In the world obsessed with the heights of amateur radio
On a gray Friday afternoon last spring, Steve Galchutt was sitting atop Chief Mountain, a 11,700-foot peak along Colorado’s Front Range. An epic panorama of pristine alpine landscapes stretching in almost every direction, with Pikes Peak to the south and Mount Evan towering just to the west.
It was a striking sight and the perfect backdrop for a selfie at the top. But instead of looking for his smartphone, Galchutt was absorbed by another device: a portable transceiver. Sitting on a small piece of rock and snow, his head tilted and tilted to the side, he listened to a constant stream of static beeps: dah-dah-di-dah dah di-di-di-dit. âIt’s Scotty in Philadelphia,â said Galchutt, translating Morse code. Then, tapping on two silver paddles attached to the side of the radio, he sent his own message, first with some details of its location, then its call sign, WG0AT.
At this point, an indiscreet hiker could have been forgiven for wondering what exactly Galchutt was doing. But his response – an “enthusiastic ham radio, of course!” – would probably only have made their confusion worse. After all, the popular image of an amateur radio hobbyist is that of an aging recluse bound to the chair, not an adventurer clad in spikes. And their natural habitat is usually a basement, or âham shack,â not a windswept peak in the middle of the Rockies.
Galchutt partly fits that stereotype – he’s 75 – but the similarities end there. An avid hiker and camper, his favorite cabin is on top of a mountain, and the higher the top the better.
Another burst of rapid fire from said and dahs burst from the radio. “Wow!” Galchutt said: “Spain!”
Nearby were Brad Bylund (call sign WA6MM) and Bob and Joyce Witte (K0NR and K0JJW, respectively). Together, the four are part of a group called Summits on the Air (SOTA), an international radio version of Pointing High.
âA woman came to me and wondered what I’m doing,â Bylund said. “And she pointed out to me, ‘You know your cell phone works here, don’t you?’ They totally miss all of this.
âBob and I call these bubble people,â Joyce added with a smirk.
Amateur radio enthusiasts are used to being slandered as advocates of an anachronistic pastime, a retro social network for retired veterans and lo-fi tech enthusiasts. The ridiculous goes back to the very origins of the word ham, a pejorative that professional radio operators in the early 20th century used to refer to as amateurs with “fisting” Morse code skills.
But the reality is that amateur radio, full of cutting edge technology and involving a high level of expertise, has always been ahead of its time. âYou tend to think of it as one of those quaint, old-fashioned pastimes, like the people who still make buggy whips,â said Paula Uscian (K9IR), retired lawyer and ham based in Illinois. “But I can’t think of many old-fashioned hobbies that let you talk to a space station or bounce signals off the moon.”
Radio has long served as a vital resource in emergency situations, and amateur radio clubs are regularly found on the scene during natural and man-made disasters – in 2018, for example, local hams helped coordinate communications during the campfire in northern California. . Bob and Joyce, who volunteer as administrators for the Federal Communications Commission licensing exam, support this, saying most new registrants are interested in wilderness preparedness and disaster relief. . But more and more, they also hear from people who come for the more recreational activities of the outdoor radio. (Ham activity has also seen an increase in recent months, with hobbyists turning to their radios as a safe social distancing activity during the coronavirus pandemic; there are now over 750,000 licensed amateur operators in the United States. United, according to the FCC.) These include shows that play primarily on outdoor radio, enticing participants through points and rewards. For island hopping hams, there is Islands on the Air, founded in 1964. For national park hams, there is Parks on the Air, founded in 2010. For urban hams that want to get away from it all. Their cabins even have Walmart parking on the air.
And then there is SOTA. Founded in 2002 by a Briton named John Linford, the program involves activators, like Galchutt, who climb recognized peaks in an attempt to contact other operators in the field, called hunters. Each peak is worth a certain number of points. Activators who achieve 1000 points earn Mountain Goat status, the highest and most coveted award in the program. (Hunters get their own trophy: the hut sloth.)
âI have always been impressed with how many good long distance contacts I could make from the mountain peaks,â said Linford, explaining how he spent years carrying his radio equipment to the hills around his native Scotland. before deciding to launch the club, first in the UK. Since then, SOTA has grown into one of the most popular amateur radio clubs in the world, with nearly 8,000 registered activators in 180 countries. The program recognizes over 140,000 peaks, each rated based on location and height. Chief Mountain is worth six points, for example, while Argentina’s Aconcagua – a 22,841-foot peak that became the highest activated in SOTA history last year – is worth ten. All of this information is collected on the SOTA website, which includes forums, cards and honor lists.
