Mountain Radio



34 Years of Mountain Radio
A revised history of the Canterbury Mountain Radio Service Inc.

When I was asked to write an article for the "Canterbury Mountaineer" I remembered that in 1987, I wrote what was called, "20 Years of Mountain Radio - A Brief History of the Canterbury Mountain Radio Service". It certainly is a pleasure to update that article and record the continuing excellent work of the CMRS.

Much has happened since then and the Service has matured into a very professional yet voluntary organisation with turnover in excess of $50,000 per year and with substantial total assets.

My first introduction to radio in the mountains was in mid 1960's when on a search and rescue operation in the Edwards valley, I carried a TRP1 ex army valve radio weighing 12kg or so to the top of Tarahuna Pass and while camped there in the bleak rain, operated the radio while the search for a missing tramper was made in the Otehake valley. Vern Lill on that same search used his prototype 'black box' mountain radio which was about the size of a pound of butter. Later in 1966 during the Mt Rolleston search, Brian Hearfield and his party carried one of those TRP1 radios to the low peak of Mt Rolleston only to find that they could not raise Arthurs Pass but they were able to contact Los Angeles Airport. Apparently Hearfield kicked the radio across the floor back at the headquarters and said, "Get something better than this" (or more juicy words to that effect). Following the coroner's report on the Rolleston search in which four climbers and John Harrison lost their lives the focus shifted to getting better radios for SAR and efforts were started to form a mountain radio service.

The benefits of a mountain radio to tramping and climbing parties are well known. Users take the friendly nightly contact with its mountain weather forecast and message handling service for granted. Over the years many people have benefited from the service and hardly a month goes by without some rescue or serious situation being dealt with. It is an enthusiastic group of volunteers which keep the service operating 365 days a year.

It all began over thirty six years ago in 1964. Vern Lill had been experimenting with homemade portable radio transceivers and proved that mountain radio was feasible. In August 1966 an official application to the Post Office was made for a mountain radio frequency in the high frequency 90metre band. The application was made jointly by Wynne Croll the Chairman of the Canterbury Westland Section of the NZAC and Alan Morgan, the President of the CMC. Later that year permission was granted providing the payment of the licence fees were made so in February 1967 an amount of £7-1-0 was paid, and thus the service officially began.

On 29th March 1967 the inaugural meeting of the Canterbury Mountain Radio Sub-committee was held. Vern Lill was elected Chairman, Ian Gardiner Secretary, and Geoff Harrow Treasurer. A key agenda item was how funds could be raised to buy or make radios in order to establish a radio service. Brian Barrer was asked to look into the legal aspects of setting up a mountain radio system and on 12 May a letter was received from him recommending incorporation and his recommendations for a set of rules. A bank account was started with $100, a grant from the Press Company and also a $50 donation from Chris Fenwick.

Early in 1968 fundraising was foremost on the agenda and an approach was made to the Lyttleton ton Lions Club for assistance. Messrs Gardiner and Lill spoke to the club and demonstrated a portable radio to them. They soon decided it was a worthwhile project and warranted the attention of the combined Lion Clubs of Christchurch. The Industries Fair was coming up and a static display and a Chocolate Wheel to raised a total of $1034.

Appeals were made to Club members by both the Chairman of NZAC and the President of the CMC. The former appeal raised $515.00 and the latter $604.85. A donation of $100 was made by the CMC executive. The final outcome of this great fundraising effort was that the Christchurch Combined Lions Club handed over $2,774.92 to set the ball rolling.

Immediately tenders were called for 10 mountain radios, and after considering several replies, an order was placed with the then newly formed Tait Electronics Ltd. The radios were received in early 1969.

When Vern Lill moved to Wellington, Cedric Turner operated the base station from his home and continued to do so till 1974.

In order to assist with reception of weak radio signals from the mountain a VHF relay station was established at Marley's Hill and this has proved highly successful over a number of years.

At a meeting on 13 October, 1969 it was agreed to accept Derek Fountain's and Brian Barrer's rules for the constitution and apply for incorporation. The statutory 16 members were duly signed up: 8 from CMC and 8 from NZAC. This was formalised and recognised in the 1970 annual report.

By the end of l969 a total of 17 HFPI radio sets were in service.

