Meet The Trail Community: Ham Radio Operator
For Tim Nair, reaching the summit is just the beginning of his day. We asked him what exactly goes into being a ham radio operator in the backcountry.
For WTA's 50th Anniversary, we're highlighting trail users across Washington state. Hear what hiking means to them, and the future of their on-trail pursuits.
For many hikers, getting to the top of a mountain is a good day’s work. But for Tim Nair (call numbers KG7EJT), hitting the summit is just the beginning. We asked him how he likes to spend his time up top, and what exactly goes into being a ham radio operator.
Four years ago, Tim was the first person to come across a backpacker with a medical emergency while in the Goat Rocks backcountry. That far back, no one’s cell phone was of any use, and help was a long time coming. Back at work the next day, a colleague told Tim that a ham radio might have been the best way to get medical attention for the patient.
“He told me that even on a small radio you can get 50 miles of reach. That’s way better than a cell phone with no signal. So I got a small ham radio, and once I had it, I was reminded of how much I used to like radio.”
As a child, Tim enjoyed listening to shortwave radio.
“I remember being able to hear foreign countries and people speaking different languages. I had a rough understanding of ham radio, but I never pursued it because I thought it was expensive and I knew you needed a license.”
Photo by Daniel Silverberg
Once he got the radio, Tim got that license, then brought the radio out on trail and started trying to make contacts.
“People looked at me funny. At first, I thought I was kinda weird or geeky.”
Then, about a year and a half ago he was at home, half-listening to his ham radio. He heard someone calling out for a signal check.
“I got on to respond and found out the voice was Mark Sandler (call numbers K7MAS). As we talked, we realized we were both trip leaders for the Mountaineers. He said, ‘If you like mountains and you like ham radio you must do Summits on the Air.’ I said, ‘What’s that?’ and that’s how I found out about SOTA.”
How it works: counting contacts
Summits on the Air is "an award scheme for radio amateurs that encourages portable operation in mountainous areas." This is the brief description is offered on the website for the organization, which is based in the UK.
Eligible summits are determined by prominence, not height, so while Little Si in North Bend is on the list of Washington SOTA summits, the much higher Mount Si is not (Mount Teneriffe is the summit SOTA participants want to bag on that ridgeline).
Activators like Tim hike to the top of these summits, set up their radios, and then attempt to make contact with at least four other operators from the top. Operators can get credit for a summit only after they make at least four contacts.
We joined Tim and his wife Masako on Little Si to see what a contact session is like.
“It [ham radio] has become his priority when we hike.” Masako says, sitting patiently at the summit and snapping some photos.
“I have very patient friends," Tim admits. "One time Masako and two of my friends waited four hours on a summit in the Pasayten Wilderness while I tried to make four contacts. I only got three. After four hours of transmitting my call sign, all my batteries ran out, so I conceded defeat and we headed back.”
Tim records each successful contact before beginning another signal check. Photo by Daniel Silverberg
The outdoors and radio: bringing people together
But Tim loved hiking long before discovering ham radio.
“Masako and I love being outside. We met on a Seattle Mountaineers group hike and our mutual love for the outdoors is a significant component of our happy marriage. But I like having something to do on a summit. It’s also nice for the people I make contact with.
A lot of people who realize I’m out on a mountain are really interested to hear more about where I am because a lot of people who use ham radio don’t take it out of their house much, they just use the radio at home. It’s fun and exciting for people to hear about where I am, especially when they recognize the place. They sometimes even look online for the summit I'm on, to see where I am.”
Crowds (and how to navigate them)
In their Environmental Statement, Summits on the Air encourages activators to remember that many people hike to escape the hustle and bustle of every day life. It even goes so far as to say if an activator thinks that they may disturb their fellow hikers, not to go ahead with the activation.
But Tim and Masako have found that the increased popularity of hiking trail (particularly in the Puget Sound area) has dictated where they go. Tim said, “[The crowding] puts us off of going to popular summits. We like the backcountry to get away from people –- social media in particular has been a tremendous force encouraging people to hike, but it does mean that these trails are more and more crowded.”
Photo by Daniel Silverberg
That heavy visitation to these trails means they’re in an almost constant need for repair. In his search for a balance between work, seeking solitude, and his next activation, Tim doesn’t always have time to volunteer on trail, but Masako has done some WTA work parties and she said she’s learned a lot about the value of making a trail that lasts.
But their appreciation for WTA extends beyond trail maintenance.
Tim says: “I think WTA is great. You do a lot of great work and lobbying that I am just too busy to do. I appreciate all that work because it helps keep the trails open. Plus, the and the website have a lot of good information about what’s going to be open and what’s changing.”
A happy Tim Nair after a successful SOTA activation. Photo by Daniel Silverberg
For as long as Tim needs trails to access his next summit, WTA will be around with trail maintenance crews to repair, dedicated advocacy to preserve, and our website to help him plan for the next trip. Want to see for yourself? Plan your own hike, join a work party, or simply speak up for trails next time they need help.