So, really, how long does it take to deploy a repeater?
Well, that is a bit like “How long is a piece of string?”. You see, I have deployed the Hamnet portable repeater in about 10 minutes – including a 5 minute chopper ride, but sometimes it takes a bit longer!
PEARS and Hamnet Eastern Cape do a lot of Mountain Bike races and we have a new one this year – the Cockscomb Challenge and for that we needed to reinstall the repeater at Cockscomb.
Now Cockscomb is a popular climb for hikers and members of the Mountain Club. There are two caves – both quite famous near the bottom of the final ascent. The mountain club one is basic with limited water supply, but the other is rather like the Ritz!
The touristy peak is not, however, the peak on which this story plays out. The radio repeaters are on a peak to the South West of the famous peak – and a lot less hospitable.
The repeater guys in the club are Chris ZS2AAW, Andrew Gray ZS2G and Glen ZS2GV. GV and Chris were going to go up on Monday 12 February to do the installation. Unfortunately, Chris had to withdraw and I volunteered to go.
GV picked me up Monday morning and we made our way to the PE Airport where our Squirrel helicopter was waiting for us. Not long after that we were airborne and routing for Cockscomb. Our pilot, James, had seen the peak earlier on his flight into PE and said it all looked good,
Bevan, ZS2RL, was going to take out the mast and coax rack for us and the landlord (owner of the site) wanted to do some maintenance, so a lift club was organized. James would take GV and I to the peak, then go down to the cell tower at the southern side of the Cockscomb range and meet up with Bevan and the landlord team and bring them to the peak – along with our mast and rack. Once all was done, James would take me down to the cell tower and Bevan would take me home.
Well that was the plan.
The landlord wanted to do some serious maintenance – replacing the floor and the batteries for a start – and then we would be able to put our repeater in some available spot. Well they were running a little late and then asked us to disconnect 8 of the 12 batteries and to remove the duplexer for their midband repeater and move them to the LZ (helicopter Landing Zone) – a mere 20m away from the container!
It took quite a while to get that done. At this stage the repeaters were all sharing the remaining 4 batteries and the batteries were about to be replaced…
Bevan at the bottom noticed some bad weather coming in and told us to hurry. We were still waiting for the landlord and then they bailed – asking us to simply put the stuff back! Oh, and hurry ‘cos the clouds are moving in fast!
Let’s do what we can and get outta here!
Without our mast and rack (which was still with Bevan at the bottom). Looking around at the skeleton remains of some other commercial repeaters we found a 6 foot aluminum pole and a 4 foot aluminum pole and that would do nicely. We put the 4foot one across from the mast to the rail track upright and the 6 foot went up from there. We put up a small dipole (UHF) and ran the coax down the mast, through the 4 foot pole to the mast and then onto the pre-existing rack and down to the container. the lightning arrestor was put in and the fly-lead made by Chris fitted on the inside.
Its coming together quickly now!
Ok, GV, you install the repeater into the rack and I’ll fetch the batteries and that GD duplexer!
Bevan on the radio – reminding us of the inbound weather – something to keep us motivated 😉
We got the batteries back into the container and all connected up – a quick call for a signal check and its perfect! James had moved the chopper from the southern slopes to a saddle on the northern side in an attempt to give us more time, but our luck had run out. James took off to the north and said he’d be back in the morning.
Ok, so we on the mountain for the night. Time to take stock.
I had packed some extra food, had dry/warm clothing and water. GV was a little shy. We needed to get water. Shelter was there – there was standing/sitting room in the container – but not enough space for even a shorty like me to get horizontal!
The weather was basically misty with very strong/gale force winds. Visibility was about 10m and getting worse all the time. Walking out was not the smart move – we had shelter and known coordinates and a little bit of thought and we solved the water issue.
We took the door off of the rack in the container and tied it to the mast at an angle. Water condensed and ran off the door to the lowest point – which ended up in GV’s bottle. This then solved the water issue so we really had no need to venture out.
Our cellphones were draining their batteries steadily and our handhelds had no chargers either. I am fortunate in that I can reschedule my business life with a simple phone call to my very organized xyl. GV does not have that luxury and had to continue taking calls from clients and his employer. I let him use my power bank to float his battery for a while but with the inundation of WhatsApp messages we were both fighting a loosing battle. Why did neither of us have a wrist watch? We both techie geeks who use our cell phones – that’s why!
The boredom abated for a short while while we enjoyed our supper of tuna and provita. While it does not sound like much, it really was plenty of food. I had a BarOne for pudding, but something told me I had no idea how cold we were going to get – and GV was still in damp clothing. I decided to keep the chocolate – incase I needed it later. I was well aware of the fact that if either of us started to get hypothermic there was nothing we could do and chocolate might come in handy.
And the evening’s entertainment?
Monday evening is the PEARS news bulletin and we turned on when we thought it was time – only to find we had basically missed it. I did manage to hear my son call in and mention that they were looking for us.
Sitting in the container we were in a veritable Faraday cage. We could get a signal from the LZ, but that was out in the dark/cold/wet/wind outside. Bev was aware of our situation – I’d called her and told her the facts – we were safe, warm, dry, had food and water and were in no danger – and she understood.
The rest of the night was spent in alternating periods of sleep, chatter, and boredom. It is amazing just how numb your bum can get sitting for hours at a time! Lets be clear – this had nothing to do with the various topics of conversation or my “cell mate”. Long dark hours with no real indication of time was boring.
