Becoming K7E

Event: 7QP radio contest

Location: Mineral County, Nevada, Western USA. Stunning views

Date/duration: Early May 2020, 2 nights camping

Solo: Solo operator but Rico M riding shotgun

Operating style: Jeep passenger seat

Radios: Elecraft KX3, KXPA100 and PX3

Antennas: SpiderBeam Area-51 and Packtenna End Fed

Power Source: Bioenno 50 ampHr battery

Call sign: K7E as a Single Op County Expedition

Placement: Winner in Mineral County (it was a one horse race!)

Conclusions and take-aways: See bottom of post

I’m about 400 miles north of home and about to become K7E somewhere remote in Mineral County. The name says it all as does Nevada’s nick name, the Silver State. It’s all about mining, ore and stuff that comes from below the surface leaving the steers to be chased unfettered across dry scrub land.

Nevada boasts more mountain ranges than any other lower 48 state and sits smack in the middle of the Great Basin, that almost waterless region called The Desert between the Mountain and the Sea. Sparsely populated and a decidedly lonely place to be in when not in Reno or Las Vegas.

Nevada was attractive to Mormon settlers over flowing from present day Utah in the 1800s when both states were collectively known as Utah Territory. There’s something alluring about this lonely state. A mixture of harshness, unforgiving, self reliance and independence coupled beauty, clean air and vistas galore. I’m always happy to come but in truth happier to return home.

Despite Nevada’s mineral roots, our immediate area, possibly more California than not, is dotted with pastures and grazing cows. Corrals, fences and ranching paraphernalia seem to dominate this part of the world in deference to mining gear.

Contest time

I’m here on another radio adventure, not Summits on the Air but an annual contest called the 7QP. The radio world, both local and global love contests and you don’t have to try too hard to find something to participate in weekly.

I’m taking K7E for a spin and not the usual W6PNG or erstwhile M0SNA. In the contesting world shorter call signs are advantageous and the US has a system where we can borrow 1×1 callsigns for something special. K7E is mine for a couple of days to coincide with 7QP.

Scouting, Jeep style

It’s Friday morning and we are scouting out sites. It’s a long drive across a well maintained dirt road. We pass many trailers, RVs and pickups as this seems to be a popular place especially for fishermen who’ve congregated along the banks of a river that winds along our general path. The river is the clue to this being pasture land and the landscape transitions frequently from pasture, streams, water logged areas to vast expanses of sage that is more classic of the western high desert. All around are hills and mountains, many large and dominating up and over 11,000 ft and of course given its early May we still see snow in some places.

Punked by commercial mining

Having scouted out the first of our two “easy” options, we are heading to a peak close to the now lost mining town of Aurora. It’s biggest draw back is its a telecommunications site, which suggests microwave. I’m not entirely comfortable siting two plus days in the wash of high energy associated with cooking things.

We are following 4×4 roads that wind east, south and occasionally back west. We’ve dead ended having arrived smack into a gate that enters a commercial mining operation and that effectively ends our quest for Aurora. No obvious route round exists and doubling back and taking an alternative partially paved route is just too lengthy for the time remaining.

No contest site and no bonus SOTA activation of Aurora Peak today.

Trying to salvage something we search for another dirt road heading north to some un-activated SOTA peak but we are thwarted by a commercial ranching operation, fenced in and no obvious sign of our 4×4 dirt road. Part of the issue is that in my haste, I haven’t downloaded sufficient off line maps and here we are in the middle of cell-less part of the world. Maybe its time to return to the earlier and quite viable contest site, have a cup of tea and setup shop.

Covid impact

Much of this event has been changed given we are at the start of what is turning out to be a never ending Covid-19 crisis. Ron, my radio partner is unavailable and all things considered venturing out seems strangely odd and intimidating having been confined to home for so long. I’ve tried to simplify my station and opted to leave my HexBeam 20/15/10 at home and go with an easier to deploy OCF from SpiderBeam called the Arial-51 and an EndFed for 80 and 160m while leaving my planned 40m and 80m verticals at home.

The Great Lockdown has plans scaled back….no HexBeam nor dedicated 40/80m verticals

As a once upon a time Brit, I’m fully versed in the value of tea and how to brew up. This is exactly what we do sitting under a tree and escaping the heat. While its only early May and we are up at about 7,000ft the mid afternoon sun is hot and relentless.

I’ve persuaded Rico to ride shotgun on this trip. He’s an outdoors adventure man but not really a radio guy and all things considered having him say yes is remarkably generous and magnanimous!

