Inside the Summit-Obsessed World of Ham Radio
It’s like biathlon, but for geeks
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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.”
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.
“A lot of the stuff in ham radio is about getting brownie points,” says Mike Walsh (KE5AKL). But another draw is its choose-your-own-adventure nature, allowing participants to tailor their approach to their own goals and abilities. A New Mexico ham and the number-one SOTA activator in the U.S., Walsh has racked up hundreds of first-ascent and unique summits, reflecting his passion for mountaineering.
On the other hand, some activators prefer to treat their outings like marathons, trying to cram as many small peaks as possible into a single trip. “To me it’s similar to the Olympic sport of biathlon,” said Uscian, who recently returned from a whirlwind tour of Arkansas, where she activated 12 peaks over the course of four days, resulting in her first-ever Mountain Goat. “So I started calling it a biathlon for geeks.”
Of course, it helps to live in a place like Colorado, a veritable SOTA paradise home to some 1,800 qualifying summits. One of them is Chief Mountain, which Galchutt, who lives just a couple hours south in Monument, suggested we climb together. He called it a “classic” SOTA peak: it’s close to a major metro area, only takes about an hour to hike, and from the top yields an expansive and unobstructed horizon, the kind perfect for radio broadcasting.
Galchutt got his first radio as a kid and still talks about the experience with the same childlike awe that most hams do. “I was just enamored with the fact that you can’t see these radio waves, but you can pull them out of the air and decode them with some electronics and hear music, hear people talking,” he told me as we hiked up the trail.
Like many SOTA participants, however, Galchutt wasn’t always interested in the ham community at large. After moving to Colorado two decades ago, he recalled going to an amateur-radio-club meeting with a friend and finding it full of “old, fat white guys, sitting around eating doughnuts and smoking cigarettes,” a scene that “just wasn’t my thing,” he said. So instead, he signed up as a volunteer with his local search and rescue team, “and the next thing I know, I’m hanging off a 200-foot cliff, jumaring my way up a rope, and learning how to use climbing gear.” In addition to being a better fit, Galchutt’s search and rescue experience reinforced the importance of radio in backcountry communications, where it can serve as a layer of security beyond cell phones, GPS navigators, and even personal locator beacons.
It’s a lesson that SOTA itself can teach, participants say. “We’re fully contained—we don’t rely on infrastructure, we’re battery operated, we put up our own antenna,” said Bylund, who got a crash course in emergency communications several years ago while trying to activate 13,164-foot Mount Flora in the Berthoud Pass area near Winter Park, Colorado. After wandering off a cornice in a whiteout and finding himself stranded, Bylund was forced to use his radio to call for help. “I couldn’t use my cell phone, so I used ham radio,” he said. His ordeal made the local news. “It probably saved my life,” he said.
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.
Today, Galchutt is SOTA’s de facto brand ambassador. Though he may not be the most accomplished of activators—he ranks only 22nd in the U.S.—he’s a minor celebrity on Twitter and Facebook, where he’s constantly posting high-contrast photos of himself on outings (often they are up on Mount Herman, a 9,000-foot peak near his home that he climbs almost weekly). A former graphic designer, he adorns his clothes and equipment with SOTA decals and patches of his own making.
Oh, and Glachutt’s vanity call sign—WG0AT—isn’t just a reference to his favorite hobby. It’s also a love letter to his actual pack goat, Boo, who can sometimes be found chugging alongside him on the trail. On the air, Galchutt’s reputation precedes him. Galchutt and Bylund are dedicated CW operators (CW stands for continuous wave, which is how Morse code is often transmitted), but he eventually switched over to voice-based, 20-meter, single-side band, a transmitting method preferred by Bob and Joyce Witte. “Hello, CQ. CQ, this is Whiskey, Golf, Zero, Alpha, Tango,” Galchutt said. “This is a portable station on a mountaintop, looking for a signal report from anyone, anywhere.”
Several seconds of static ensued. Then the band crackled to life, a voice riding a high-frequency wave out of the ether.
“Are you the famous, uh, goat activator?” the voice asked. It was Bruce Montgomery (WA7BAM) in Olympia, Washington.
“Yeah,” Galchutt responded. “I guess that’s me.”