4 Days in Purgatory

Event: 2020 California QSO Party (CQP) amateur radio contest

Location:  Kern County, California, Western USA.

Date/duration: Early October 2020, 3 nights Jeep camping

Solo: Team of two with Scott Bovitz N6MI

Operating style: Jeep passenger seat

Radios: Elecraft K3s, KPA500, P3 and KAT500

Antennas: G3TXQ 6-20 HexBeam and Buckmaster 6-80 OCF

Power Source: Honda 2200i generator

Call sign: W6E as a Multi/Multi County Expedition 

Placement: TBD

Conclusions and take-aways: See bottom of post

Copyright: Paul Gacek 2020 and selected photos Scott Bovitz 2020

Somewhere in the Mojave Desert, Southern California

The rush of cold air was oddly irritating. I wondered if I needed it as darkness was a few hours old but the night air was still in the mid eighties. I’m surprised how quickly my body has adapted after being in the desert for four days where afternoon highs were close to a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. I leave the cold air blowing and focus on the drive home.

This wasn’t the plan but like all great plans of mice and men things have gone sideways.

Shockingly brutal fires have ravaged the West, seemingly singling out California for special treatment. Our first choice, up at cooler 8,000 ft, was within the Los Padres National Forest which understandably along with all other California National Forests was closed. No hiking, no sightseeing, no camping and definitely no fires nor generators.

Do you really want to be W6E?

Borrowing 1×1 call signs for special events is a real treat. My first foray was with K7E during the 7QP and being a planful type, I had reserved K7E and W6E long in advance of their intended uses.

Dean’s (N6DE) email congratulated me on my early reservation of W6E. NCCC, the CQP organizers have a one off event to celebrate the 50th year of their club. The jist of it is to get 1×1 callsigns on the air that spell out S E Q U O I A as the last letter and reward participants for making contacts with them. Prior years have had something similar such as Gold Rush and this year’s name highlights another California first, the world’s largest tree. And with that, it’s Bingo. Serendipity has delivered me a Sequoia call sign, W6E.

Dean wanted to ensure I understood this was more like a rave party than cocktails at seven. Standing room only, crushed shoulders, loud noise and potentially very energetic participants. A heavily amplified signal was suggested, as was a decent antenna and given my lack of CW skills, a partner.

After reflecting on all of this and being a somewhat competitive individual, I declared my willingness to turn up with a 500w amplifier, a big boy antenna and even a CW impresario.

I wanted to play competitively, it was that simple.

Hello Scott, N6MI

In the not too distant past, Scott had communicated with me on one of my SOTA blogs. I discovered Scott’s deep experience and fascination with wilderness operating. Unlike my literally pedestrian experiences, Scott has the most perfect mobile contest station know as a Cow. Thinking it a term of endearment, I later discovered is an industry term for a Cellular on Wheels (COW).

Scott N6MI with his Canon DSLR…another hobby in common

Drawing from years of participation and organizing CQP, Dean offered up a series of possible partners with expedition pedigree and coincidentally one was Scott.

Random partnering is a risky affair at best and made somewhat more risky in the age of COVID when people are unlikely to meet ahead of time. Our initial phone calls suggested we were well suited and Scott’s deep experience an irresistible draw for someone that wants to be a better Expeditioner.

N6MI’s COW
Scott’s operating position….mine is positively primitive by comparison

Expeditions can be brutal

Almost 100% of my ham life has been some form of an expedition. Whether it’s one of the hundreds of SOTA activations, one of the countless NPOTA events or trips to Central America or the Caribbean, all are similar to the extent that what I have at the destination is what I pack and take with me from my home. Unlike most ham stations, mine is clearly not a permanent station and success is a function of planning, practicing and praying.

Many of the US State QSO parties, CQP and 7QP included, recognize Expeditions as a unique category and allow competition and awards amongst similarly impaired stations. Sadly, the top global contests organized by CQ World Wide, ARRL and DARC aren’t so generous nor enlightened, leaving Expeditioners to compete against more permanent and typically more effective “in country” stations.

Planning and practice makes perfect…..

Amplifiers are power hungry beasts and desert 110v outlets a rarity. I’ve acquired a Honda 2200i generator and three two gallon fuel cans. I had no experience with fuel cans and I was really quite concerned with self immolating in the desert while refueling the generator.

