DX 2016: Personal Thoughts on an Exceptional Year

This is one of a series of “Notes” I published on Facebook. Since Facebook has discontinued the Notes feature, I am publishing that series here on my blog.

This is not a how-to ‘note’. These are my thoughts on the significance of major DXpedtions happening this year and what DXing means to me.

In the world of amateur radio DXing, 2016 is shaping up to be a year that will long be remembered by many of us. On any given year there might typically be one to three major DXpeditions, mostly to places that are uninhabited, remote, costly to reach, and thus activated only on rare occasions. This year there are four expeditions activating five of the rarest DXCC entities on Earth! Palmyra Atoll (K5P, January) ranked 16th most wanted out of 340 current DXCC entities; South Sandwich Islands (VP8STI, January), third; South Georgia Island (VP8SGI, January/February), eighth. These are all very rare places to be sure, having last been activated in 2005, 2002, and 2002 respectively. These three operations alone would have made for a banner year but there is more to come! Soon VK0EK will be activating Heard Island, the fifth most wanted entity. In April, FT4JA will activate Juan de Nova Island, sixth most wanted. These are all major events in the world of DX. All of these expeditions are large multi-operator, multi-station efforts, putting tens of thousands of QSOs in the log and giving a new one to many thousands of DXers around the world.

It may be argued, however, that of the lot Vk0EK could be the biggest event. In terms of statistics on number of people needing it, Heard Island ranks second of the major DXpeditions this year. But, last activated in 1997, it has been off the air longer than any other DXCC entity on Earth. To put this into perspective, consider this: A DXer who started in the year 2000 and managed to work all the major DXpeditions since could have 339 worked, with the upcoming VK0EK giving them the last entity on the current list of 340. That is huge! Every other DXCC entity has been activated at some point since the year 2000, with the sole exception of Heard Island for which we have to go back another three years to find the last time. VK0EK has stated an aim to make 150,000 QSOs, more than any of this year’s other mega-DXpeditions. It will be the most costly of the 2016 DXpeditions and could be the most costly DXpedition of all time. I cannot confirm the latter since I have been unable to find a final cost figure for the 2006 3Y0X operation from Peter I Island, at the time said to set a new record. Arguably, of all places on Earth Heard Island may be the most remote, the most difficult in terms of climate and getting there. Located in the “furious fifties” (referring to latitude) of the great Southern Ocean some ten days sail from South Africa and Western Australia, it is certainly not a place easily or quickly reached.

I was immediately attracted to DXing after getting my amateur radio license in 1981. I was 17, still full of youthful wonder and optimism. Growing up I had always dreamed of visiting far off places. Remote, seldom seen locations inspired my imagination more than any other. So I suppose it was only natural that making radio contact with distant and often exotic places would appeal to me. I was green in those days, though. I didn’t yet know about “mega DXpeditions” or DXCC entities that were on the air once every ten or twenty years. I was thinking of working 100 countries to get my DXCC award and even getting 100 on the most challenging MF/HF band, 160 meters. The idea of DXCC Honor Roll or Number One Honor Roll never entered my young head. [To qualify for Honor Roll, one must have confirmed contacts with enough entities to be within 10 of having all current entities on the list; with 340 current entities on the list, that means 331 or more. Number One Honor Roll means having worked them all – every single DXCC entity on the current list.]

A few years into my ham radio adventure I was distracted by moonbounce, or Earth-Moon-Earth (EME) operation on the VHF and UHF bands. A devout CW (Morse code) operator, I was especially keen on doing anything that was considered difficult or was well outside mainstream ham radio. EME was that and more, offering any operator who wanted it the ultimate weak signal challenge. It was man and his machine against the odds, overcoming challenges, fraught with difficulty, unpredictable and for some, irresistible. EME also challenged me in another way. I had to put my mechanical aptitude to use figuring out how to build large antenna arrays steerable in two planes, and do this on a budget so limited most people would probably have given up. I dreamed of attaining DXCC on the two meter band, but reached only 82 countries before digital modes displaced CW in EME.

Returning to HF a seasoned and more knowledgeable ham in 2004, I set my sights on working 300 countries on 160 meters. That would be as challenging as getting 100 on two meter EME! Not long thereafter I was struck by the desire to achieve DXCC Honor Roll and thus started to operate more on the HF bands, 80 through 10 meters. It isn’t easy. Once you get upward of 300 you’re going to have to wait for DXpeditions for the rest. Many of these will be very rare places and you may be waiting decades. Forget about “push button QSOs”. You’re going to have to work at getting some of them. Competition for those rare contacts is intense! For DXers, these factors add to the fun and sense of accomplishment.