A grant of $700 from the Golden Kiwi Lottery Fund also enabled further radios to be purchased. The CMRS was really up and running. A radio was also installed in the Colin Todd Hut in the Mount Aspiring National Park.

Up to that time our base stations were only in Christchurch. Early in 1972 it was suggest that Ron Kingston the AREC (Amateur Radio Emergency Corps - SAR) officer in Dunedin should become our Dunedin base. With obtained permission from the NZPO and ZKIB101 Dunedin was officially on the air. Ron has been actively involved virtually every night since - surely a fantastic record. His dedication to radio has been of immense value to the service.

In August 1972 a letter that was to have far reaching consequences was received from the Post Office. It advised that from 1 January 1974 all transmissions had to be single sideband. For those non technical, the radios then in use were amplitude modulated and inherently simpler to construct. While the single sideband mode of transmission was reported to have advantages, the technical requirements were such that no reasonably priced portable transceivers were commercially available. Where to go from there? Also a barrier to overcome was NZPO type approval and at that stage no radios had actually been approved.

It was decided to first of all try and get as much life as possible as possible from the AM sets, upgrade the base stations as could be afforded and investigate available SSB equipment.

It should be mentioned that safety has always been a compelling reason for the mountain radios and there are numerous recorded incidents. 1973 was a quiet year, yet it was significant because in April a separate frequency 3345 kHz was assigned for use in the North Island, and in September the Wellington Mountain Radio Service was on the air. When permission was also granted for their stations to use 3261 kHz while in the South Island, a bond of co-operation was established that was to prove extremely important later on.

1974 was a year when a major upgrade of the Marley's Hill installation was undertaken. The Christchurch Amateur Radio Club was also keen to have a more permanent housing for their VHF repeater and following a grant of $1130 from the Ministry of Recreation and Sport, an underground power line was installed and a concrete shed built. These are still maintained on a shared basis.

Derek Brown organised a roster system which shared the skeds on a weekly basis among other Members who were suitably equipped with transceivers. That roster system is essentially still in place today. Those involved with those early rosters were Derek Brown, Cedric Turner, Paul White and Gary Swarbrick.

Efficient distribution of the radios has been a very important aspect and over the years this has been the responsibility of Paul White. His sign writing business has been the focus and without that support the CMRS would not have been able to operate.

Since receiving the letter from NZPO asking us to convert to single sideband, we decided that it, would be expedient to equip our bases with SSB and so two Ambassador radios were purchased from Codan in Wanganui. However, the problem of finding a suitable portable SSB transceiver was becoming very real.

In June 1976 we were invited to a meeting organised by the Dunedin Rotary Club. At that meeting a prototype radio designed by Fr Robin Paulson of Gore was demonstrated. It was decided to encourage the set to be developed up to NZPO type approval standard, and Bill Kennedy, worked on that for some time. It proved to be too great a task and the project was subsequently abandoned.

During the latter quarter of 1976 a radio was installed in the Cameron Hut, while slightly later the Park Morpeth radio was installed. While not used on many occasions both radios have proved very helpful for parties using the huts. By the end of 1977 Banfield Hut was also equipped and shortly after so to was the Otago Boys' High School hut in the East Matukituki.

Up to August 1979 the rules of CMRS had always ensured that members of the service were also either members of CMC or C/W Section NZAC. We had a number of extremely hard working people involved in the running of the service who were not members, in particular Bob Rohleder (Hon Technician), and base operators Ron Kingston, Nigel Duckworth. and Gary Swarbrick. Changes were made to the constitution and rules to allow them to join the service, but yet still maintaining strong links back- to the two parent clubs. At least two members of the CMRS committee must also be members of CMC and Section committees respectively.

AWA had developed a SSB portable radio, the TR105 and while being fairly heavy (3 kg.) it was type approved and 4 sets were purchased in early 1979. By the annual meeting in August there were a total of 33 portable radios in service including the 4 AWA's. These have proved to be very reliable and suitable for larger school parties. A total of 17 TR105's are still available.

It was estimated that the three major mountain radio services is Canterbury, Wellington, and Southland Field Radio, could together use over 150 transceivers. How were we to re-equip for SSB when the only radio then available was twice the size and weight of the HFPI?

