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Weak Signal VHF by Tim Marek - K7XC
Mountaintop Multi-Op Contesting

What It Takes To Win...

Mountaintop portable during the June VHF contest has been some of the most enjoyable operating I have ever done. What other form of radio competition encourages its participants to setup stations atop remote mountaintop locations? I would camp there for the view alone but throw in a radio contest and I am in heaven.

Initially I entered the single band / single op category as I did not know any local "Weak Signal VHFers". Each contest I added another band, larger antennas, more power, etc. As time passed, the setup for each contest grew more complex and time consuming. Now I take off the Friday before and the following Monday to proceed at a more relaxed pace.

The most important thing a multi-op station needs is good operators who are great friends. Without that its not fun and wont work well. It was in Ventura California at the 1993 West Coast VHF Conference where I first met my Multi- Op partner, Dave - W7KK. Mentioning I was looking for someone to operate with, he said, "So am I". Turns out he loves camping in the wilds of Northern Nevada almost as much as myself. That chance meeting has grown into a valuable friendship and a competitive Multi-Op Mountaintop Contest Station.

Why Multi-Op?
Each year the portable station grew to the point where it was a major chore to setup and teardown. I would start the contest beat and finish dead tired, left to take it down, alone in the dark. As a Single Op I operate with the 3 rigs on continually. At times activity is so high it is hard to gauge which band to be on. If I spend too much time on 50 Mhz, I might miss a needed mult on 144 or 432 and vice versa. Consequently, you do alot of band hopping, moving folks from band to band. Contesting as a Multi Op allows you to squeeze each band dry of every possible Q. Operating only one band all weekend gives you a greater feel for how well your doing and lessens the chances of missing a opening and all those multipliers. By pooling resources, It is possible to field a much larger station than one you would setup alone.

As with anything in life, If you are to succeed you must set Goals for yourself. These can range from wanting to retire at 45, saving for your first car, or winning your Division in a VHF contest. My goal in VHF Contesting has been a Multi-leveled one. At first, primarily looking for new Grids and States for VUCC/WAS, I then wanted to win my section, Division, and finally the entire West. Built into this is the desire to always do better than last year. So far, I have met all of these except winning the Pacific Division but that will come with time and persistence.

Everyone has some kind of strategy, whether it's just to have fun handing out a few Qs or winning the West. Properly thinking it through will be the largest single factor determining success (or failure) at meeting your goals. Strategy will drive the most important decisions such as where to operate from, what antenna(s) and support(s) are needed, to the size of generator required. Without it, your efforts will flounder at best. Let us review the strategy used by the K7XC team the past few years.... Operate from a tall mountain with good access and support facilities. Activate a rare grid. Be the only active station in your grid. Pick a site that has as many Metropolitan areas as possible within typical Tropo range. Use large antenna systems, low noise receive preamps and high power. Weeks in advance publish your contest plans and spread the word to any and all who will listen. CQ using CW whenever possible as it penetrates the QRM and attracts attention. CQ the calling channel, announce your run frequency, then QSY leaving the calling channel clear for others to do the same. Set up skeds ahead of time with the larger stations on the edge of your Tropo range to fill in the slow times. Do not forget about Meteor skeds for Sunday AM using random rocks. Using another radio, monitor a preannounced FM simplex frequency for local FM Qs. Look at Moonrise and Moonset for those additional mults not available via normal terrestrial modes.

I usually begin brainstorming for the June contest right after operating the January VHF Sweepstakes. The contest juices are flowing from recent activity which usually churns up some creative ideas for the next outing. Out come the maps of all kinds and scales - Topo, Sectional, Highway, Forest Service, etc. I admit it... I am a map junkie, usually carrying 20 or more at all times. Once you have made the decision where to operate be sure to place a visit over Memorial day weekend for a dry run (A full dress rehearsal). If the road is still snowed in heres your chance to bust it open or find another site. Setup the entire station and take note what you forgot, broke, or misplaced. "Break it early" is my motto... That leaves 2 weeks left before the contest to fix what is broken whether its gear or strategy. When contest time comes along the truck is still partially loaded and with the recent trip in mind, you can be sure not to miss anything. Each year I do this review process & more ideas how to solve problems keep springing up. If you plan to activate a rare grid in the middle of nowhere, find a friend to become a ROVER so you can work your own grid as well. Redundancy cannot be stressed enough. Spare hardware, fuses, antennas, cables, rope, radios, amps, keyers, microphones, generators, extension cords, food, water, clothes, sun screen, hats, gas, oil, etc... Are not options but necessities. My rule of thumb for consumables.... Figure out what you think you will need, Double it, and add 10%. This has yet to let me down.

