QRZ Logbook

Friday, June 1, 2012

Trip to Clingman's Dome, discovering SOTA

The view from Clingman's Dome at sunset
I hope everyone had a happy Memorial Day weekend. It's good to take pause and remember that many brave men and women paid the ultimate price for all of us Americans to freely express ourselves and enjoy the lives we live day in and day out.

I decided to take the family up into the mountains and watch a sunset from Clingman's Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park Monday. We were supposed to go on Sunday but plans didn't work out (as they never do with me!). 

When we got I pulled out my trusty Wouxun 2m/220 radio and attempted to make some contacts on 6.52 simplex but, unlike 2 weeks ago when I went up to "the Dome", there was no one willing to talk. 

As I trekked up the steep path to the overlook I made a couple of quick QSOs with locals on a repeater, and stowed my radio for use from the observation tower. As we got to the base of the ramp leading up to the tower, I looked up and saw a rotatable dipole jutting out from the side of the dome. I quickly realized someone else on the tower had a ham ticket and was tearing it up on HF!

W3FF Buddipole
I got to the top and met up with Lynn, KJ4ERJ who was visiting from Florida. I asked about his operation and he told me he was working "SOTA", or "Summits on the Air". It was the first I've heard of such a program (even though I've been a ham for 18-1/2 years) but sounded very interesting.

I was offered a chance to operate but declined. I was having enough fun enjoying listening to the contacts coming in from New Mexico, New York, Florida, Arizona, and New Jersey on his Yaesu FT-817.

I tried simplex again and wasn't successful. I made a couple more repeater contacts and stayed long enough to realize that the sunset I had hoped to view was lost to the clouds off to the west.

Lynn and his son Paul, KJ4DXK were hammering out contact after contact on the rotatable dipole (set up for 20m meters) and I had to find out more about the antenna. I discovered it was a "buddipole" and watching it in action showed its value, as Paul and Lynn continued to rack up contact after contact on 2.5W, getting 5/9 reports from almost everyone.

KJ4ERJ working a contact on 20m
I tried to drum up a few contacts for them by sending a message to my Twitter account, but I forgot, I'm on TOP OF A MOUNTAIN, and cell phone coverage didn't exist. Unfortunately I couldn't raise anyone on the repeaters in order to spread the word about their operation. Talk about bad timing!

Summits on the Air (according to their web site) is "an award scheme for radio amateurs and shortwave listeners that encourages portable operation in mountainous areas. SOTA has been carefully designed to make participation possible for everyone...There are awards for activators (those who ascend to the summits) and chasers." It sounds like something I need to investigate at some point. This may soon become another pet project!

The weather atop Clingman's Dome is some of the most hostile and unpredictable I've ever encountered. I've been up to the Dome numerous times, typically to stargaze after dark and on occasion to take my ham gear up and work some contacts, though it's typically on VHF. I've been up to watch meteor showers, join an astronomy party, and of course, enjoy the view. But you do need to dress warm for the trip. Memorial Day it was 95 degrees at my house, but when we got to the Dome, it was 60. And as the sun went behind the clouds to the west, the constant wind at the tower added a chill to the air that made us beat a hasty retreat back to the car.

One evening my wife and I ventured up to the Dome's parking area to watch a meteor shower, and it was one of the clearest views I've ever had of the stars. Then we go back a week later, and the weather in Knoxville is clear and dry, but high up on the mountain, when we arrived at Newfound Gap, just before getting onto the 7-mile road to the Dome, a thunderstorm brewed up from nowhere and made for a treacherous retreat from the mountain...back to a clear and dry Knoxville. More often than not, it's clear everywhere BUT the Dome, and when I arrive in the parking area, it's nothing but fog.

Still, going up to Clingman's Dome is well worth the trip. Whether it's to stargaze, enjoy the view, or work a few radio contacts, it's guaranteed to be an adventure.


  1. Good morning Greg, that sure must had been a nice surprise to see the dipole!! I have been out and about in parks with my Elecraft K2 and just get strange looks on lookers. I operate QRPp at times about 500mW's to 100mW's with an attic dipole and do very well. The FT-817 is a very popular rig for outdoor HF. Nice pictures as well and it must be very nice to have such a nice area to hike in.
    Have a good weekend Greg.

  2. I want to do some work from both the Dome and NF Gap. I'm wondering how my Par EndFedz antennas would work, hung from the deck of the Dome? As they can be used at several orientations, hopefully it will do fair. At NF Gap, I can use my 31' telescoping antenna and make a sloper. I do not at present, own a Buddipole. If anybody has suggestions, or comments, I would like to hear them. Based on a Buddipole on the observation deck, it appears the rangers are cool about ham radio in these areas. Thanks, Steve KJ4KKI