Tuesday, March 14, 2006


Winter Storm on Palomar Mountain, Ham Radio Class, and Repeater Site Hike-in

Tuesday 7 March 2006 Spent wonderful day at zoo, then model railroad museum, then plant pavilion. Took lots of photos, using the telephoto lens at the zoo and the macro lens at the railroad museum and plant pavilion. Geneva had a close encounter with a Peacock and we took the SkyFari ride, which is a small gondola, from the back of the park to the front. I can't walk very far, so this was a "shortcut". The kids had never been on it. Michael immediately named it SkyFerrari, and realized that everything in view was the zoo, and that it really was a very big place.

We took a lot of photos. Here's the set.

Thursday 9 March 2006 We spent entire day at Disneyland with extended family. Geneva, who loves princesses, was in pretty pink princess heaven. There was a princess castle, princesses walking around, and a fairy godmother at breakfast!


We got a family photo taken!


Note the cute Tinkerbell.

I took it easy, I checked into the Disneyland Repeater, I monitored APRS in the area, and generally geeked out while everyone rode rides and saw shows.

The day went really well until I got a very strange phone call from the Palomar Mountain Observatory. This needs a bit of explanation. I organized a ham radio class for the mountain, mainly to serve the volunteer fire department, but also including anyone else that wanted to become a ham. I had reserved the rec center at the observatory since it had a place that most resembled a classroom. This was back on the 24th of February. The class was scheduled for the 11th and the 18th of March.

On the 24th February, a meeting to finalize the reservation was set up for 2pm on Sunday, February 26th. Later that day, the secretary wrote me back and postponed the meeting due to "unforeseen circumstances". I didn't inquire what the circumstances were. I thought maybe illness or accident or else the staff was busy. I hoped that the "unforeseen circumstances" didn't involve anything too seriously bad.

I was told by the secretary I'd been working with (a very professional and courteous person) to wait for a call in order to set up a meeting for the week of March 6th. No one called the next week, so I wrote the secretary back on the 8th of March asking if the meeting was still necessary, and whether or not a phone call would do.

So, since I was expecting a call anyway from the observatory about the reservation of the room, I didn't think much of it. I took the call, and greeted the fellow with "It's great to hear from you!" The reply was "Well, we'll see about that."

How odd, I thought. The next ten minutes were comical, to say the least. I was berated, belittled, interrupted every single time I tried to speak, and even more strange - the guy turned out to not be the guy I was expecting a call from. Instead, this was his supervisor.

He tried his best to bully me and then twice threatened to cancel the reservation. I was accused of taking the observatory for granted and other various vague failures on my part, none of which sounded familiar, since I'd followed all instructions and had a great experience with the observatory staff up until this phone call. I began to wonder if it was an early April Fool's joke. Only thing was that it wasn't really funny.

Since I'd already agreed to meet with anyone at almost any time, and since I'd been told to wait for a call to schedule this meeting, I was kind of confused about this whole conversation.

Being away from my desk (at Disneyland with four small children) this was kind of a surreal moment. It's hard to plan when you don't have your planner, but he refused to let me call him back when I got back to San Diego. I agreed to meet before the class, at 7:30am, just to go over whatever they wanted to go over in using the classroom at the observatory. This, to me, was a somewhat strange request. I'd been completely available for a meeting at any time since the 24th of February, with the exception of late Monday evenings. Why the rush-rush chaos now?

The instructor for the class was set to arrive at 7:45am, and had been willing to meet to finalize the classroom reservation as well. The class was to start at 8:00am. I mentioned that the instructor might be a better person to meet with since he was already going to be there a bit early, and that unleashed another angry outburst from the guy on the phone. I was lectured about how I was the one responsible if for some reason a bunch of volunteer fire department people burned the place down (what a hysterical image), or made a huge mess. Obviously, that suggestion wasn't going anywhere. No matter, I was going to be up there anyway, and meeting at 7:30 vs 7:45 wasn't much of a difference to an early riser like me. I asked him if there was some other issue that was the real problem, but his answer was unclear. Finally he hung up with a BANG. Whew! Weird.

I decided to call the secretary back and ask her if she could give me a better explanation. She had a very interesting story! She said that the person I was organizing the class for (who will be referred to as Happy) had come into the office and put the class on hold, and that he was "going to talk to me about rescheduling it." I told her that was news to me, and that I'd have to ask him about it. I left a voice mail for him to call me back and touch base and enjoyed the rest of the day.