Generator tests at home
Power line filter….that didn’t work as well as I expected on 80m

The generator has a reputation for being electrically noisy, I built a filter to suppress any noise or so I thought. I’ve bought 100 ft of seemingly far too heavy 8 gauge power cord to place my audibly noisy generator far, far away from the Jeep.

Last and definitely not least, I’ve perfected solo deployment of my HexBeam over a 3 week period at a friend’s house. 30ft up and a 20ft wing span seemed a tall (pun intended) order for me to do solo. While it’s not super heavy, the fulcrum effect leaves me wondering if it will all topple over on the day.

Waiting in Mojave

Heading north it’s the last town before a long and lonely stretch up highway 395 through the Owen’s Valley. I’ve successfully conquered one of my fears, filling up three gas cans with two mounted outside the Jeep and one stashed within and I now have six gallons to feed my generator.

The gas station sells ice tea in various sizes and I’ve opted for the bucket size, after all it’s hot here and cool drinks a premium as the adventure progresses.

I’ve traipsed across many parts of the Western USA high desert which is frequently littered with sage. A beautify aromatic scrub it sometimes manages to weave itself into a ground cover that’s hard to navigate on foot and almost impossible in a Jeep. In contrast, this lower more southern desert has creosote spaced out sufficiently to drive through. We’re not far off the highway and literally feet off the 4×4 dirt road that brought us to this particularly beautiful spot.

Two entirely independent COVID safe stations

I listen to Scott’s suggestions where to locate ourselves to maximize what little gradual decline the terrain has to offer. In this new and strange world of airborne viruses, we have elected to operate from two entirely independent desert stations spaced out five hundred feet or so. There really isn’t an optimal way to locate my Jeep relative to sunrise and sunset but I try to see how life will be with my tail to the west and the setting sun. As I learn over the next four days glass houses are great at amplifying the heat.

We busy ourselves unloading gear as both intend to sleep in our vehicles. Tents, rattlesnakes and scorpions seem a marriage waiting to end in pain.

Either Jeeps are really quite small or my expedition station gear is larger than I thought.

Boxes, a cooler, antennas, cables begin to pile up outside my Jeep. I refuse to deposit any of the radio gear, amps, panadpters outside the Jeep as these don’t deserve to be gently and relentlessly dusted in desert sand making set up long and sometimes tedious as I’m simultaneously unloading and rearranging things within the Jeep.

Mounting a 30 ft mast off of trailer hitch for the OCF
OCF up within a few hours of arrival….FT8 fun tonight

To conserve fuel outside the contest, I run my K3s off a battery using FT8 as an easy propagation/performance probe.

80m, guess I should have tried this at home

Despite all my claims to be planful, somethings have been left too late and I’m learning the hard way that 80m isn’t going to be easy.

Placing the OCF at the top of a mast 30 feet above the back of the Jeep might well have been too optimistic as I think a combination of RF, through proximity and poor filtering on my part are playing havoc with my USB connection and the radio. Nothing wants to work and FT8 is a non starter. Not helping was a higher than hoped SWR on 80m from my OCF.

Cranking back the power and using an SDR listening post in Utah revealed all is not lost on 80m. I might well nab a few voice contacts on Saturday night.

The next day things begin to look even bleaker as prior to a CQP practice session at 500w along with my generator, its clear that the generator is RF friendly on all bands but 80m. I have hideous noise approaching S9+10. Clearly, my home-brew power line filter is less than successful. The COW donates two additional power line filters and the trio reduce noise to an irritating but usable S5/S6 and I feel I’m in with a chance Saturday night and Sunday morning.

Utah WebSDR verifies my voice signal gets out

Solo deployment of the HexBeam, 10 out of 10 score for me!

Mounted atop a 30ft mast, the HexBeam spanning 20 feet or so, is quite a monster compared to my diminutive stature.

When I bought the HexBeam I had always assumed I would be deploying it with someone else but here I am alone in the desert with a daunting task ahead of me. I’m up early as the day heats up quickly and a lot is required to get ship shape ahead of the contest.

For the prior three weeks, I have headed over to a friend’s house and practiced solo deployment of the mast and HexBeam. First attempt was quite hair-raising as I struggled to mate the HexBeam to the mast, so much so that the HexBeam tumbled sideways, fiberglass elements separating and me quickly realizing that it can take a licking and keep on ticking as the elements slid straight back in unbroken. What became apparent during my three practice sessions was to first deploy the mast and set the eight guy line lengths to ensure none are too short and pulling the mast to one side and secondly if it is windy you get some benefit from the guy lines.

