Connections in the Sky: mount-top ham radio

Tim joined The Mountaineers 16 years ago and has been leading day hikes, snowshoe trips, and multi-day backpacks for almost 15 of those years. He met his wife, long-time member, Masako Nair, on a Mountaineers trip in 2001 and the two have been enjoying the mountains together ever since. Tune in and he’ll be listening, on frequency 146.52.
Tim Nair Tim Nair
May 24, 2016
Connections in the Sky: mount-top ham radio
by Tim Nair, Mountaineers Trip Leader

You’ve reached the summit and the view is breathtaking: time for a “Summit-Selfie” to share your success with your friends...but there’s no cell coverage up here. You have a Personal Locator Beacon, but this doesn’t quite qualify as an emergency. Fortunately, you have a ham radio and can talk to the world.

Radio Energy

As a child, I was always fascinated with radio. Listening through the magic of a self-powered crystal radio, no batteries or electricity required, the world of radio was my segue to the land of dreams every night. The fact I could hear music simply by stringing a long wire from my bedroom window to the tallest tree in our backyard was inspirational — radio waves were their own energy source. 

My radio interest grew as I did, from the simple crystal radio to multi-band radio — including shortwave bands — where I heard people in distant countries speaking other languages. Through listening to these foreign broadcasts, I gained insight into their cultures. As some shortwave frequencies are shared with ham radio (amateur radio), I occasionally heard folks on ham radio channels and found their conversations fascinating. 

Outside Help

On Mountaineers trips, especially with larger groups, I’ve often found Family Radio Service (aka walkie-talkie) radios very useful for communication within the group. These inexpensive devices work well over short distances in the mountains; however, in an emergency situation they lack the power to summon help from outside the group.

A few years ago, I was leading a hike in the spectacular Goat Rocks area for another nonprofit organization. Shortly after noon, as we leisured in the mid-day sun on the ridge overlooking Goat Flats and surrounded by meadows covered in wildflowers, our peaceful sojourn was abruptly shattered by an urgent call for help. An individual, not in our group, was reported to us as “down” and needing medical attention. After several confused moments running in the direction of the victim, I arrived on the scene, and following Mountaineers MOFA training protocol, administered CPR to the victim. Within a minute, several other hikers in the area caught up and were on the scene, none of whom knew what to do. Realizing the urgency of the situation, everyone pulled out their cell phones, texting and calling 911 to no avail; there’s no cell phone coverage in the Goat Rocks area.

After unsuccessful attempts at CPR, I grabbed several cell phones and ran up a nearby ridge, thinking I would be sure to find cell-phone coverage if I could simply get to a clear area that was high enough. Nothing. Four years later, the feeling of helplessness of not being able to get proper medical attention for the victim when he needed it still haunts me.

Available options for emergency communication include, in order of decreasing potential for contact, Personal Locator Beacon, Spot, and cell phone. But there’s another communication option readily available that many don’t seem to know about:
Ham radio, also known as amateur radio. Sure you need a license, but there’s no need to learn Morse code. Online study, practice tests, and the multiple choice exam format make it fun, interesting, and relatively easy.

Ham radios are lightweight, inexpensive, and as easy — or easier to use than a smartphone. Some models of ham radios are water-resistant or even waterproof. Ham radio works either direct radio to radio, or using “repeaters,” similar to cell phone towers. Communicating via the repeater, it’s possible to have radio contact over most of the Cascades and Olympics, particularly from summits. Without the repeater, it’s also possible to connect with other ham radio folks on what are known as the “National Calling Frequencies” — 146.52 MHz and 446.000 MHz.

So two years after the emergency in the Goat Rocks, I found myself with a small hand-held ham radio and a “Technician Class” license. I found an app (search for “Ham Test Prep”) for my smartphone, allowing me to study and take practice exams. Then, I took the written test and paid the $15 license fee. A few weeks later, my Technician Class license arrived! Once you have a license, you can search for other ham radio operators on I am KG7EJT.

Summits On The Air

Today, I always bring the radio with me on day trips and overnight trips — it offers peace of mind, entertainment, and another fun challenge while in the backcountry. The radio and antenna weigh 12 ounces total — not very much. Now, taking photos from summits is followed by making radio contacts. One wonders, “why do people want to talk to me?” Many folks in cities and in the lowlands fascinated by the mountains are always very interested to know where I am talking to them from, especially if I’m in a remote area they’ve never heard of! All Seattleites know Mount Rainier, but how many non-hikers are familiar with Glacier Peak or Mount Maude?

Earlier this year, I was introduced to the Summits On The Air (SOTA) organization by a chance conversation on ham radio while I was at home. It’s an award scheme that encourages radio amateurs and shortwave listeners to tune in on summits. Turns out there are a lot of people doing the same thing as me.

SOTA is based in England and has local groups all over the world. Each summit on an accredited list is assigned a point value based on how strenuous and technical the trip is. For example, Mount Rainier is worth 10 points, Mount Dickerman is 6 points, and Tiger Mountain is 4 points. The goal is to obtain 1000 points to win the prestigious “Mountain Goat Award.” I started my SOTA career in January 2015 and currently have 140 points. I’ve made many new radio friends who follow me (by listening for me) on my SOTA activations. 

There’s a huge selection of radios available. A great deal to get involved is to buy the Baofeng brand. Selling on-line for $40 or less, it works very well and many ham radio operators, including EMT and SAR organizations are using them. Some county EMT/SAR organizations distribute the Baofeng radios free of charge to licensed ham operators who volunteer for SAR activities. Of course, there are many higher priced radios, offering more receive bands, waterproof and robust construction. I have a Baofeng and a more expensive brand — and they perform equally well.

The ham radio community is very supportive. Earlier this year I led a Mountaineers backpacking trip to Goat Lake in the North Cascades. This beautiful alpine lake is located in a lush green valley between the Monte Cristo Group of peaks and the mighty Sloan Peak. No cell phone coverage there! Using the ham radio, I was able to connect to another ham radio operator through a repeater. I asked a small favor: please text my wife and let her know we all doing well and we miss her. The ham operator sent the text to my wife, who was surprised and happy to hear from me! 

This article originally appeared in our September/October 2015 issue of Mountaineer magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.
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