sky. I’d go ahead with my plans, especially as there was a chance of 2m success with the locals. Oxen Craig has a decent stone shelter and I was confident I’d be able to arrange something and keep out of the wind.
I was away from work in Westhill at 1310, parked up at the Back o’ Bennachie car park at 1340, changed into my hiking gear by 1350 and off I went.
A great but steep start up through the forest, then sheltered by trees on one side. Further up, shielded by the hill itself until round the top of Little Oxen Craig. Then onto open ground and my first exposure to the wind. Not too bad, probably 30mph. Then it started snowing bullets. I was just wearing a couple of layers at this point, however the summit was in sight so I pressed on.
invisible (to the camera lens) snow
As I climbed up the summit mount, heathery path gave way to verglassed granite slabs. A strong gust nearly took me off my feet. Stooped double, I staggered up the final 100m in the face of an ever strengthening gale and threw myself into the stone shelter. Instant calm. I lay there for a moment, mesmerised by the sound of the wind ripping over and around the summit. Then sanity prevailed and I layered up with down and a waterproof shell.
I’d promised to do 2m FM first, mainly because Simon @GM4JXP had been on his distant (and sensibly tree-lined) summit for a few hours and would be needing down. First though, I had to secure the mast. I’d brought my 7m Spiderbeams pole. I previously sleeved the bottom section with heatshrink tubing, so had no qualms about ramming it into a gap in the rocks and then building a wee cairn around it. Now, how high dare I raise it?
Not far, as it turned out.
the slim G attempting to do some horizontal polarisation
Spot sent. Whatsapp sent. Surprisingly, two QSO’s fairly quickly, with new SOTA addict Chris @MM7RVC featuring. Then nothing for 6 minutes. Final CQ call brought GM7LSI from up in Elgin and that was it. I was stuck on three. Whatsapp told me that Simon could hear me 55km west, despite a poor path but I didn’t hear him at all. I took a long look up at the pole and antenna whipping around above my head. I’d have to go on HF. Somehow.
The antenna arsenal consisted of a 10m band 1/4 wave vertical and a new and untried EFHW. (I’d given my existing one to Chris and had hurriedly thrown a new one together). Well there was little chance of me getting the vertical up in this, so it would have to be the EFHW.
I dropped and stowed the Slim-G. I unwound the EFHW along the ground, the far end reaching a small cliff. Back in the shelter, and with only the inner pole section aloft, I slipped over a small guy ring, rope already attached. I took a plastic S carabiner and clipped one end into the knot loop in the guy rope. I clipped the EFHW through the other end, allowing it to run free. Using a combination of both of my hands and my mouth, I slowly slid the pole up, allowing the guy out and the wire to slide. I stopped when the tip of the pole was bending almost horizontally in the wind. I had about 3 or 4m of pole up and the wire was about 50cm from the top of this.
After tying off the guy, I stepped out into the gale to find the other end of the EFHW, which I’d previously placed under a rock. Antenna orientation would be decided by the wind, so west to east it was, with the low height meaning the final 3m of wire just lay on the short heather. So, with around 3m vertical and the remaining 17m gently sloping to the ground, that would have to do. The feedpoint auto-transformer (64:1) also lay at ground level, clipped to my rucksack. The first 30cm of radiator was pinched in between granite boulders. I didn’t have much hope. Maybe I’d get a couple of 40m QSO’s and then get down from here.
summit HF lash up
Slow. I added nine to my log at a rate of one per minute. All UK, except for an ON. The band was quiet though. The antenna was holding up well, SWR was stable. I was holding up well. I’d try 20m…
Decent SWR here too. The band was poor to the usual EU countries of I, HB, EA, DL etc, with many weak contacts. However, it was superb to usual south of England 40m chasers @G0RQL Don and @2E0FEH Karl. EC8ADS was strong though. Another eleven added.
May as well! Another flurry had blasted through. Everything was coated in a micro-film of snow, except the radio for some reason. As I selected the band, I heard a really strong signal or two. OK, find a spot and CQ SOTA…and BOOM! @KF9D Roger, straight off the bat! Ok, this could be interesting. In a few minutes I added six calls, including @WB8BHN Sevim, who was weak but perfectly workable. “Was I going up to 10m?”, he asked. I laughed. “Yes”.
When 15m dried up I looked around me. Yup, everything still where it should be. My left leg had gone completely numb. So numb that whan I hauled myself up, my left foot just flopped around. Eventually, with some feeling back, I took a wee wander outside the shelter and considered my options. I was struggling to hear stations over the wind with QSB and weak signals, and I anticipated 10m being the same. It could be unworkable. Especially with me having three hoods on at this point! Then I remembered the headphones I’d been carying in the radio bag for the past few years. Today they’d get their chance.
contemplating life whilst getting blood back into my legs
Back in the shelter, I rearranged the radio so I could kneel in front of it, put on the untried 'phones and got ready to go for broke on 10m with my low and slopey antenna.
I’m so glad I did.
the 10m section of my log
The two South Africans (Mrs and Mrs) had fabulous reverb on their transmissions. Heavy QSB made some of the US contacts a struggle, but we got there. My radio was down to 5w for a good bit of this. Eventually I fished out the spare battery and plugged it into the radio, finishing on 8w. On reflection, the headphones didn’t help much. Only my tight hood held them in place and the wind was very evident. Over ear headphones would be the answer but you won’t see me carrying them up a mountain any time soon.
Anyway, job done with a surprising 39 stations logged across 5 bands, but no time to rest on my laurels. Ok, maybe for a minute then. Yay! (I’m British, so it was an inward Whoop!) It was now 1545 and I’d made my first contact at 1434. Can’t believe I’d lasted. Can’t believe the antenna and mast had lasted. It all came apart ok and I got everything packed up. Double check - nothing left out on a rock. I really didn’t want to come back up here for my car keys.
packed and ready to go, a storm passing right of Mither Tap
summit indicator beyond icy slabs
Now the bit I wasn’t looking forward to. As I left the cairn the next shower started, sandblasting what little exposed skin I had. The wind strenghtened as I re-crossed the slabs. 60mph/95kph without exaggeration. I slipped on black ice. The Paramo trousers will need a new knee. No goggles today. The snow was needles in my eyes. Soon, a great, grippy granite path. I made good progress and soon benefitted from shelter as I dropped off the plateau. Eventually, the forest. Finally, approaching the the car at 1630. I passed a couple of dog walkers. They looked at me, looked at one another. “Yes I have”, I told them telephathically. No words spoken.