SOTA at Philmont

There are thirteen summits inside Philmont Scout Ranch that are listed in the Summits on the Air (SOTA) amateur radio program. There are another three within the Valle Vidal region to the north of the ranch. Only two of these sixteen peaks have been activated by SOTA operators, Baldy Mountain and Shaefers Peak.

SOTA is an award scheme for radio amateurs that encourages portable operation in mountainous areas. I think it is a great match for Scouting, combining the outdoors, technology, and world fellowship. Grab a radio, hike to the top of a mountain, and talk to people.

Here is a map of the Philmont South Country, which has most of the SOTA summits.

Philmont SOTA South

Starting at the north and moving south, these are the SOTA summits. If the summit does not have an official name, SOTA uses the altitude. An unnamed summit that is 8820 feet tall will be “Point 8820”.

Philmont Region Summit Name SOTA Reference Number of Activations
Valle Vidal Little Costilla Peak W5N/CM-001 0
Valle Vidal Ash Mountain South W5N/CM-005 0
Valle Vidal Point 11100 W5N/CM-007 0
North Country Baldy Mountain W5N/CM-002 2
North Country Point 8820 W5N/CM-023 0
South Country Point 8988 W5N/CM-018 0
South Country Phillips Mount W5N/CM-004 0
South Country Bear Mountain W5N/CM-011 0
South Country Schaefers Peak W5N/CM-016 3
South Country Black Mountain W5N/CM-010 0
South Country Garcia Peak W5N/CM-009 0
South Country Point 8881 W5N/CM-021 0
South Country Mesa Urraca W5N/CM-026 0
South Country Train Peak W5N/CM-013 0
South Country Burn Peak W5N/CM-014 0
South Country Lookout Peak W5N/CM-015 0

I used CalTopo.com to make maps with the Philmont boundaries and the SOTA peaks overlaid. CalTopo is a fantastic, free tool for making custom maps. For a modest subscription ($20/year), you can unlock more features. But the free version is still very useful.

The PDF maps are geospatial PDFs, so you can use them with a mapping app like Avenza Maps (free).

  • Map of all of Philmont with SOTA peaks, in PDF, JPEG, and on CalTopo.
  • Map of the Valle Vidal with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.
  • Map of Philmont North Country with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.
  • Map of Philmont South Country with SOTA peaks, in PDF and JPEG.

I don’t have a ride this year, but I want to go back to Philmont, with a radio!

International Radio Scouting Badges

Radio Scouting is an international activity, and the World Organization of the Scout Movement (WOSM) has patches and pins for it. I love the classic design, and I also love the price, with the current exchange rate.

The WOSM Radio Scouting emblem looks a lot like the World Scout Crest, but with a radio twist. It has the same purple background, but instead of the circling rope, it has dots, like Morse Code. The fleur-de-lis is at the bottom, and the center is a globe with headphones, a neckerchief, and some lightning bolt lines. It sounds complicated, but it says “Scouts on the radio around the world” without using words.

Radio Scouting patch Radio scouting pin

Right now (late 2016), the cloth badge (patch) is $1.29 (£1.04) and the metal badge (pin) is $1.81 (£1.46). You can work out the shipping cost yourself, but I think it is worth it to wear the world-wide symbol of Radio Scouting.

The Magic of Fire: The Next Level for Campfire Cooking

There are many outdoor cookbooks, but The Magic of Fire by William Rubel is the one that makes you want to build a fire in the back yard right now and roast onions.

Let’s hear what he has to say about those roasted onions, the first recipe in the book.

The shock of high heat changes onions. Caramelized sugars combine with a hint of smoke to give them unexpected complexity. The roasting process is a sensual delight. When the charred onions are ready, spear one with a fork and hold it close to your ear. You will hear the juices churning and smell an intoxicating fragrance.

The recipe is simple. This is a trimmed version, leaving out some details (“using tongs”) and adjectives (“aromatic”).

Spread the embers. Place each onion on the embers 4-8 inches from the flames. As the outer shell begins to blister, turn the onions, several times during the roasting process. The onions are done when the outer skin is charred and the onion can be easily pierced with a knife. Aim for a cooking time of 20 to 40 minutes.

Remove the cooked onions from the fire. When cool enough to handle, cut off the bottom of each onion. The burnt outer layers will often slip off like a glove. Quarter, separating the leaves. Drizzle with olive oil, toss with herbs, and season with salt.

Ready to do that on a campout?

Roasted onions

But there is a lot more beyond that first recipe. Here are a few I’d like to try:

  • Roasted eggplant spread
  • Baked beans (needs 8-12 hours)
  • Ember-baked fish (not grilled, cooked directly on the embers)
  • Chicken in a pot (an exuberant version, with onions, heads of garlic, mushrooms, tomatoes, artichokes, and greens)
  • Brisket baked in ash
  • Pot-au-Feu (feeds 15-20!)
  • Ember-roasted vegetables
  • Ember-baked potatoes (on embers or in hot ashes)
  • Ash cakes
  • Flat bread
  • Irish soda bread
  • Grilled grapes (“As the finish to a meal, grilled grapes have no peer.”)

