Borrowed this article to present a challenging application of Amateur Radio
Inside the Summit-Obsessed World of Ham Radio
It’s like biathlon, but for geeks
Mar 14, 2021
On a gray Friday afternoon last spring, Steve Galchutt sat high atop Chief Mountain, an 11,700-foot peak along Colorado’s Front Range. An epic panorama of pristine alpine landscape stretched in almost every direction, with Pikes Peak standing off to the south and Mount Evan towering just to the west.
It was an arresting view, and the perfect backdrop for a summit selfie. But instead of reaching for his smartphone, Galchutt was absorbed by another device: a portable transceiver. Sitting on a small patch of rock and snow, his head bent down and cocked to one side, he listened as it sent out a steady stream of staticky beeps: dah-dah-di-dah dah di-di-di-dit. “This is Scotty in Philadelphia,” Galchutt said, translating the Morse code. Then, tapping at two silver paddles attached to the side of the radio, he sent his own message, first with some details about his location, then his call sign, WG0AT.
At this point, a prying hiker could have been forgiven for wondering what, exactly, Galchutt was doing. But his answer—an enthusiastic “amateur radio, of course!”—would likely only have further compounded their confusion. After all, the popular image of an amateur-radio enthusiast is an aging, armchair-bound recluse, not some crampon-clad adventurer. And their natural habitat is usually a basement, or “ham shack,” not a windswept peak in the middle of the Rockies.
Galchutt fits part of this stereotype—he’s 75—but the similarities end there. An avid hiker and camper, his preferred shack is atop a mountain, and the higher the summit, the better.
Another rapid-fire burst of dits and dahs sprung from the radio. “Wow!” Galchutt said, “Spain!”
Nearby sat 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 high pointing.
“I’ve had a woman come up to me and wonder what I’m doing,” Bylund said. “And she pointed out to me, ‘You know your cell phone works up here, don’t you?’ They totally miss the whole thing.”
“Bob and I call those bubble people,” Joyce added with a smirk.
Amateur-radio enthusiasts are used to being maligned as defenders of some anachronistic pastime, a retro social network for retired vets and lo-fi tech buffs. The ridicule goes back to the very origins of the word ham, a pejorative that professional radio operators at the beginning of the 20th century used to single out amateurs with “ham-fisted” 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. “There is a tendency to think that it’s one of these quaint, old-fashioned hobbies, like people who still make buggy whips,” said Paula Uscian (K9IR), a retired lawyer and ham based in Illinois. “But I can’t think of many old-fashioned hobbies that allow you to talk with a space station or bounce signals off the moon.”
￼Galchutt taps out a message in Morse code. (Photo: Chase Brush)
Radio has long served as a critical resource in emergency situations, and amateur-radio clubs are routinely found on the scene when natural or man-made disasters strike—in 2018, for example, local hams helped coordinate communications during the Camp Fire in Northern California. Bob and Joyce, who volunteer as administrators of the Federal Communications Commission licensing exam, back this up, saying that most new sign-ups are interested in wilderness preparedness and disaster relief. But increasingly, they also hear from people who are coming for outdoor radio’s more recreational pursuits. (Ham activity has also seen a boost in the past several 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, according to the FCC.) These include programs that essentially gamify outdoor radio, incentivizing participants through points and awards. For island-hopping hams, there’s Islands on the Air, founded in 1964. For national-park hams, there’s Parks on the Air, founded in 2010. For urban hams itching to get out of their shacks, there’s even a Walmart Parking Lots on the Air.
And then there’s SOTA. Founded in 2002 by a Brit named John Linford, the program involves activators, like Galchutt, who climb recognized summits with the goal of contacting other on-the-ground operators, called chasers. Each peak is worth a certain number of points. Activators who reach 1,000 points achieve the status of Mountain Goat, the highest and most coveted award in the program. (Chasers get their own trophy: the Shack Sloth.)
“I was always impressed by the number of good, long-distance contacts I could make from the mountaintops,” Linford said, explaining how he’d spent years hauling his radio equipment up and down 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 almost 8,000 registered activators across 180 countries. The program recognizes over 140,000 summits, each valued based on its 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 SOTA’s website, which includes forums, maps, and honor rolls.