The ability to field a competitive station with minimal effort is a constantly evolving and elusive target. Creativity, reliability, and affordability are the only limits here. The fine art of scrounging can go a long way to building a winning station on a shoestring budget. The most important weapon in your contest arsenal are your antennas. No single device will make as dramatic a difference to your stations performance than the antenna system. Most of mine are home-brew allowing me to have large arrays for 3 bands for less than the cost of commercial antennas for one band. Another side benefit of "Rolling your own" so to speak, allows you to build the array you want rather than settle for what is available. Using K1FO.BAS or DJ6WU.BAS will yield a design to fit the desired gain or boom length.

Using K6STI's YO.EXE antenna-modeling software graphically demonstrates how well the design works including stacking gain and patterns. Gerald - K5GW of Texas Towers is selling all the aluminum you will ever need at very little above his cost. Between the two, it is possible to be very competitive for little dough and a fair amount of elbow grease.

As to station layout and design, that is all driven by your choice of operating site. Looking at our situation this June in DM18, its clear that being equidistant from LA and SF will give us access to plenty of possible Q's, requiring us to constantly rotate from N to S. A set of medium sized yagis fixed towards each metropolitan area would give us the ability to instantly "Azimuth QSY", making us more efficient. Here is where you have to ask yourself "Is it worth it?" Maybe. But this year we opted not to in an effort to keep the overall installation simpler.

Here is the layout we used for June 2001...
50 Mhz - IC746, Commander kW amp. Six ele K7XC yagi up 30 FT. Four ele K7XC yagi fixed N.
144 Mhz - FT-847, Commander II at 1 kW output, Pair of rotatable M2 2M18XXX at 40 and 50 FT.
222 Mhz - TS-820 / Downeast Xvtr, 300+ W FAA amp, 7WL M2 yagi up 20 Ft.
432 Mhz - TS520 / Downeast Xvtr, 300+ W FAA amp, Pair FO25s rotatable at 30 Ft.

Support structures: Tower Trailer - 50' when setup & 2 - AB101 Military tilt over rotatable 30' masts.
Powered by 5K & 4K Generac gas generators with several RV batteries for backup. We usually consume 17 gallons between the two of them, over 3 1/2 days of use.

Mounted on the tower trailer are five heavy-duty fiberglass transit cases. One is full of 50', 75', and 100' coax cable assemblies with at least one spare per band. In 2 other boxes are 3 rotors with several plug and play rotor cables & over 1000' of rope in 50' and 100' lengths. Another is full of assorted hardware and brackets, a assortment of plastic cable ties, at least 5 rolls of electrical tape, spare antenna parts, guy anchors, etc. The 5th box carries food for 1 week along with camping supplies such as sunscreen, deep woods OFF, paper plates, plastic utensils, spare batteries, a first aid kit, etc.

In the truck I carry: A padded aluminum carry case full of brick amps, preamps, coax jumpers, coax connectors & adapters, spare microphones & a straight key. I also bring a case of Snapple fruit drinks, several gallons of drinking water, clothes for a week, Two - 5 gallon cans of gas, a military canvas cot, sleeping bag, 2 shovels, a medium step ladder, engine oil & coolant, Spare belts & hoses, Spare tires, 3 tire jacks, etc... Be prepared to survive 5 days on a remote mtntop location.

We usually bring enough spare antennas & radios to literally have everything fall down or blow up 3 - 5 times, and still be on the air. If worse came to worse, we could operate 4 bands with just the mobile station. Sounds like overkill I know... But... When you are literally hundreds of miles from replacement gear you bring it all. To win you can't be off the air due to a equipment breakdown for very long.

Through prior planning we try to eliminate most "Operator malfunctions", You know... Answering Dave - W5UN on Moonrise with only exciter power, Rotating the array and nothing happens... only to realize later you were on the antenna fixed to the other direction. Fatigue takes its toll. Station layout at the operator position should be idiot proof with all antenna switches clearly labeled because it's hard to remember the fine details after you've been at it for 3 days.