I checked out The Magic of Fire from our local library and I was enchanted. I think I need a copy.

It won a James Beard award. It’s available new and used on Amazon. The author has a website with even more recipes and techniques “William Rubel: Traditional Foodways”.

The Five Promises of Scouting

The Scout Law, the Scout Oath, the methods and aims of Scouting; all these are things the Scout is supposed to do. What does Scouting do for the boy?

The eleventh edition of the Boy Scout Handbook started with a list of five things that Scouting promises to each Scout.

I used these promises as the outline for a Scoutmaster Minute at an Eagle Court of Honor. I talked about how the new Eagle Scouts had made the most of these promises during their years in Scouting, giving specific examples for each Scout.

The five promises aren’t in later editions, so I’ll quote the entire page here.


Scouting promises you the great outdoors. As a Scout, you can learn to camp and hike without leaving a trace and how to take care of the land. You’ll study wildlife up close and learn about nature all around you. There are plenty of skills for you to master, and you can teach others what you have learned. Everyone helping everyone else—that’s part of Scouting, too.

Scouting promises you friendship. Members of the troop you join might be boys you already know, and you will meet many other Scouts along the way. Some could become lifelong friends.

Scouting promises you opportunities to work toward the Eagle Scout rank. You will set positive goals for yourself and then follow clear routes to achieve them.

Scouting promises you tools to help you make the most of your family, your community, and your nation. The good deeds you perform every day will improve the lives of those around you. You will be prepared to help others in time of need.

Scouting promises you experiences and duties that will help you mature into a strong, wise adult. The Scout Oath and the Scout Law can guide you while you are a Scout and throughout your life.

Adventure, challenge, learning, responsibility—the promise of Scouting is all this and more. Are you ready for the adventure to begin? Then turn the page and let’s get started.

The Boy Scout Handbook, 11th Edition, 1998, page 1.


We talk about Scouting as “a game with a purpose”. The purpose is pretty clear, it is the three aims of Scouting: character, citizenship, and physical fitness. But what is the game?

I like these five promises because they explain the game: adventure, friends, achievement, helping others, and growing into new responsibilities.

Troop Leader Guidebook

The long wait is over. I can finally put the 2004 Scoutmaster Handbook in the recycling and enjoy the new Troop Leader Guidebook by Mark Ray. I was embarrassed to recommend the earlier handbook, but the new one is beyond excellent.

Troop Leader Guidebook Volume 1

Listing the wonderful things about this book would be nearly as long as the book itself. The point is probably better made by listing the areas where I was disappointed. I had to dig pretty deep to find two disagreements.

I was hoping that I’d finally find some direction about a Venture Patrol in the troop. This has been a thing for a very long time, going back to “Exploring in the Troop”, which replaced “Senior Scouting in the Troop”. No joy, but there was discussion of an “older Scout patrol”. National does still sell the Scout Venture strip, so I guess the Venture Patrol is still a thing.

Venture strip

Also, the book comes down hard in favor of new Scout patrols, regular patrols, and older Scout patrols as the way to organize a troop. I’m sure that works, but I’ve seen the mixed-age patrol model work wonderfully for twenty years in our local troop. The older Scouts in the patrol teach the new Scouts and pass on the patrol traditions. It is a perfect match to the EDGE requirements for ranks, something that is harder to achieve with the recommended patrol organization. I’d prefer a balanced presentation of the two models.

That’s it. I can’t think of anything else in this book that is not wonderful.

A few exceptionally great things, though:

  • Pointing to the Service Project Planning Guidelines. This is a tremendously useful worksheet that I recommend to all the Scouts I counsel on their Eagle projects. Every service project should use these when planning.
  • Moving the annual planning process out of the Troop Program Features and into the handbook. I discovered that documentation a year after I was no longer Scoutmaster. Oops.
  • Strong, strong emphasis on the aims of Scouting over the methods of Scouting.

I recommend buying at your local Scout Store, especially if that store supports your council. But you can also buy it at scoutstuff.org.

We all need to thank Mark Ray for writing this new edition of the Scoutmaster Handbook. He’s taken it from a nearly useless manual to an essential one. I’ve been recommending that Scoutmasters read the Senior Patrol Leader Handbook to get the real information on running a troop. That is still a good idea, but now there is a proper handbook for Scoutmasters. A handbook which happens to recommend reading the Senior Patrol Leader Handbook, of course.

And in your spare time, follow Mark Ray’s blog. If you are like me, you want to read everything he writes.

Meanwhile, I’m standing in line for volume two.

History of Morse Code in the Boy Scouts

Morse code has been in and out of the Boy Scout requirements for nearly a hundred years. During that time, Morse has changed from a career skill to a rewarding hobby, from a vocation to an avocation. Also, radio has grown to include voice communications, data communications, and broadcast.

Morse interpreter strip

I’ve gathered all the requirements I could find: rank, merit badge, or skill award. For context, I’ve included a few historical milestones from amateur radio and from digital and voice communication.

1910: Boy Scouts of America founded.

