February 5, 2012
AE6GE’s QRP Portable Experience during the 2012 ARRL January VHF Sweepstakes
It was early January 2012 and I was contemplating what to do during the ARRL January VHF Sweepstakes.
I could have operated single-op from the apartment but I figured simple loops would not yield a very good score on the valley floor. I could also either join Patrick as an operator for K6BRW Rover or rove myself. With the January contest usually the least attended of the three ARRL VHF contests held throughout the year and with the mild winter and lack of snow in the higher elevations I decided to operate QRP portable from a location at 5,400 feet elevation on Beasore Road above Bass Lake. I had wanted to try VHF contesting from for this spot for a while and this gave me the perfect opportunity.
I was very excited as the contest weekend approached. The forecast promised mild warm winter weather even at the planned contest site elevation.
As an experienced portable VHF operator, I had never done VHF QRP. Over the next few weeks leading to the contest I methodically analyzed my equipment to make my operation the most effective. Operating QRP necessitated the use of beams. From my M2 arsenal I chose the 6M3 for 6-meters, the 2M9SSB for 2-meters, the 220-10 for 222, and the 440-18 for 70cm. I also had M2 beams for 902 and 1.2 Gig. My extensive planning included calculating the optimum stacking distances of the beams in the least amount of space. As I would be setting up by myself, I needed the configuration to be the most compact and easiest to set-up.
For operations I decided to operate out of the back of my pickup. I thought about using a tent, but that would mean more setup and tear down time. The camper shell would offer protection from the elements and with an air mattress and sleeping bags for padding it would be pretty comfortable for the duration.
It was a week before the contest I had most of my planning done and equipment organized. Then the weather forecast began to turn on me. Saturday, the first day of the contest, rain was forecast, but the temperatures were high enough to only have rain and not snow.
As the week wore on, I began to get more and more nervous as I watched the forecast continue to deteriorate for the contest weekend. By the day before the contest, forecast was for light snow Saturday and clearing Saturday night and Sunday.
I thought to myself, I have camped and hunted in weather worse than this so even if I got snow, I would be fine. So Friday after work I loaded up the pickup truck with all the gear in preparation for an early morning departure on Saturday.
Saturday morning I woke early and was on the rode by 5am. I arrived in Oakhurst just before 6am. After topping off the gas tank and filling the gas cans I stopped into the only place that was open, McDonalds. As I sat there eating my Bacon and Egg Biscuit I noticed it starting to rain outside. When I left McDonalds it was now pouring rain. The temperature was still pretty warm so I figured it wouldn’t be too bad at the higher elevation.
I made my way through the town of Oakhurst and up to Bass Lake with the rain continuing to pour down. A couple of miles up Beasore road I could see the road was being blanketed white. The rain had turned to snow flakes. As I continued on up the road the snow continued to fall.
Just before 7am I arrived at the Contest Site. The rocky semi-level ground was white with dark jagged edges of the rocks poking through the blanket of snow. I parked facing the valley so the front of the truck would block the upslope winds. There was enough light to start setting up even with the overcast. I donned my rain gear, knit hat and gloves and began unloading and setting up.
The sky continued to snow and the winds gusted as I assembled the antennas. With the high wind gusts I decided not to install the antennas as high as I first planned, So I compromised with the 6-meter beam only 15 foot above the ground level. The stack of the other beams ended up less than 10 feet off the ground and the spacing between the beams was shortened to further reduce the wind load.
With the wind and snow I was able to get the antennas, generator, feedline and most the radios set up by 11:15, only 15 minutes after the start of the contest. I fired up the generator and climbed in the back of the truck to dry off, warm up and start operating.
Contacts were few, but the locals and K6BRW rover kept me somewhat busy.
The radios were powered by a Group 27 deep cycle battery. The generator powered the antenna rotators, portable electric heater and if necessary a battery charger.
About an hour into the contest the generator sputtered and stopped. I climbed out, checked the fuel and pulled the cord and it fired back up and climbed back into the truck.
The snow continued all day. After about the third time the generator stopped, it would not start again. I manually positioned the beams, climbed back in the truck and continued to operate. In the afternoon Mike Stahl K6MYC was giving me some poor signal reports on 222. Then the radio began shutting down. I checked and my reflected on 222 was extremely high. After checking my connections in the truck I suited up and went outside. Ice was building up on the beams. The match on the 222 beam was a single block of ice connected to the driven element at the feed point. No wonder why the radio was shutting down.
At that point I contemplated whether I should stay and tough out the weather. The generator would not run, the antennas would not work due to icing, there was no break in sight for the weather and there were very few contacts to be had. Due to these factors I decided to abort the operation and pack up.
At 3:00pm it was still snowing, there was about 3-4 inches of snow on the ground and it was around 30 degrees.
Tear down took considerably less time to accomplish than did setup. I did however take several shortcuts like throwing everything in the back of the truck rather than packing it away. I figured I would have to pull everything out again when I got home to dry it all off so why waste the time to pack it all nice and neat.
Disassembly of the antennas was difficult as my gloves were soaked and would freeze to the aluminum when I touched them. At one point I even made the mistake of touching the mast with my bare hands!
After I got everything packed in the truck and prepared to leave the hill the snow subsided and the sun came out. As I closed the tailgate I noticed the smell of gasoline. The collar nut that attached the fuel line to the fuel tank was loose allowing gasoline to leak out. So that’s why the generator stopped running, I thought to myself as I tightened the nut. For a brief moment I thought, hmmm. Should I set back up? I then looked at the thermometer that now read 24 degrees and the sun began dipping below the cloudy horizon. I quickly made up my mind I was going home.
My excursion netted 46 QSO and 6 Grids for a whopping 960 points. I was a bit disappointed in my low score, but due to circumstances it was understandable. While this outing was a daunting task, I still look forward to trying QRP Portable again this fall for the September VHF contest. See you all on the air!
Rob – AE6GE