Successfully deployed single handedly!!

Not the radio setup I wanted

My preference is to mount my KX3 and PX3 on my dash with my laptop below on my lap.

For reasons consigned to history, commercial amplifiers sold in the US have a maximum allowed amplification and the net net is that my KX3 can’t drive my Elecraft 500 watts amplifier to full output (I get around 285 watts).

K7E preferred radio setup – easy ergonomics for me, no twisting and straining to reach the knobs!!

Enter Jim Veatch and HobbyPCB’s Hardrock 500

Jim (WA2EUJ) is the talented award winning designer behind HobbyPCB’s kit business running the gamut from low power amplifiers to DSP radios and much in between. Jim and I have emailed back and forth over the years as I was an early builder of the Hardrock 50 and he has been more than generous helping with technical roadblocks and fantasy SO2R super portable amplifiers.

Jim’s new 500w amplifier kit, aimed at the KX3/2 and FT 817/8 being just that, a kit, isn’t subject to the same amplification limitations.

5 watts in, 500 watts out seems the perfect amplifier for my preferred Jeep setup.

Ask and thou shalt receive

Using Jim’s prototype Hardrock 500 during my deployment tests, has me pulling in voice contacts from Europe which seems spectacular to me. Easily integrated with the KX3/PX3, simple cabling, quiet when running, rugged, no knobs to get knocked off in transit and a built in ATU all make for a compelling package. I like it and it’s coming to the desert!

Hobby PCB Hardrock 500 amplifier mated to KX3 – First contact for me, California to France, Whoopi!!

Jeep station setup….fumbles, frustration and panic

I setup my preferred station of the KX3/PX3 and Hardrock 500 but I quickly realized that I had skipped the class on using the ATU and given my OCF’s paltry SWR on 80m and my HexBeams slightly high SWR on 10m, I was beginning to feel heat induced frustration drift into moments of panic especially when I remembered my unaddressed Honda generator noise issues.

Maybe I was too quick to swap out the KX3/HRD-500 for the K3s/KPA500 especially as Jim had given me his phone number but for better or worst I did the swap.

Attempt one with HRD500 before pilot error got the better of me
Driver seat K-line and not the clothing ding shade duty
Passenger seat operating; Surface Go and Surface Book run N1MM. State and Province abbreviations still require a moment’s thought
My score and QSO count were pretty good

What worked

Competitive score

We both worked diligently to get contacts, choosing the best band and putting in the hours. 30 hours non stop isn’t on my list of To Dos as I certainly kipped down in the back of the Jeep in the wee hours of the night.

I nabbed 723 voice contacts and Scott 917 morse code contacts. Others garnered more than us but I think all round we put on a good show and as the Brits love to say “we didn’t let the side down”.

All in all our raw score places us at the top of our category and maybe once verified that position will stand. Our reward will be “real lumber” in the form of a plaque to immortalize our effort. Here’s looking for Santa to be kind.

Partnering with Scott

I’m a social creature and love to be with people. You learn, you joke, you chat and you do.

Scott’s a character and I enjoyed my time with him immensely. I watched in awe as the pneumatic mast hoists his beam. He saved the day for me on 80m and saved my life Sunday morning by delivering a really tasty cup of coffee. We’ve chatted since CQP and I’m optimistic, especially post vaccine that we will partner up and head somewhere remote with our radio stations.

Great Scott aka N6MI

500w and the HexBeam were great

This seems the minimum entry bar for enjoyable voice (SSB) contesting. My forays with 100w and various dipoles, end feds for a contest is to my mind a masochistic journey to disappointment. I have no issues with super lower power (QRP) as I do that each and every week in my SOTA life but for contesting 500w and a beam is it.

Night time shot of my HexBeam…..guess the QSO rate was down

Generator

Despite my fears of self immolation, the generator is a practical and useful addition to my expedition station and no doubt potentially useful for a California emergency. One option is to convert it to operate from propane with the upside that one large tank could run the generator for more than the 6 hours I got from a gallon of gasoline possibly 24 hours.