1912: First amateur radio licenses in the US.

1916: First regular radio broadcasts in the US.

1918: Wireless merit badge introduced, requires Morse at ten words per minute.

1930: Radio merit badge (replacement for Wireless) lowers the requirement to five words per minute.

1937: First Class requirement 4: “Send and receive by Semaphore Code, including conventional signs, thirty letters per minute; or by the General Service Code (International Morse), sixteen letters per minute, including conventional signs; or by Indian Sign Language Code, thirty signs per minute; or by the Manual Alphabet for the Deaf, thirteen letters per minute.” [In Morse, this is about three words per minute.]

1947: First amateur radio contacts over SSB at Stanford University.

1965: First Class requirement 4: “Send and receive a message of at least 20 words, using either international Morse or semaphore codes and necessary procedure signals.” [No speed requirement]

1965: An amateur radio license is accepted as proof of Morse competence for Radio merit badge.

1967: Viterbi decoder invented, beginning of modern digital communication.

1972: First Class drops Morse requirement.

1979: Morse returns as an option for the Communications Skill Award: “Signal by two of the following methods: silent Scout signals, manual alphabet, sign language for the deaf, Indian sign language, sports signals, Morse code, semaphore code, Scouts trail signs.” [This long list of options requires fourteen pages of documentation in the Handbook. Oddly, the handbook includes the Braille alphabet, though it is not one of the signaling systems listed in the requirement.]

1981: Space Shuttle STS-1 mission uses digital voice communication.

1984: Broadcast and SWL options added to Radio Merit Badge requirements, Morse dropped.

1990: First Class drops Morse requirement (again).

1991: FCC introduces no-code Technician license.

1999: Morse replaced by satellite for global maritime distress calls (no more SOS).

2007: FCC drops Morse requirement for all amateur licenses.

2010: Morse returns for one year in the centennial Signaling merit badge with three requirements around Morse.

2012: BSA adds Morse interpreter strip.

2015: Morse returns yet again as part of the Signs, Signals, and Codes merit badge: “Send or receive a message of six to ten words using Morse code.” [No speed requirement]

There are probably many choices for the beginning of modern digital communication. I chose the invention of the Viterbi decoder, because that supported low-latency error correction in hardware for digital codes. And it is really cool technology.

All the BSA requirements after 1965 are from my bookshelf. The 1937 First Class requirement is from the 1937 Scoutmaster’s Handbook. The remainder are from on-line resources.

Philmont Pack Weights 2010

I finally found the pack weight notes that I took at Philmont base camp on the morning we started on our trek in 2010.

I’ve estimated base weights by subtracting thirteen pounds. We were carrying four days of Philfood (seven pounds), and most of us were carrying three liters of water (six pounds).

The median pack weight was 42 pounds (29 pounds estimated base weight). The average was 40.1 pounds (27.1 pounds estimated base weight). Total pack weight for the crew was 401 pounds.

Most of the time, a crew will be carrying two days or less food. Subtract three or four pounds from these numbers to get a mid-trek pack weight.

Philmont packs crop

This photo is from the “trail” up the south side of Mount Philips. That was the steepest and highest trail we hiked (11,742 feet), and we were carrying six liters of water each. The summit camp is dry, and we wouldn’t have any water sources until the next evening.

Crew Member Trailhead
Weight
Est. Base
Weight
Notes
Josh 32 19 crew leader
Derek 37 24
Jason 37 24
John 40 27 external frame pack
Michael 42 29
Mike 42 29
Robert 42 29
Walter (me) 42 29 advisor
Oliver 43 30 external frame pack
Larry 44 31 advisor, external frame pack

Next time, I’d plan the crew gear weight and distribution better. Our crew gear was pretty heavy, and I think the advisors took a little more than our share. We planned to bring a lighter tarp, but our crew quartermaster forgot it.

We had spent a fair amount of time with the crew, teaching them lightweight techniques and doing pack checks. We could have spent more. Philmont tells people to prepare for carrying packs that weight from 45 to 55 pounds, so we were much better than the typical crew. Still, we probably could have been lighter by five to eight pounds per person without spending a lot of money.

What was my pack like?

  • 17 pounds base weight, essential personal gear only
  • 23 pounds including big camera, chair, and book
  • 25 pounds with crew gear, mostly first aid
  • 37 pounds estimated with three days food

Philfood is 1.75 pounds (800 grams) per person per day, so carrying four days instead of three makes that 38 pounds. Obviously, I added another four pounds of crew gear, mostly fuel canisters. 42 pounds was a bit heavy for the Six Moon Designs Starlite pack I used, but it was comfortable after we ate the first day or so of meals. We only carried a four day load at one other time.

How important is a comfortable, light pack at Philmont? I think it means you have a much better experience. Towards the end of the trek, our crew was singing on the trail and passing other crews.

Our Ranger said we were the best-prepared crew he’d had that summer.

Every member of the crew became an Eagle Scout.

The Scout with the lightest pack loved Philmont so much that he went back for Rayado the next year, then was a Philmont Ranger for the next two years.