I can deploy both my antennas almost singlehandedly but to finalize the deployment I need a second set of hands. It’s mainly to hold either vertical pole that extend up 41 ft while I guy them. ‘

All deployed, Friday progress to dinner, marveling at views, counting mountains, trying to name the mountains counted and then finally staring at stars before slumber sets in. After weeks locked up at home its great to be here for all of these reasons but equally important is simply not thinking of Covid. Its taking a toll mentally and little do we know what a journey Covid is about to become over the rest of 2020 and into 2021.

One statement sums it up, “we’re screwed”!!

Saturday morning, coffee made, breakfast consumed, vistas viewed again and finally it’s 9am and game time.

Jeep centric station without compromise

I live in a pretty coastal community in So Cal but it’s a reasonably rubbish location for competitive radio given a thousand feet of vertical dirt that is a local scenic hill to my east, north and south. Summits on the Air has and continues to be an avenue for me to operate albeit casually. Contests really require a better location which has sometimes been a Caribbean island and more recently a piece of pristine radio quiet western USA wilderness. The later has become a project in of itself in that my Jeep has become the focal point. Many approaches exist with some towing tear drop campers while other tow 100 foot radio towers. Jeeps are unique in they ability to climb into remote ideal location but it rapidly declines when towing something and so I made a decision that my station had to be transported within or on top of my Jeep and not dragged behind it.

If you have followed any of my blogs you might recall my love and appreciation for the Elecraft KX3 radio and associated addons. Despite protestations from fellow team mates, I use this radio for contests so much so that I built a fancy two radio version to maximize (in theory) contest scores. In this scaled down contest, I have one of my pair with me and mounted to my dash. It’s a very ergonomic system as I get to sit in the passenger seat with a laptop running N1MM and have easy visibility of the KX3 and associated panadpter. Resting my right elbow on the passenger door allows me to turn the main tuning knob. While I’m clearly in Nevada my view is back into California and once again mountains associated with mining history and activity. Its a pretty view especially during the early morning post sunrise light and cooler temperatures.

A long overdue realization …..100w voice at the bottom of the cycle is too tough

40m seems noise free and I’m working different stations in adjacent states which isn’t exactly the objective but its a good start and I feel positive about things to come. I manage to nab 57 contacts on 40m in a 2-3 hour period. I’m happy, its a little slow and I’m alternating between calling CQ and tuning across the band for other callers. I enjoy the later and I think it harks back to my teenage days finding exotic shortwave stations that seemed a good alternative to discovering the world via National Geographic magazine.

The ideal for a voice station is getting spotted on an Internet clearing site as that makes others aware I’m “available” on a frequency. For lots of reasons it seems very few people do actually spot others. Maybe its competitiveness, maybe its lack of awareness how simply it is to do but once done a voice station can be off to the races racking up countless calls of minutes and beyond. That is the high we look for and talk about to our mates kind of like a home run in baseball.

View from my contest “cockpit”

The upside to a world of 100w low power radio is the ability to operate off of batteries. Unfortunately (or not) the wilderness isn’t populated with 110v outlets and its either battery power possibly augmented with solar or a gas powered generator. The upside to a generator is its ability to drive a radio station that outputs considerably more power (500w, 1,000w) and consequently be heard more often/more easily.

Rico has headed off on a solo hike to inspect any industrial archeology he might find in this mining country. Mapless, he sticks to 4×4 dirt roads and cell-less we imagine that we will see each other later in the day.

40m has faded and I try 20m. Its slow going through lunch and into the early afternoon. I seem to be coming up empty and struggling to get out of single digit Q counts per hour. I have a few moments of excitement as I work a couple of Italian stations and a single Croat. I find I have to repeat things over and over again suggesting that my HexBeam would have been a much better bet but propagation conditions just don’t seem that favorable.

Mid afternoon the wind picks up and my masts begin to whip back and forth. The concertina sound was unmistakable and I look over to see my end fed has succumbed to the wind. I had tried a stop gap method of discouraging arms separating and sliding down using plastic tape instead of the prescribed metal collars that can be tightened. Rico still wandering the wilderness meant a recovery would have to wait.

Don’t point your nose to the west

For reasons that seemed sound when I parked, I had oriented my hood and windscreen toward the west. It wasn’t a view decision as the views are specular from my mountain top in all directions. Maybe it was more to do with the desire to point in the direction I will drive out and hence can see others approaching. All fine in the early morning and during lunch but as the sun traversed the sky I was getting progressively hotter and hotter in the Jeep. I have reflective sun shields in many of the windows which help but its still hot. Jeep prides itself on being the longest running production vehicle and this includes carrying forward things like removable doors. While it might seem odd to you its apparently popular with some but the downside is that the door doesn’t stay open as many do when trying to enter and exit a vehicle. So I have no easy way to leave a door ajar and encourage any small breeze to waft around and cool me down.