Generator, power filter (didn’t really work so well) and 100 ft yellow power cable to Jeep

Food

I brought a K2 cooler and loaded it up with pre cooked real food packed in ice. This included lentils, broccoli, hummus and other items I like that I paired with canned fish. Quick, easy, tasty and cold which on my hot summer days was quite welcome. All washed down with that very un British drink, ice tea.

Do differently next year

Personal comfort

Even on a cold sunny day in California it quickly gets too hot in a vehicle. While I thought I could get away with a “naked” Jeep on top of Frazier Mountain clearly the desert location was sheer unbridled optimism (stupidity?) especially as I had suffered somewhat as K7E. Today, in early December 2020, I’ll pick up my Jeep with the Rhinorack Pioneer platform and two awnings offering 180 degrees of shade. Park my tail to the south and I should be better off.

Hanging bedding to keep sun out

Operating outside the vehicle

This will make a nice option and the awning will help enormously. I have purchased a headless Flexradio 6600 (i.e no front panel/knobs) and am experimenting with PC access. Once dialed in and mated with my KPA500, I’ll have the option to sit outside with a laptop under my awning.

The user interface to a headless Flex 6600….perfect for dash mount and/or carry outside
Headless Flex 6600 (at home) has a lot of potential with KPA500 in Jeep

Light me up

Rock crawling is one use of Jeeps and decidedly popular in SoCal so much so that light are offered that can be installed in the wheel wells to illuminate the ground around. I have 4 red lights being installed and hope this will provide a good enough light solution when operating outside in darkness

By the way, if you didn’t know Jeep stands for “Just Empty Every Pocket

Better 80m solution

The most obvious solution here is to mount the OCF on a separate mast away from the Jeep. SpiderBeam have an attractive 47 ft aluminum big brother to the one I used. Alternatively, I built separate 80m and 40m verticals with miles of radials that are worth wheeling out, testing, refining and ideally deploying. The upside is they’re lighter and I already have them compared to the 47ft mast.

Better in vehicle operating setup

KX3 and hardrock 500 advantages aside, I do have a K3s/KPA500 that I would like to use. One option is to mount a VGA monitor on my dash (already verified) and extend the Elecraft KPod such that it is adjacent to my laptop. As a long term fan and user of Win4K3, all three of these will provide me with a good enough interaction and control of my K3s/KPA500.

N1MM aficionado

I’m a huge fan of this contesting software package for so many reason; well thought through, excessively full featured, constant development and yes, free. There’s so much to the application and just being better versed and more proficient is a perennial goal.

Conclusion

Despite the heat, despite the uncomfortable sleeping, despite the effort preparing, setting up and tearing down it was all worth it.

I learnt tons, compared to 7QP my performance was a quantum leap better, Scott is my new radio buddy and best of all, I have a memory that will last a lifetime.

As the ad says, priceless.

8 comments

  1. Nice report. For the Honda filtering what I did successfully is to shield the high voltage spark coil, high voltage cable, sparkplug all to the motor case.
    Without that the transformer, high voltage cable and motor case form a coil in which the current from the spark plug is flowing (impulses!) and creating RF.

    To do that open the Honda case, wrap the HV coil in copper foil, wrap the cable in copper foil, ground to motor case with large connections.

    There is a tiny bit of QRM remaining on the high bands, from the electronic inverter

    73

    Gerd DF9TS

    Like

  2. Great report Paul. It is many years since I went out contesting on serious basis – the urge was killed by SOTA. I never attempted a 30 hour session or HF. It was considerably easier on VHF. What you achieved is truly brilliant.

    73, Gerald G4OIG / G8CXK

    Like

  3. Great report. Pictures tell the story.
    After quarterly camping, year round, with a group of ham buddies over a period of 10 year just south of Barstow, CA I can relate. I can confirm that operating in a vehicle was not the best idea. We set up extensive awnings and popup shades to do everything outside. One trip it reached 115 degrees. I learned my lesson. I passed on any of our future outing that was going to be over about 95 degrees. As a true Elecraft lover I know you had the optimum equipment for your trip. I did not know the Honda generator had such noise problems on 80 meters. We have used a pair of 2000 Watt Honda generators year after year on field days and don’t recall any RF from them. I will inquire if they had been modified and find out what filtering we may have used.
    I am sure you learned a great deal; much that can not be anticipated.
    73, WM6P

    Like

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