Summits On The Air（SOTA）
SOTA for me
In 2013, I had just gotten my ham license, and I listened out on the bands, nervous to make my first contact. One day, I heard a lonely person calling who said they were on top of a mountain, and looking for any contacts they could find. I nervously responded, swapped signal reports and earnt my first chaser points for SOTA. It took a few months after that before I made my first activation, and in the meantime, I chased activators wherever I could, finding out all these exotic mountain names and being transported via radio to remote locations.
I made my first SOTA activation in December 2013, and made contact with Finland—my first real DX contact. I was hooked. I started to plan activations around family activities, and in 2014 took my radios on a trip to the UK with my wife, and activated summits over there. I activated summits in the Lake District, in Cornwall, in Wales and Scotland, and while I didn't make a huge amount of points, I did earn new associations that I could work from.
Work trips then found me activating other Associations in Australia, and I quickly had the 5 associations necessary for the Bronze level of the Mountain Explorer award, which, although SOTA isn't a competition, got me fairly high up the honour board for VK. As I continued to travel, I activated more associations. Where there were no associations, like Japan, I helped to find locals like Toru Kawauchi JH0CJH and Warren Harris ZL2AJ to survey summits, or surveyed them myself for inclusion in the program. Eventually we had 4 JA associations, 2 in ZL, and I'd activated in America and around Australia.
On Mount Eden (ZL1/AK-023)
I now have 25 associations that I have activated across 5 continents. When I activate a new association, I always reach out to locals to get some knowledge. Without fail, someone will respond in a friendly manner giving me plenty of information about summits I'm interested in. Sometimes it's a simple "great summit, go and visit it", or other times, "No, it looks easy, but the track is overgrown and I'll never go back there again". On other occasions, the person will offer to host me and drive me to the summits. It is this friendship and hospitality that I love about SOTA—everyone is overwhelmingly nice to each other, sharing information and advice about how to do things.
On Vrouwenheide (PA/PA-004)
Now, I catch up with these people when I return and return the favour in VK wherever possible. In early December, I will head to South Korea and, as usual, meet the association manager Jason Vlasak HL4ZFA and activate another summit, and afterwards, beer and fried chicken. A work colleague of mine who accompanied us on an early trip now has his ham license so he could participate in SOTA as well. On my last trip to Korea I saw another ham reading QST magazine on the aeroplane to Seoul and when I introduced myself, we discovered we'd worked each other many times and knew each other quite well from SOTA activations alone!
Seoul from Yongmasan (HL/SL-004)
Each association is different—even in countries with multiple associations like Australia or Japan. I enjoy finding the differences in scenery, in trees, in animals. One summit near Fukuoka was fascinating for a spider that I've never seen before working hard around my activation position. I've sat atop the summit of Skiddaw in the Lake District in cold weather with snow drifts around, looking down on Derwentwater and Keswick, breathless with the beauty of the view, talking to people around England. A 600 m summit in Korea usually will involve a ridiculously steep climb from almost sea level. A 1000 m summit in Australia might be able to be driven to the top.
I've driven hundreds of kilometers for a 1-point summit, but a stunning view. I've walked miles for a 10-point summit and seen nothing but trees. I've sat on top of a 700 m mountain in New Zealand with the temperature almost freezing but not feeling the cold as I worked stations in Germany, Brazil, and Italy at the bottom of the solar cycle. There is no doubt that SOTA gets you out and active, and your signal goes far when you almost have line of sight to Antarctica!
So how do you combine travel with SOTA? The first, obvious, step is to take your radio with you on your next trip. You'll need to make sure you can do so and get a license or reciprocal rights where you are going to activate. Check the fine print—not everywhere allows visitors to go out portable—but if you can, take a radio with you.
Reckon you can work this one out
Once you're able to activate, then find out what SOTA summits are available. It's generally a good idea to pick summits that have already been activated and show clear paths to the top on Google Maps or similar. It reduces the risk of a failed activation if someone else has been there already, and preferably recently.
Check the summit history to see if it's possible to activate with a handheld only, or if you need to have a HF system. Not everywhere has a good population of hams in line of sight of the summit.
Making a 2 m S2S from ZL3/MB-096 Altimarloch on first day of ZL3 association:
Reach out to the Association Manager of the association you're going to activate. Get their advice on your choice or if there are better ones in the region you are visiting. If they offer to help, to take you along, or to organize a dinner with local SOTA fans, take them up on the offer!
Mount Buller VK3/VE-008
Check the weather, check local sunrise and sunset times and factor these in. A 5 hour hike out in the dark in a strange country will not be pleasant.
Remember why you are travelling—work, holiday, or whatever, and factor in SOTA accordingly. I've done activations on the way to the airport for a work trip as it was the only time I had available. I've done activations with my wife sitting in a car wishing I hadn't brought the radio along.
Remember that you are probably more jetlagged than you realize, and more dehydrated too.
But most importantly, remember to enjoy the wonderful junction of mountains and amateur radio.