Friday was a great day. I had a doctor checkup, went to the hardware store and got a bunch of raw materials for making wooden toys, had the oil changed in the truck, cleaned the truck for Operation Date Night, called people to do last minute planning for the ham class, and then picked up the kids at preschool at 12:30, had Rubios for lunch, and kept tabs on the weather. A lot of snow was predicted for the mountains. There was debate over how much Palomar, a relatively small mountain in SoCal, was supposed to get. Some predictions said 6 inches. Others, for the San Bernardinos, mentioned a foot or more. Having four-wheel-drive and some experience with driving in the snow gave me the confidence that I would at least be able to get around in any weather. I made sure the instructor wasn't scared away by the weather. His reponse? "They'll have to close the roads to keep me from coming to teach." Right on!

I dorked around with a great software program in the afternoon called Radio Mobile. This was for another mountain project - to get a Traveler's Information Station up and running at the State Park on Palomar. They have the sweetest antenna site, too, so doing the propagation map was just totally fun.

Ken didn't want to go out on Date Night (kids have date night at the gym) so I did some more computer stuff and packed to drive up to Palomar at 9:00pm.

Snow was already falling, and falling down to about 3000 feet. It would eventually fall in San Diego itself, which is a rare event. The only cars I passed were an SDG&E truck (more about that later - this truck was an early harbinger) and a snow plow. The xTerra did great in 4WD-high. No sliding even when the snow got thicker. We couldn't get the gate open at the cabin due to the bottom being already in a foot of snow, but the truck was in the driveway. This was probably not the best place to park it, as I found out the next morning, but it made getting kids and dogs and computers and cameras and clothes inside a lot easier.


The cistern at the cabin was empty. This was immediately obvious since the pump was spinning away downstairs, dry. For how long, no one could tell. Ken took the action item to figure it out, since I don't do plumbing. Or windows.

He solved our no water problem by running a hose from the well to the cistern and filling it up that way. It was unclear where the freeze was, but no bursting was apparent. Since it was just under freezing, I didn't expect anything catastrophic. The pipes are below ground, and it had been warm recently.

Now, the interesting thing about Ken is that he really doesn't like microbes. Or toxins. Or no-see-ums of any type. He insisted on using melted and then boiled snow for eating since the hose to get the water to the cistern was now suspect (except apparently for toilets, washing clothes, and washing dishes).

Having drunk from garden hoses all my life, I tried to reason with him, but to no avail. "See how I turned out? I'm FINE!" didn't really make much of a dent in the Impenetrable Fortress of Logic that Ken maintains.

The rest of the day was totally great. It snowed and snowed and snowed and snowed. It was getting deep out there, considering this is San Diego County. The snowflakes were those strange little balls, or bigger crystals, then back to the little balls.

We played, we walked around, I took a few photos, but since it was storming, we mostly stayed in, stayed warm, and read books, putzed around with projects, and did some cooking.

I got up early and looked at the snow. I spent about a half hour trying to get the car dug out, then called the Observatory to see what the status was. I got the guy that I was supposed to meet with originally on the phone. This was pure luck, since I'd called the secretary's desk. It being Saturday, and after a major snow, I wasn't really ambitious about getting through to anyone important. He started in on how I should postpone since the roads were closed to non-residents and the instructor would never get on the mountain in the first place. He was quasi-unpleasant, but I thought that was understandable because there was a ton of snow he had to deal with, and he was going to be busy. I told him I wasn't going to try to get over there at 7:30 if the class was going to be cancelled for the day, and he said he was heading out with a bunch of people to go take care of whatever needed taking care of.

Ken took over Operation Truck Freedom and succeeded. In the process, the North County Times took his photo, thus sealing his fame as "guy stuck in snowdrift tries to free car" forever. I'll try to find the photo. He also attracted the attention of "Happy", who was joyriding in his truck while waiting for Ken to get out of the way so he could plow Birch Hill Road. Ken has all the fun!

So, while all this was going on, I called my friend who was also involved in planning for the ham class, and he suggested redirecting people to the fire station. It's easy to get to, and the students are most likely already there in anticipation of a very busy day. He also said he'd call a contact at the observatory to redirect anyone that showed up at the classroom. I thought that was a great idea, since the guy I talked to probably wasn't going to be available to handle anything extra and getting out of their hair was a good plan.

So, I hiked up to my friend's house at 8:00am. I had the coolest doggie escort ever - he just simply appeared out of the snow. He was a really big dog - sort of wolf-like, very friendly, and stuck with me the entire hike. Here is a photo of him. He belongs to a neighbor.