Vern Lill again came to the rescue and through his expertise in the SSB field designed a new set to become known as the MRS1 (Mountain Radio Service 1).

Many hours of very hard work were put in by Vern and his companion in Wellington, Peter Pohl To raise finance, CMRS put in $1,000, Southland $500, and WMRS applied through a new organisation Federated Mountain Radio Services to the Ministry of Recreation and Sport for $5000 to purchase components to make 50 radios. By mid 1981, 6 prototype sets had been produced in Wellington, but the elusive type approval still had to be obtained. This consists of a series of very complicated technical tests which must be passed before approval to license the radio type is given. It was decided that once type approval was obtained the radios would be made in Christchurch. Ian Gardiner organised the components, metalwork and printed circuit boards from suppliers in readiness for production.

On 3rd September 1983 mandatory compliance was obtained from NZPO for the MRS1. This meant that the radios could be licensed, and the production of the radios was commenced. It was a major project with the construction of the sets done under contract and Bob Rohleder made them go. The MRS1 has proved very reliable has been the mainstay radio for over fifteen years and extremely popular.

It was soon evident that more would be required and it was decided to build a further 60 financed by CMRS. Minor improvements to the design were made and by mid 1985 the first radios were licensed. To date a total of 110 MRS1's are in service throughout the country, the actual cost to the mountain radio services being only a fraction of the retail price of equivalent sets.

Considering the places the mountain radios go very few have been lost. Two MRS1's have been lost, one ruined by salt water on Stewart Island and the other in the Shotover River in a rafting accident. A horse stood on one and crushed it and one was destroyed in a hut fire. A helicopter had to jettison a hunters pack and the radio did not survive the fall to the west coast river.

A few Codan 8332 radios, which were developed by the DSIR came available and CMRS now have 7 in service. All the hut radios are MRS1 models and are installed in Cameron, Park Morpeth, Reischek and Macaulay Huts.

Throughout this time the VHF link an Marley's Hill had been modified to allow aerials to be changed from North-South to East-West and a second transceiver installed as a spare. By using special control tones other channels such as SAR or National Parks could be selected. In 1986 it was decided to apply for a UHF channel and upgrade to FM with its higher quality of transmission on the link. In February 1987 the changeover became a reality and all Christchurch base station operators now have the benefit of the UHF control. This system allows the mountain radio channel to be monitored and controlled from a vehicle or a handheld in the garden or even at work within a 50km radius of the Marley's Hill repeater.

The years 1987 through to 1989 were consolidating years with the main hire radios being the MRS1 of which we had built over 110 in total and which 70 were on our books, the others being used by other mountain radio services. Changes in government policy meant that we no longer enjoyed free licenses and we also started to pay for the daily weather forecasts produced by the Metrological Service. Both these resulted in additional expenses of over $2,000 each per annum.

In 1989 Garth Varcoe from the DSIR Antarctic Division joined us as a base operator and committee member. Garth proved to be a stalwart and made a marvelous contribution to the CMRS until his untimely death in a helicopter accident on Mt Erebus, Antarctica in 1991. Kath his wife however, continued on as an operator and member of the committee until 1998. Just before Christmas 1990 the shed at Marley's Hill was broken into and over $7,000 worth of radio transceivers were stolen. Garth subsequently made such a strong door and grill for the building that it would be a very determined robber that could break in. Also at Christmas 1990 signs that the site was becoming difficult for low noise reception started and interference from the establishment of a new radio station nearby literally 'blew us out of the water' so much so that our link was unusable. We fixed the problem by buying a new very good UHF receiver and this has not given a problem since.

We also tapped into the funds being distributed to community groups from the Trustbank Community Trust and most years since 1990 we have received substantial donations from the Trust. Our sincere thanks is acknowledged.

With the increased number of radios it became important that we increased our distribution system and depots were established in Wanaka, Glenorchy and later in Nelson as well on the West Coast at Hokitika and Westport. A highlight of the 1991 year was the QSM awarded to Ron Kingston our base station operator in Dunedin for his outstanding work done over twenty years as our base operator and also for his contribution to search and rescue communications.