Tuesday morning was a gloomy start. Pushing the door open a few degrees revealed the hostile weather we had all night! No sign of the sun coming out – not even for that poor orphan girl Annie!
It began to sink in that at least an early morning lift off the mountain was not going to happen. Realising there was no rush we tucked ourselves back into bed and told room service not to disturb us. Ok, you got me – we just sat on our ammo boxes a while longer 🙂
Bevan and Gert arrived again – to keep an eye on the southern slopes of our holiday resort. It is quite amazing what a comfort that was. Although we understood they could not reach us – or really do anything to assist, they were there and it meant a lot.
I had a few brief walks outside (because I could) and the time passed surprisingly quickly. It was now raining and collecting further water was a simple task and did not really justify the hours we devoted to it (or perhaps that was just the boredom).
Our hearts were lifted with a cheerful ZS2RL (Bevan) telling us there was a possible lifting in the weather toward the late afternoon. James told us he could hold out until about 6:30 pm and if there was a gap in the clouds he would come and get us. We made very sure we were ready to roll at a moments notice, but our rapid deployment was not needed.
Donovan (ZS2DL) a friend of Glen and his family, with the assistance of Chris (ZS2AAW) and a few other hams tried to get Nicole (ZU2NX – GV’s daughter) on the air. Glen has an interesting shack and it took a while – and a few trips to get the shack on the air. Donovan then allowed the rest of the family to chat (under his supervision) and that was great. Unfortunately, the courtesy was not extended to Bev, but that is OK as she is used to me getting into these sort of situations. Vanessa and the girls benefited from the airtime with dad.
I must just brag for a minute here – so please forgive me the indulgence 🙂 My sons are both Hammies (like Nicole) and have ZU licenses. Graydon (ZU2GH) had attempted to make contact Monday evening, and my youngest Michael, made contact with me while I was at the LZ (waiting for Nicole to come online). My Hammies got on the air without the need for half a dozen hams to run around all afternoon! A quick chat to Mike (ZU2MOO) and then we handed over to the Cummings crew – but I was very proud!
18:30 ticked by with a gong louder than that from Big Ben! It came right down to it – another night at the resort!
As if to taunt us, the air cleared – almost completely at about 8pm. Too late for James as it was getting dark, but by 8:30 pm it was back to the misty mountain top that was our home.
As the evening crept over us, we began to take stock again. Battery levels were very low, morale however, was still surprisingly high. I had taken to turning my phone off most of the time and just turning it on for a few minutes every few hours. The problem was that by now our story was wide spread and WhatsApps were in the several hundreds each time I turned on. When your battery is at a few percent of capacity, receiving messages is only a part of the problem – you then need to scroll through these messages to find any that are important.
You should have seen some of the messages! Everything ranging from “I could walk them out in two hours” to “I’ve got a 4×4 I’ll go fetch them!” from people who did not even know which peak we were on, or the type of terrain! There were, of course, the “leave them up there” jokes which, while we took no offense to them, did serve as QRM on our cell phones and cost us valuable battery life.
Supper consisted of the much talked about, Bar-One! You divide and I’ll decide – it’s child’s play really.
Now before you think we were starving – let me reassure you we were not. We were in no way active and a half a Bar-One was enough to see us through. I have been asked by many people if I ever thought of eating Glen – and my answer was always the same – Have you smelt him? It would take me weeks to get THAT hungry!
Can’t get worse? Is that a challenge?
We were bored and the long dark hours passed very slowly. We were nodding off every now and then – followed by standing up to “let more o2 get to the brain”. Somewhere around 1am I opened the door to see a large flash of lightning!
thunderstorms were raging south, east, and north of us. I can only assume they were on the western side too – but I was not going to go outside to confirm.
Accepting there was nothing I could do, I went back to my ammo case and was soon nodding off again.
The plan was to get a chopper lift off early in the morning, failing which would have the Mountain rescue guys climbing up to bring us additional gear and food and to walk us out.
Dawn broke to the sound of gusting winds outside. We naturally assumed we would be spending several more hours on the summit, eagerly awaiting the MCSA group – many of whom are personal friends and people with whom we work on MCSA / Hamnet exercises.
Eventually I ventured out only to be greeted by a stunning (but windy) morning. ZS2RL and ZS2GS, already back at their post at the foot of the mountain were keen to tell us the chopper was already airborne and on its way!
We were at the LZ with no need for a further invitation! GV directed James in – indicating the wind direction and James landed that Squirrel as if it had sore feet! I certainly could not have done a better job!
James indicated we could approach and we did – quickly. GV opened the door while I started lifting the ammo cases. Now I am not sure, but I am pretty convinced that the ammo cases themselves wanted to leave and were jumping into the chopper themselves. It did make me realize that while we had spent way too many hours sitting on the ammo cases, they could not have enjoyed it as much!
A few brief moments later we were in the chopper, airborne and talking to James who was amazed at how chirpy we were.
The familiar glow of orange from the MCSA crowd at the bottom LZ showed us the wind direction and James once again landed the chopper like a pro – having done a very low pass over Bevan and Gert.
The reception at the bottom was on a par with a hero’s welcome! It was awesome! James had breakfast for us, my son Graydon had traveled out with my good friend Andrew Gray (Hamnet director EC) and everything very quickly returned to normal.
I would like to express my sincere thanks to Gert (ZS2GS) and to Bevan (ZS2RL) who drove out to the mountain daily – for three days straight. I really appreciate your support. And to GV who put up with me in a confined space and did not kill me – Thank you.