Over 7-8 hours elapsed with a few breaks, I’ve managed to rustle up 62 contacts on 20m. Its pretty low count and certainly lower than I had hoped for. End fed down and Rico’s re-arrival has me thinking about food.

Camp life

I enjoy camping and overtime have evolved and dialed in what works well for me. Like the proverbial journey its something that I return to and each time figure out improvements. I’ve somewhat migrated out of camping in a tent. Tents take time to deploy and tear down but more importantly I rather like the ability to see the world around me and a tent typically doesn’t offer that. With windows, protection from the elements and zero deployment time, the Jeep is now my sleeping destination. It’s not going to work if you are basketball player height but I’m not and I somewhat fit in. I’m a side sleeper and all the ultra lite Therm-a-Rest sleeping mats that I have used in the past have been good for about ten minutes and definitely not an entire night. What cost, a good night sleep? For me the answer is the Swiss made Exped MegaMat that isn’t exactly inexpensive but is the closest thing to a bed in the wilderness.

Exped MagaMat – bliss in the wilderness

Food is another area that has evolved but in a way its reached a boring plateau. I love the convenience of JetBoil for morning coffee and inevitably that also points to the “convenience” of freeze dried meals that have become our staple. Mixed with a can of salmon or tuna and then doused in Tapatio to inject spice, its a passable meal. One draw back is the “cooking” times climb dramatically with each 1,000ft above sea level and being at 7,000 ft we are waiting almost 25 minutes for our food to cook in its sachet while simultaneously cooling. Part of the answer is to let it cook (stew) in a snappy thermal cup from Yeti.

Curry with canned salmon…actually quite tasty

To beer or not?

We always travel with a can or two of beer. My favorite style is West Coast IPA with its crazy hop taste and then by classic British standards, its bizarre addition of citrus or sage or whatever. Truth is one or two are OK but it’s a bit over powering to indulge beyond that.

Drinking and contesting don’t really mix for me. It’s clearly not life threatening but just best not done together.

The can pops open and that is me done for the contest. Roughly 6-8 hours, 114 contacts and while not exactly a stellar success, I’ve had fun, most importantly I actual came out and participated. No “shoulda, coulda, woulda” today.

Beer aside the views are just great

Juniper berries
Evening cloud show

 I’m a winner!!!

I’m a winner
Final score was just under 8,000 points, 34 multipliers and 114 qualified contacts ……pretty lame really!!

Conclusions and takeaways

What I’m happy with

I turned up. Kudos to me! Driving 400 miles one way into a remote and unknown location carting radios, batteries, antennas, food and a friend is logistically significant and easy to walk away from. I came, I saw, I conquered, so much so I have reserved K7E for next year.

Passenger seat operating, viable and comfortable – I liked sitting in the passenger seat, a little warm sometimes but great views and ergonomically appealing to me with the radio and panadpter affixed to the dash.

Camp life, sleeping in the Jeep just dandy – The stars, the Juniper berries, the views. What is not to like about this? Tons if you aren’t inclined but I am and I enjoy the experience immensely.

Single station just fine – I tend to get lost in the science of radio and like to build things. My little portable SO2R journey, while fun, might well have been overkill.

Brought a friend – I’m too social a creature to really enjoy nights in the wilderness tout seul

Improvements for next time

Sun shade – need something, possibly an awning from Rhino Rack

Duration – hanging in longer would be better

Partnering with CW operator – contests come in all shape and sizes and the ARRL and CQ have separate events for voice and CW. Not so the state QSO parties (of which 7QP is one) and being a solo voice operator dooms me to never placing number one in a category.

500w – 100w, low power for voice at this low point in the 11 year sun cycle is just painful. Bring an amp next time!!

HexBeam 20/15/10 – Perched on the edge of a mountain with fabulous drop off, our location was tailor made to maximize a radio signal across the US using a flat multi element antenna. I have one, bring it!!

Healthier food – something more appealing than slabs of cheese and freeze dried food seems ideal for next time.

Food Cooler – something like a Yeti or K2 cooler to keep food from spoiling also seems ideal

On my way home I stopped further south, drove off to activate a SOTA peak and had a great view of the Sierra Nevada mountains and Mono Lake.

Mono Lake from a SOTA peak I activated on journey home


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