It's hard to tell from this photo how truly big this dog is, but look carefully at the photo and how wide the truck tire tracks look in relation to his feet. He easily came up to my hip. He could have knocked me over without much effort. His head was massive, wide paws easily allowing him to cut through the snow. He seemed completely in his element, and hovered around me, nudging my hand and looking at me with big smart doggie eyes.

Once I arrived at my friend's house, my doggie escort dropped me off and took off to walk with someone else further up the road. It turns out, the SDG&E truck I'd passed the previous night had been there to restore my friend's power from a downed limb yanking out their line from their house. SDG&E had showed up within an hour or two and gotten their power back on that night. I looked at all the trees, everywhere, that covered the mountain, and (yet again) had the appreciation that power outages were probably going to be an issue.

I helped dig out my friend's cars, rescued some compost, watched them put chains and cables on their cars, evaluated the trees, met their wonderful bird, helped put a kayak aka "fastest sled on the mountain" on top of a car (a kodak moment for sure) and ate chips. We got down to the main road and arrived at the fire station at 10:00am.

Guess who was there? The instructor, with his old 4WD truck, with chains, and daughter in tow! He was stoked. She was cold. Very cold! It was kind of cold, actually, in the mid-20s. She said she could have gone to the beach today, but thought snow sounded more fun. This is the magic of San Diego County. The beach was sunny and warm, and the ocean is visible - gleaming golden in the distance - from just a few tens of feet away from the fire station. While you're in knee-deep snow. And cold.

When "Happy" saw me, he pulled me aside and told me that there was more to the story than simple crankiness on the part of observatory staff concerning the room reservation. What I heard was amazing. Apparently, someone else who works at the observatory - someone who is also in the ham radio club with me, and has been a bit cranky with me in the past had learned about the ham class room reservation. He is also supervised by the guy that called me while I was at Disneyland, so the connections became clear.

Apparently, this same fellow wanted to put a ham radio class together 5 years ago and it didn't work out. I guess he viewed ham radio classes on the mountain as his turf. Ironically, I'd tried to contact him about helping with the class, and not gotten a response. Since he lives up here, I figured he'd want to help. His view, as told to "Happy", was that he should get to organize the class, and I should handle "overflow". Overflow? Like, in a sewer? Overflow from what? The great pent-up demand to become Amateur Radio Operators? Like being a volunteer firefighter doesn't already mark you as some sort of freak of nature?

Ok, maybe I'm in dreamland, but if there is that much demand that there is overflow, then there will be more ham radio classes in the future and everyone that wants to teach one can. In fact, the instructor of that day's class has been begging for more instructors to teach all over the county.

I offered to "Happy" to let the guy take over the class, even if I had to continue to do the work, if it would make it easier for everyone to get along. It's no skin off my back. "Happy" said it wouldn't be necessary, and to keep doing what I was doing. I agreed with him. I'm thinking that the best thing to do is to just let it go. There's no sense in raising a fuss about someone upset for things I have no control over. Not everyone likes me, and I can't help that. I can only continue to do what I can, where I can, and continue to be civil and cooperative with everyone I work with. That includes everyone at the observatory.

We actually and seriously had a class that day at the fire station and then later at the restaurant. Calls came in all day for the crews, so the instructor focused on teaching the ones that were there so they could train the others. It was under very chaotic conditions with radios blaring and melted snow and boots thumping over the floors, and people talking over each other's heads, and large herds of uniformed folks heading in and out, but it was completely fun and the basics actually got covered - the essential definition of the test, how to approach it, and material for study distributed. We ended the class at about 2:00pm to both give the instructor time to get back down the mountain safely, since the snow was falling heavily yet again, and let the crews go to increasingly numerous calls.

I got a lift back to the house, and spent the rest of the day playing with the kids in the snow. Michael loved it. Geneva got her fill pretty quickly. Her little pink face told me the whole story. "Um, where is my coach? My footman? My warm milk? You mean I actually have to walk through this stuff? I'm going back in to conclave with my PONIES! Thank you very much."

So, she liked looking through the window at Michael playing, much more than actually joining him.

Later on - at 7:33pm to be exact - I was writing an email to a church friend to see if I could get someone else to record mass for me the next day. Chains were required and roads were closed. We were snowed in. At that moment, the power went out. The computer and my cell phone modem were the only things on.

The power did not come back on. I realized that our generator was not taking over. This was bad. The battery in the generator had not been replaced yet, and well - it's kind of necessary. We immediately shut all doors and started a fire in the fire place. It actually kept things really warm. We called it in to San Diego Gas & Electric after noticing the entire side of the mountain was dark. They estimated 12:00am repair time. We could see flashing lights soon at the end of the road and thought that must be a repair truck.

