Humphreys Peak: QRP on the Summit of Arizona
|By Bruce Grubbs, N7CEE
The ARS Sojourner
|Towering over the small city of Flagstaff, in north central Arizona, San Francisco Mountain rises more than a mile above the surrounding Colorado Plateau. The mountain is the largest of the hundreds of volcanoes that dot the area. The summit, Humphreys Peak, is the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 feet. Several lower peaks ring a horseshoe-shaped interior valley, which opens to the northeast. San Francisco Mountain is a volcano with a violent past. Geologists believe that the mountain was once over 16,000 feet high, until a massive explosion blew off the summit in the same manner that Mount Saint Helens lost its summit in 1980. During several ice ages, glaciers formed on the north and east slopes of the mountain, and carved the mountain into its present graceful shape. This beautiful mountain is visible for more than one hundred miles, and forms the centerpiece of the southern Colorado Plateau.
As a local hiker and ski mountaineer, Ive been to the top more times than I can count, in all seasons. As mountains go, its an easy one- in good weather. A four mile trail leads from the Arizona Snowbowl ski area up the western slopes to the summit. At the risk of labeling myself as an old timer, Ill admit to climbing the mountain cross-country before the trail was built. Nowadays, hikers have to stay on the trail on the upper part of the mountain, because the Coconino National Forest prohibits cross-country hiking above timberline in order to protect the unique alpine environment. When Russ recently challenged the members of the Adventure Radio Society to activate the high points of all 50 states, I decided that was a good excuse to climb Humphreys Peak yet another time. The mid-August hike would also be a good chance to test some of my new antenna and keyer ideas.
Late summer is a bad time to hike high on the mountain, because of Arizonas monsoon season. This flow of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico triggers almost daily thunderstorms over the mountains. As a former Forest Service fire lookout and an active charter pilot, I have a great deal of respect for thunderstorms. Accordingly, I picked a day when the weather forecasters thought there would be a decrease in thunderstorm activity, and planned an early start so I could be off the mountain before the storms started to build.
I decided to take my Elecraft K2 to the summit, even though the smaller, lighter Wilderness Radio Sierra would have been easier to carry. However, I knew I would have little time to operate before the thunderclouds started to build. With the K2s built-in automatic antenna tuner, I could change bands quickly, saving time. Power would be provided by a 3 amp hour gel cell and a 5 watt solar panel. Since the summit is treeless, I would take a DK9SQ mast and use it to support a full size 40 meter vertical (see A Portable, Multiband Vertical Using the DK9SQ Mast).
Arriving at the trailhead before dawn, at 0500, I set off across Hart Prairie in the dim twilight. Shortly, the trail entered dense fir and aspen forest and the light became even dimmer. Hiking in the brisk, chill air was a delight, and I quickly gained elevation as the trail climbed the west slope of the mountain in a series of broad switchbacks. Soon the sun was up, at least on the eastern side of the mountain, and the light became more cheerful, if not warming. Despite my early start, I wasnt the only one on the trail. A local passed me on his daily run to the summit. I was still well below the top when he passed me on the way down. Several other hikers caught up to me and passed as I continued. I consoled myself with the thought that none of them were crazy enough to carry a lead-acid battery to the top. Higher on the mountain, the graceful aspen disappeared, replaced by hardier evergreens such as Englemann spruce. Above 11,000 feet, as the trail neared timberline, the trees became smaller, evidence of their struggle to survive in this harsh environment.
At about 11,400 feet, the trail breaks free of the forest, and climbs past a few gnarled bristlecone pines to a saddle just below 12,000 feet. Bristlecone pines are tough, timberline trees that are among the oldest living things on earth. On San Francisco Mountain, bristlecones are relatively young, reaching ages of about 1,200 years. Elsewhere, on a few mountains in Nevada and California, some of these hardy trees reach nearly 5,000 years. It appears that the worse the conditions, the longer the trees live.
Above the saddle, the trail follows the south ridge of Humphreys Peak, more or less. There is no shelter from bad weather above the saddle, and several hikers and climbers have died on the exposed ridges. Most summer hikers seem to take the mountain very casually- many wear shorts and T-shirts, and appear to have little extra clothing. Luck must be with them, because the temperature can drop 40 degrees F in just a few minutes during a thunderstorm. Winds can reach 100 mph, and snow falls all year.
The high ridge is my favorite part of the hike, even though breathing is an effort. In the clear, thin air, views stretch vast distances in all directions, from the deep slash of the Grand Canyon to the northwest, to the reddish hues of the Painted Desert to the northeast, the pine-forested Mogollon Rim to the south, and near at hand, the Interior Valley of the mountain. The trail passes over several false summits, each one appearing to be the high point, before reaching the ultimate summit.
One other hiker was on the top when I arrived at 0800. He did a good job of containing his curiosity as I started unpacking the radio gear, but soon I took pity and explained what I was doing with the weird electronic stuff. That turned out to be a good move as he offered to help with the antenna mast.
Generations of hikers have built low stone walls to offer some protection from the wind. On this windless morning, I choose the outside of one of the smaller ones to set up my station. In this photo you can see the K2 and the gel cell battery, which are resting on the stuffsacks I carried them in. The flexible 5 watt solar panel is above and to the left of the rig, although as you can see its not producing much power. To the right of the solar panel is the lightweight foam case (see Soft Landings: Ultra Light Foam Cases for QRP Radios) I used to protect the K2 in my pack. And finally, heres a close-up of the operating position. The coppery object on the top of the rig is a pair of homebrew piano-style paddles, which you may recall from A CW Concerto: Piano-Style Paddles for Backpacking. A dual 4:1 balun rests behind the rig, which lets me use the K2s autotuner to match two balanced feedlines. I feed the vertical with balanced line so that I can operate on multiple bands with minimum feedline losses.
At the start, the weather was very good, with no wind and temperatures in the 50s. The only dark cloud on the horizon was the one forming overhead, which you can see in this shot of my antenna. It appeared that the weather forecast of a decrease in thunderstorm activity might not apply to Humphreys Peak! The mountains certainly have a way of making their own weather.
A few other hikers showed up while I had the station set up. Most of them thought my antenna was some type of cellular phone setup, until I explained what I was doing. All of my fellow hikers were intrigued by the idea of ham radio from the top of Arizona. Luckily, I picked a weekday for the QRP operation, or I would have spent all my summit time answering questions. On a summer weekend, dozens of hikers climb the peak.
I spent about an hour listening and CQing on 20 meters, with an occasional check of 40, 30, 17, and 15 meters. Activity seemed very low, and in an hour I snagged only one contact, with a California station. I had expected to have several hours on the summit, but the cloud overhead was becoming ominous looking, so I reluctantly decided to retreat. "What you see is what youve got" is a good rule for dealing with mountain weather. I really didnt want to be attached to the highest antenna in the state during a lightning storm!
It took only about 15 minutes to dismantle the antenna and pack up the station. I scurried down the trail, passing several hikers still coming up the trail. Lightning struck in the direction of the summit as I reached the saddle. Soon I was back in the forest, happy to know that I was no longer a prime target.
Although I didnt have as much time to operate as I would have liked, I did successfully test my new portable paddle design, as well as the new foam case for the radio. In addition, the twin-lead fed, DK9SQ-supported 40 meter vertical proved once again to be a great antenna for treeless operating locations.
Whats next- maybe FYBO on the summit? Ill have to start campaigning for an altitude multiplier!
Bruce Grubbs, N7CEE, a veteran QRPer, builder, outdoorsman and writer, is a a contributing editor to The ARS Sojourner. He lives in Flagstaff, AZ.