There are two VHF contesting events each year that take the Fourlanders Contesting Group (W4NH) to Soco Bald in North Carolina. Two ARRL VHF QSO Parties are held – one in June and one in September – and give the group an opportunity to operate mountaintop from a great location.
Soco Bald is a 5,446′ summit just off the Blue Ridge Parkway between Maggie Valley and Cherokee. It lies within Mile High Campground at N35.515 and W83.182. The radio horizon at the summit makes it an excellent location for VHF contesting, and the campground provides primitive services and campsites for comfortable stays. The site is located in grid EM85jm.
Group members descend on the summit from the Metro Atlanta area, North Georgia, Alabama, and North Carolina. The Atlanta and North Georgia contingent bring the trailers and equipment for the contest, and all the members are involved in the setup and tear-down. With three cargo trailers that double as operating positions, three additional trailers with mounted masts and towers, a 15kWa generator (there is no commercial power in the campground) and the requirement to feed as many as 20 people, the effort truly takes on the dimensions of an expedition.
Planning begins weeks in advance, with the preparation and testing of radio equipment, computers, and antenna systems. Food menus are developed and supplies are obtained. Trailer hauling duties are assigned and lesser tasks are coordinated.
Our schedule calls for departing from the Dahlonega area on a Friday morning in a loose convoy style. We ride up Highway 23 through Clayton Georgia, Franklin, North Carolina, and through Waynesville and Maggie Valley. From there it’s a short steep climb up Highway 19 to the Blue Ridge Parkway. A few miles up the BRP we take the turn toward Balsam Mountain at Laurel Gap and pick up the entrance to Mile High Campground.
Friday afternoons are used to setup the trailers, erect the towers and antennas, and bring the radio and computer equipment online at operating positions inside the cargo trailers. The generator is used to provide power for the equipment and for cooking. Setup and testing may go into the evening, with each band captain responsible for the setup and proper operation of his station. Friday evenings are for showers and dinner, and later we kill the generator and hit the sack.
We have a mixture of sleeping arrangements. Some people sleep in the back of their trucks, others prefer sleeping bags, and one or two bring pop-up or hard-sided campers. Vehicles range from full-ton pickup trucks to cars (and one Porsche).
Saturday mornings we crank up the generator and prepare breakfast. Last minute station preparations are made. We have lunch just prior to the contest kickoff at 2 pm local time.
The contest runs continuously though 11 pm on Sunday. Other than meals, there are no set schedules as operators work varied shifts that often involve all-night operating. Particularly when the moon is up, nighttime activity on EME (Earth-Moon-Earth, or moonbounce communications) continues as long as contacts and new grid squares are workable.
The purpose of the contest is to work as many other stations as possible. VHF contest contacts must be made on 50 MHz, 144 MHz, 222 MHz, 432 MHz, and higher bands – including on microwave. As most of these bands exhibit line-of-site characteristics, the height afforded by the summit provides for extended coverage – what we refer to as the radio horizon. When we have openings that provide signal propagation the range can be extended considerably. This contest we worked Brazil on 50 MHz, and in the past we’ve worked Arizona and Colorado on 144 MHz.
Scoring is based on one point per contact on 50 and 144 MHz and two points on the higher bands. Multipliers are given based on the number of grid squares worked on each band. The earth has been divided into a 1 degree latitude by 2 degree longitude grid with a designation that identifies each grid square. These work out to a size of about 70 x 100 miles in the continental United States. Each new grid worked becomes a multiplier for the number of points earned.
Contacts are made using several modes: Single Sideband, CW (Morse code), FM, and digital modes, such as WSJT. The WSJT mode was incorporated into the operation several years ago and continues to evolve. Earlier this year we built an antenna array to track and work signals off the moon using 432 MHz. Despite the effectiveness of the mode, the effort is nonetheless challenging, and we’re continuing to get better. Our next phase is to have this capability on 144 MHz.
Stations consist of a transceiver – sometimes with a transverter for a particular band – and an amplifier. Typically we’ll run up to about a kW on each band. Computers running the WriteLog contest software are interfaced with the radios and are networked to a server which maintains the master log and scoring. We have a robust internet connection using equipment that connects us to a carrier network – generally 3G.
At the conclusion of the contest at 11 pm on Sunday night, we unplug the equipment, begin wrapping it up for transportation back home, and crank down the towers. The generator finally is turned off and we hit the sack.
Monday morning we begin the process of taking the towers and antennas down and packing things in the vehicles. During the process we have breakfast, and finally are able to tidy up the campground and ourselves by late morning. Generally we leave the campground for home about noon.
For the most part the Fourlanders place in the top few scores in our class each contest. While we compete seriously we also appreciate the opportunity to socialize and to camp out at such a great location.
The Fourlanders website is located here: www.fourlanders.org
For information on Mile High Campground, check out their website here: www.campmilehigh.com
Soco Bald: N35.515447 W083.182703