We turned in early, but had to keep the fire going, so it wasn't a solid night's sleep. The power didn't come back on at midnight.

At 7:00am I hiked out to check on things and brought the camera along. I took a lot of photos. The mission was two-fold. I wanted to see if the repeater was on emergency power (CW "P" is added to the ID if it was on emergency power) and if it was, or if it was off-line, then I was going to hike down to the site to do a visual inspection. The repeater came up on emergency power, so off I went.

The walk was really pretty easy, even down the dirt road that hadn't been plowed.

Here is the set of photos from the site. If you saw the video from the other day, then these will be familiar.

Set of all winter storm photos.

The place was totally magically beautiful. There were a lot of limbs down everywhere. I kind of figured that it might take a little longer to get power back on than they thought, especially if whole trees were down back in where the power lines ran.

I hiked back home after taking the scenic route and meeting the same doggie escort from Saturday, still romping around in the snow like there was nothing there. I sent in a report to the radio club board, and answered some other email. We decided to head out in the afternoon since Ken had work on Monday and the power situation would probably not improve. Ken scouted out S6 (South Grade Road) and I packed up and cleaned.

Ken came back with an amazing story. There was a solid line of cars on South Grade Road. It was Deep Impact - the movie grade traffic. Everyone was playing in the snow. Whole families had grills, picnics, wine and cheese parties, shovels and pickup trucks full of snow to drive back down to the city for snowball fights. It wasn't moving. No one was going anywhere.

Since I of course wanted to see this chaos for myself, I said we should of course take South Grade. Ken was up for it, and off we went! The roads were plowed, but still covered in snow, but 4WD-low got us to the main road, and 4WD-high got us down to the traffic jam. We passed one other car. The driver asked me if we'd been down the mountain yet today. The trees were completely encased in gleaming white. The clouds moved back in, and the entire forested mountain-top became an ethereal wood with us moving through the heart of winter.

We made it to the main intersection, then turned onto S6.

Seven miles and 2.5 hours later, we were through what we estimated was over 2000 cars. There were 2WD hondas. There were snowplows, stuck in the traffic. There was a highway patrol car in the middle of it all. There were trucks, racing imports, an armada of minivans packed with kids, and a large bus.

There were people sledding on driveways, in the road, on the road, down what can be only described as cliffs, and across the road. Constant snowballs criss-crossed the sky. There were dogs, people in snowsuits, people in t-shirts, people in jeans. There were kids laughing, crying, and/or staring in shock at this strange white stuff. There was music, laughter, yellling, people trying to direct traffic, people trying to turn around, people spinning out.

It was one of the most bizarre things I have ever seen. And, it was so weird that I didn't take any photos at all. You'll just have to imagine the Rio Carnival - on Ice - mixed with a Street Fair then crossed with a car show.

We made it home with a large amount of snow still on the top of the car. Ken decided to go get some food before it melted, which of course caused people to run into inanimate objects while staring at him in the parking lot.

Listening to the repeater traffic the whole weekend taught me some things. The club and the site are generally pretty prepared, but people tend to pass along stale and incorrect information. People speculate and opine about things that are going on, and it gets assumed to be the real story by people listening, who then pass it on, and it quickly becomes The Truth.

The batteries were rumored to be dead. The power was rumored to be out for over three days when it had been off for less than 30 hours. Emails started zipping around with pointed questions.

I'd already taken site photos, made a couple of reports when necessary, and headed out. I knew this upcoming phase well - and always try to avoid it. There is a time for evaluation and analysis, and now was not it. This was the period in time where the news of an emergency has spread, and everyone has an idea or question on what to do. However, things were already coming back online. However, things were still bad on the mountain for everyone else.

The power had come back on at 1:00am on the 14th of March. 54 hours of outage and the repeater site had done really well, with minimal problems. Sure, the club will take care of the things that failed, but I'm not even going to bother wading in until all the facts are known and people that aren't going to actually do any site work in the future get bored and wander off.

The phones also failed on the mountain, which points to another issue with the communications infrastructure. Our communications group on the mountain will probably get a lot out of this experience, along with the fire department and the community in general. I'll write more as this develops. My cell phone worked for the most part, but coverage is kind of problematic, and in the traffic jam on S6, the cell was obviously overloaded and quit accepting new calls.

SDG&E deserves some remarks here. It's really hard to figure out where the power failed on a mountain, in two feet of snow, with little trails that suffice as roads, where things aren't marked and the snow and the limbs continue to fall. They did a great job repairing things.

So, that was my weekend, guys!

She is correct.

I've got more pics for you at our Blog (above) of the Kayak and traffic

(Guy in the story.)
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