âA big part of things in ham radio is getting brownie points,â says Mike Walsh (KE5AKL). But another draw is its Choose Your Own Adventure nature, allowing participants to tailor their approach to their own goals and abilities. Ham from New Mexico and the number one activator of SOTA in the United States, Walsh has racked up hundreds of unique and first-time highs, reflecting his passion for mountaineering.
On the other hand, some activators prefer to treat their rides like marathons, trying to cram as many small peaks as possible into one trip. âTo me it’s similar to the Olympic sport of biathlon,â said Uscian, who recently returned from a whirlwind tour of Arkansas, where she turned 12 peaks in four days, which resulted in her very first mountain goat. “So I started to call it a biathlon for geeks.”
Of course, it helps to live in a place like Colorado, a true SOTA haven with some 1,800 qualifying peaks. One of them is Chief Mountain, which Galchutt, who lives just a few hours south of Monument, suggested we climb together. He called it a âclassicâ SOTA peak: it’s close to a large metropolitan area, only takes about an hour to walk, and from the top gives a wide, unobstructed horizon, the perfect kind for broadcasting.
Galchutt had his first radio when he was a child and still speaks of the experience with the same childish awe as most hams. “I was just in love with the fact that you can’t see these radio waves, but you can take them out of the air and decode them with electronics and listen to music, hear people talking,” me. he said as we walked up the Track.
Like many SOTA attendees, however, Galchutt was not always interested in the ham community as a whole. After moving to Colorado two decades ago, he recalled going to an amateur radio club meeting with a friend and finding it full of “old, fat whites, sitting around eating donuts and to smoke cigarettes, âa scene thatâ just wasn’t â. t my thing, âhe said. Instead, he signed up as a volunteer with his local search and rescue team, “and the next thing I know I’m hanging off a 200-foot cliff, climbing a rope and learning to use climbing equipment. In addition to being better suited, Galchutt’s search and rescue experience has reinforced the importance of radio in backcountry communications, where it can serve as a layer of security beyond phones. laptops, GPS navigators and even personal locator beacons.
It’s a lesson that SOTA itself can teach, participants say. “We’re totally confined – we’re not dependent on infrastructure, we’re battery powered, we’re setting up our own antenna,” said Bylund, who took a crash course in emergency communications several years ago while trying to activate 13,164 feet. Mount Flora in the Berthoud Pass area near Winter Park, Colorado. After walking away from a ledge in a whiteout and getting stuck, Bylund was forced to use his radio to call for help. âI couldn’t use my cell phone, so I used ham radio,â he said. His ordeal made the local news. âIt probably saved my life,â he said.
The reality is that amateur radio, full of cutting edge technology and involving a high level of expertise, has always been ahead of its time.
Today, Galchutt is the de facto ambassador of the SOTA brand. While he may not be the most accomplished activator – he only ranks 22nd in the United States – he is a little celebrity on Twitter and Facebook, where he constantly posts high-contrast photos of himself on his outings (often on Mount Herman, a 9,000-foot peak near his home that he climbs almost every week). A former graphic designer, he adorns his clothes and equipment with SOTA decals and patches of his own making.
Oh, and Glachutt’s call sign – WG0AT – isn’t just a reference to his favorite hobby. It’s also a love letter to his pack goat, Boo, who can sometimes be found eating alongside him on the track. On air, Galchutt’s reputation precedes him. Galchutt and Bylund are dedicated CW operators (CW stands for continuous wave, this is how Morse code is often transmitted), but it eventually switched to the voice band, 20 meter, single-sided, transmission method. favorite by Bob and Joyce Witte. âHello, CQ. CQ is Whiskey, Golf, Zero, Alpha, Tango, âsaid Galchutt. “This is a portable station on top of a mountain, looking for a signal report from anyone, anywhere.”
Several seconds of static ensued. Then the group crackled, a voice riding a high frequency wave out of the aether.
“Are you the famous goat activator?” asked the voice. It was Bruce Montgomery (WA7BAM) in Olympia, Washington.
âYeah,â Galchutt replied. âI guess it’s me.