I love hiking and backpacking, and that’s one reason I now live near the Rocky Mountains. A couple of years ago I became a ham because I wanted reliable communications for emergency preparation. A few years’ experience with earthquakes and wildfires in Southern California had taught me the hard way just how important that can be! But I fell in love with ham radio as a fun and interesting hobby, too. I had never fully combined my two favorite pastimes until the ARRL June VHF QSO Party.
Although I had plenty of outdoors foot travel under my belt and plenty of VHF and UHF FM experience on the air, I had never tried a contest, much less from a remote location. Further, I could count my single sideband contacts on one hand, so I was a little worried about the on-air procedures and basic SSB operations. It was a bit of a daunting prospect, jumping into contesting in such a big way!
But with an offer of a little coaching and pack mule services from a ham buddy, I decided to give it a try. So we packed up a portable multi-mode station, slung it on our backs, and we huffed, puffed, and sweated a thousand feet up a steep mountainside to the summit of a Colorado front-range peak called Mount Herman. Whew! Once on top we admired the view for a millisecond or two and then set up the station. I was entering the contest in the single operator portable category, limited to 10 watts transmitting power and with all portable equipment. I used a Yaesu FT-857D all-mode transceiver powered by a 12v lead-acid “gel cell” battery that I was reminded of every single gravity-fighting step up the mountain! One day some genius is going to invent lightweight, powerful batteries. I hope.
For VHF contesting with a portable station I included a 6-meter band dipole antenna, a dual-band Yagi antenna for 2-meters and 70-centimeters, and a couple of HT radios for FM ops on 2-meter, 1.25-meter, and 70-centimeter bands. In the contest each unique combination of band and geographic grid square locator of a contact represents a point multiplier, so more bands available is better. It didn’t take too long to get into the rhythm of contest exchanges – quick contacts with call signs and grid squares swaps, and usually a pleasant “good luck” or 73. What took a little longer was learning to really listen and avoid having other operators repeat their call sign or grid square so I could record it in my log. It is a skill that takes some practice, but I began to get the hang of it after a while, focusing without really thinking about it and keeping all that information in short term recall until I could affect a memory dump onto the logbook. By the end of the day my contacts were much more efficient and I was feeling very comfortable on the air.
So, I guess it’s true that contesting does improve your on-air skills, both listening and talking, and even simply coordination. I experienced big improvements across the board in just the few hours I was operating on the mountain.
But what surprised me the most about my first radio contest was how much I enjoyed it! Before I clawed my way up the mountain I wasn’t at all sure that contesting would be my thing. Afterwards, however, I felt a real sense of accomplishment and I really enjoyed the day outdoors making waves from the top of a mountain! I’m anxious to see the contest results from ARRL and see how my score compares with all those folks I had the pleasure of meeting that Saturday afternoon from 9,000 feet!
Check out the video of my contest day to get a real sense of what it was like up there. I also recommend that you try VHF contesting yourself. All you need is your Technician ticket and a simple radio. To get started you don’t have to get on multiple bands with an expensive multi-mode rig, and you don’t have to climb a mountain! You can contest as much or as little as you like, but give it a try. You might find an enjoyable new aspect of ham radio that you’ll love, and you may find ways to combine it with your other favorite activities like I did!
Good luck! 73.