By 1993 it became apparent that the number of radios was insufficient for our peak periods of hire in the February through April part of the year when many hunters like to go after the Wapiti in Fiordland and Stewart Island. We discussed manufacturing more of the MRS1 radios but concluded that the radios really needed to be smaller in size and lighter in weight. We discussed this with Vern Lill and arranged to assist him with the development costs of a new transceiver based on the earlier design but much smaller in size. The MRS3 was born and interestingly a similar model the Polsar became the new SAR radio. In mid 1994 the first batch of 5 MRS3 radios were received and put into service. In all during 1994 we took delivery of 30 radios which greatly added to our inventory.

In 1994 Don Mee who had been our auditor since 1974 decided to retire. Don's contribution as auditor and financial advisor was outstanding. We now employ a public accountant firm as the GST requirements and auditing responsibilities are more demanding. We also entered the computer age and bought our first computer a 486 SX 33 now the equivalent of a Model A Ford. Derek Brown devised a debase program that automatically generates a list for the base station operators of all radios on each sched. A modified version is still in use today. The database has the details of every radio that we hire. The radios are allocated according to the availability and the length of time the party is in the field. At 6-30pm each night the updated list is faxed or emailed to the duty base operator who has all details of the party for the nightly sched, their set call sign (IB number), location and contact details, special requirements etc. The current list is maintained daily by Brian Pattrick.

Repairs and maintenance is a very important part of the CMRS's activities and we have been very well served by Bob Rohleder and more recently Colin Wilmshurst in their roles as 'in-house' technicians. Aerial maintenance is also ongoing and Dave Shelton and his scout groups made and repaired many aerials over a long period of time. In fact one of the key strengths (some would argue weaknesses) is the long term devotion of many of the service's members. Three Life Members have been elected. They are Derek Brown, Ron Kingston and Bob Rohleder.

During 1999 it became apparent that the remote transceiver at White Rock and the associated UHF link equipment should be modernised to improve the listening capability for weak signals and also to allow the connection of the system to the telephone system. The decision was made in October 1999 to spend a considerable sum on a new Codan 9323 Single Sideband radio for the White Rock station and also buy the remote control equipment that had to be associated with it at Marley's Hill and at our town base at White Signs in Montreal Street. This proved to be a major project with a total expenditure of over $50,000 but the result has been a very fine system capable of receiving and transmitting over the majority of the South Island. We have had over 18 months of good service from the system and the improvement in performance over the earlier Codan 7727 (1975 model) is significant.

A telephone interconnect unit located at Montreal Street allows radio users to be patched through to telephone numbers anywhere and also the base station operators to access the mountain radio base system from any telephone. This was first used last year when a tramping party at the head of the Landsborough River were blown out of their tents and had to escape to the shelter of a bivvy rock. From there they called IB Base and were put in direct contact with the Police at Haast by telephone, who organised their rescue by helicopter. An ongoing extension to this system will be the connection of a Tone Alert system to the mountain radios that will be fitted with this feature once the development is complete.

In order to better serve the growing number of radios in the southern area of the country i.e. and Mt Aspiring area, Fiordland and Stewart Island, a remotely accessed transceiver was installed near Glenorchy in April 2001. This is proving to be extremely useful and also offers a backup to the Canterbury based system.

The cost to hirers has always been of prime concern and weekly charges to mountain club parties are still only $35 per week. This is still very reasonable considering the service provided and the capital cost of equipment.

In the 36 years or so since Vern Lill first experimented with lightweight radios in the mountains, the Canterbury Mountain Radio Service through the initial assistance of the two clubs and the Lion's Club, has grown from a humble but positive beginning in 1967 to the well respected and technically excellent system in 2001. The future and character of the Service will be assured as long as the enthusiasm of its members, the support of the clubs and the public is maintained.

October 2001

Mountain Radio Group AGM (1996)

(L-R back) Kath Varcoe, Paul White, Brian Pattrick, Ian Gardiner, Nowell Syme, Geff Harrow, Bob Rohleder,Alan Hepburn, Paul Hewson, Ron Kingston, Derek Brown, Graham Jonstone.

Front: Kerrie O'Neill, Sam Meldrum, Dave Shelton, Brian Holland Vern Lill, Deryck Morse, LindaHewson.

Macaulay Hut Canterbury Mountain Radio Set

Southland Field Radio

The history of the...

Southland Field Radio Service”