Ideally each band would have its own operator and separate location with relief every 4 to 6 hours. Not always possible or practical though as some mountaintops are barely big enough for 2 vehicles. In our situation we could do a bang up job with only 3 operating positions - 50 Mhz, 144 Mhz, and 222 + 432 + 1296 Mhz combined. 50 and 144 Mhz have enough activity to justify being on their own with no distractions, whereas 222, 432 & 1296 compliment each other with just enough combined activity for one person to stay fairly busy. As I said before, the primary "On Air" strategy is two fold, (1) CQ the calling frequencies, announce your run frequency then QSY, and (2) pass mults from band to band. Here a hard-wired intercom system is worth its weight in gold. CQs using CW get attention, especially out at the edge of Tropo range. Cycle the CQs through the various fixed and rotatable arrays to stimulate activity on all sides. As soon as the contact is completed, ask the station "Do you have any other bands?", Never miss a chance for a easy Q or mult. Listen to the calling channel for at least a minute before sending out that call as you may be interfering with someone else's attempt to CQ and move. Never sit on the calling channels and monopolize them. One of the most maddening things heard during a contest are people BSing on the calling channel. Look at Two Meters for example, We have 300 Khz of weak signal spectrum available to us, Lets USE IT! Make and keep skeds for the slow times like between 10 PM to 8 AM. Check the HF Liaison frequency 3.818 Mhz on the top and bottom of every hour for skeds. This information source alone garnered 10 new mults in the 1993 contest. When running stations be fair and efficient keeping the chitchat to a minimum. This year, we are trying computer logging for the first time. We will have a laptop in each tent tied to each other with a simple serial network. A handy tool for tracking Es during a opening. Be sure to not miss Moonrise/Moonset and the random Meteors on Sunday morning. Skeds during these times are very productive. High Speed Meteor Scatter "HSMS" has proven to be a worthwhile addition, easily adding 3 - 5 more mults on 2M.

Creature Comforts
As a mountaintopper, Camping goes with the territory. Dave and I own 4X4's, his with a camper shell. He sets the gear up on shelves going across the bed up front and sleeps under the rigs on the floor. I put up a two-section cabin tent with the large room for operating and the small one for sleeping. Usually opting for a cold camp as cooking takes too much time away from operating. Beginning in 1995, we bring a small microwave oven and "Nukeable" food. What a difference a warm meal makes! Instant Quaker Oatmeal is a heavenly breakfast at 9000+ Feet! I find the setup and takedown phase goes quicker to music so I bring a boombox for just that purpose, Helps to keep things going. Be prepared to layer up or down as the weather dictates. June 1995... DM19 above Austin Nevada... We arrive Thursday night, Check into a motel and crash. Friday AM after breakfast we build a new M2 7WL 222 yagi in the motel room waiting for the weather to change. Around Noon we head up the hill to see what Mother Nature has in store for us. In 4 wheel low we work our way through a Snow and Mud covered bolder field to the top of a ridge. Initially its cloudy with 30 - 40 MPH winds. We begin to unload hoping for the best. By the time we had the 50 / 222 antennas up, the clouds were to breaking up. It became so calm and quiet that the video camera motor sounded like a freight train! Over the next 3 days it grew to be downright Hot with temperatures in the mid 80s. By the time we left it was 90+ and dead calm... at 9000+ FT elevation! I went from wearing Arctic gear to shorts and a T-shirt but forgot the Sunscreen and burned my legs so bad I had trouble wearing pants for the next week. June 1996 is was 95+ degrees atop Booker Mt. in DM18 all weekend. Trapped in the back of my truck with only a 9" fan to cool the kW amp & I was not good planning on my part! Several 20" box fans are now part of the "required" station equipment. Be prepared!

In Conclusion....
This whole presentation has been more on attitude than nuts and bolts. With the proper mindset, all the other details almost take care of themselves. Without it... You will flounder in the dark, hopping to get lucky and find a flashlight. With it... YOU CAN WIN! Without it... You Wont! The one thing mountaintopping has taught me is the ability to Adapt, Overcome, And Succeed with only the tools and materials on hand. I enjoy it immensely. Anyone wishing to join the team need only drop me a line at timm@cccomm.net to talk about it. 73's & GOOD LUCK!

Competitive Multi-Op Mountaintop VHF Contesting by Tim Marek - K7XC