DXpeditions provide recreation for tens of thousands who make much wanted contacts with them and thoroughly enjoy the chase. Moreover, they help to fill one of amateur radio’s long held primary roles: that of enhancing international good will. Often a multi-national team effort must come together in cooperation and fellowship to make these trips happen. Even where that may not be the case, amateur radio DXers are a worldwide fraternity spanning the globe, reaching across all political and ethnic boundaries. All share the common goal of making contact with these DXpeditions. In some cases, scientific expeditions and amateur radio DXpeditons are combined, as is the case with the upcoming Heard Island trip. DXpeditions to populated places with little or no indigenous ham radio licensees can help draw attention to the plight of third world nations and even provide humanitarian aid.

So here I am in 2016. K5P was my #327 overall, #285 on 160 meters; VP8STI #328 and #286 respectively; VP8SGI #329 and #287. I have since worked Ethiopia and Lesotho for new ones on 160 meters, bringing my total on that most challenging band to 289. If I work the upcoming VK0EK and FT4JA that will bring me to the magic number for Honor Roll: 331. Wow! It’s like seeing light at the end of a long tunnel. Yet there is a certain duality about it. Reaching a long sought goal is exciting and gratifying, but it also in some ways represents the end of a journey that in and of itself brought immeasurable joy. I am hoping to get Heard and Juan de Nova on 160 meters as well, though that is by no means a given. What a year! It had been quite some time since my last new one, overall or on 160. I certainly couldn’t have envisioned getting so many in such a short period of time at this level. Excited doesn’t begin to describe the feeling!

When one reaches this level, it is almost inevitable that thoughts of Number One Honor Roll creep in. It seems so close – only nine more – and yet so far. Is it possible? Seven of the remaining nine will probably come up for DXpedition within the next ten or fifteen years. They are not easy to reach or obtain permission to operate from but some enterprising team will no doubt find a way. I hope to be around to work them. North Korea (DPRK) and Turkmenistan are the most worrisome. Rarely someone manages to get permission to operate from DPRK, but it isn’t easy and there is never any guarantee of a “next time”. That is ranked #1 most wanted on the list. Turkmenistan currently doesn’t allow amateur radio licensing, so we can only hope for a change there. It ranks 24th most wanted and is quickly climbing toward the top. It’s safe to say I will be keeping my nose and an ear to the ground for information or rumors on these two.

For me, major DXpeditions aren’t just about the challenge of getting through the pileup or climbing another rung on the DXCC ladder. They are an opportunity to follow a team on a great adventure, to somehow connect with it. If life had turned out differently, that might be me out there going to those rarest places on Earth. I have the passion, the drive, the desire. At risk of seeming immodest, I believe I have the operating skill. I laugh in the face of any danger involved. I had an opportunity once. In 2005 I was invited to be part of a DXpedition to St. Paul Island. Admittedly this isn’t a wild Southern Ocean location or one of the world’s most difficult. But is is an uninhabited island, rare and sought after. Not being able to go ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of my life and still haunts me.

I don’t just get on the air and work major DXpeditions. I enthusiastically follow them. I make it a point to know who is going where, when, how they are getting there, what equipment they are taking. I want to know something about the place, its history, its wildlife, its amateur radio activation history. When the precise location of a DXpedition camp setup is known, you can bet I will have a good virtual look at the place with Google Earth. I haunt DXpedition web sites and DX information sites for any breaking news just prior to or during a trip. To the extent reasonably feasible, I collect DXpedition videos. It isn’t just about the contact. It’s the experience, the intrigue, the wonder. It’s the consolation prize for not being able to be there.

2016 is undeniably a banner year for those who, for whatever reason, desire to work major DXpeditions in rare places. It is the sort of year that comes around very rarely. On the air and in DX forums the excitement is palpable. For many it is the year a dream comes true; the year a threshold is reached, be it Honor Roll, Number One Honor Roll or some personal benchmark. For others it is the year for that one contact that speaks to something within, something which no other can quite touch. For me it is both. As VK0EK draws nearer, the excitement is so intense I feel as though I need a tether to keep me anchored to the Earth. That is not a feeling I am accustomed to. It stands in stark contrast to the more typical reality of life. This one is a “must do” on my list. Will it be another 19 years before the next opportunity to work Heard Island? Will there even be a next opportunity? With places this rare and difficult to put on the air, one never knows for sure.

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