Appalachian Trail Challenge Team: 8 April 1978
8 April 1978 – Bruce Hagy, Director of the School For Human Development, presides over the ceremony at the start of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia. The Challenge Team is ready.
The Appalachian Trail is the longest continuous marked footpath in the world. It extends for 2,050 miles from Springer Mountain, Georgia, to Mt. Katadhin, Maine, passing through fourteen states. Only a few people had successfully hiked the entire trail. A much smaller number yet had trekked the vast stretch as a group.
In 1978, 1,500 people intended to hike the trail from end to end. Only eighty individuals succeeded and only one group. That group consisted of eight members of The Institutes’ School for Human Development. The Challenge Team consisted of six senior students, all with severe neurological problems, and two members of our staff.
On this day 43 years ago April 8, 1978, the Challenge Team set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia.
As the Staff tells us “The first month on the Trail could not have been more difficult. We began hiking in 90 degrees of heat. Within two weeks, the temperature dropped down to 19 degrees . We got caught in a blizzard in North Carolina. We walked for days on end in pouring rain, slipping down muddy mountain paths, sleeping in muddy tents, eating cold, rain-soaked food. And yet we went on.
It is amazing how one day of sun in the midst of a week of rain can somehow make you forget completely about how wet and uncomfortable you were. Or seeing one of the students accomplish something he had never done before can make all the aches and pains go away.”
With 40 lbs on their backs and 1, 500 miles still to hike the students face each day and every challenge with a smile. Incredible.
“In late April, Dr. Ralph Pelligra, medical director of Ames Research Center NASA/Ames, Moffett Field, California, and his son, Sam, joined the Challenge Team for three days in the Great Smokey Mountains of North Carolina and Tennessee. The first day out we encountered a half-foot of snow at about 4,000 feet. It was to stay snowy and cold for three days.”
Intellectual Excellence: The students studied thousands of flora and fauna before their trip during the hike they observed and recorded what they saw.
“The days blended into weeks and the weeks into months. Signs of spring became more and more apparent, and with those signs came renewed life and determination to keep pushing until we had reached our goal.”
“On June 24, 1978, the Appalachian Trail Challenge Team was honored at the The Appalachian Trail Conference Headquarters in Harpers Ferry, Virginia, for successfully completing half of the Trail.”
Every night a new place to make camp and rest
“Two days later we headed north again and soon we were in Pennsylvania and not far from The Institutes. The very young students of the Evan Thomas Institute, their parents, and the Staff met us, and we hiked together the next day for more than two miles over pretty rocky terrain. No doubt these young children will someday walk the whole trail!”
“Spring blended into summer and with summer came intense heat and humidity. Hiking became harder and harder. But the students with their incredible determination pushed on no matter how hard it got…New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine.”
“Friday, September 15, 1978. This was the day we had all been waiting for. Five months and one week ago we stood on top of Springer Mountain in Georgia and Mt. Katahdin was only a dream. A fleeting dream at that. And now it was right in front of us – as big and real as life itself.”
Every day the trail presented its challenges – no two days were ever the same.
“The final day was quite properly a combination of the most adverse conditions that the Team had encountered in five months of hiking. It was raining hard. Winds on the summit were estimated at 50 to 60 miles per hour. It was very foggy. It was cold. Most of the trails to the top were closed. The Appalachian Trail was open but it was recommended that all hiking stop at the tree line.
Treacherous conditions persisted – they were so close but not quite there.
We decided to go.
There were thirteen of us for the final assault, including Hank Lautz and Susan Schmidt of the The Appalachian Trail Conference, and a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.
When we reached the tree line, we abandoned our backpacks. The winds were simply too strong. We pushed on ever so slowly.
Hiking? More like rock climbing
To say that there is a trail to Baxter Peak, the summit of Mt. Katahdin, would be a big mistake. It is nothing more than a jumble of gigantic boulders with white blazes to point the way. It was the toughest mountain yet.
At exactly 1:36 pm on September 15, 1978 the Appalachian Trail Challenge Team reached the summit of Mt. Katahdin.
We hugged one another, laughed, cried, took pictures…all in about five minutes since it was so bitter cold and so windy and we were so wet. We still had the problem of getting off the mountain before darkness fell.
Well, we did make it.
Without question, the last day was the finest day of the entire 162 days of the Trail. It demanded that each member of the Team be capable of putting together everything he or she had learned in the previous five months. Each member of the Team did so, and each member of the Team succeeded.
September 15, 1978, should be recorded as an important day in history…it showed beyond any doubt that a handful of young adults, each of whom had had physical, intellectual, and social problems, were able, with strong support and direction, to overcome these problems to a degree beyond that which most people ever attempt or achieve.
On September 16, 1978, the Team was honored at a ceremony at the foot of Mt. Katahdin, and decorated for heroism in the face of the elements of nature.”
On this day 43 years ago April 8, 1978, the Challenge Team set out from Springer Mountain, Georgia. One hundred and sixty-two days later the Challenge team stood a top Mt Katahdin in Maine having completed all 2,050 miles of the legendary Appalachian Trail. They were the second group in the history of the trail to do so and six of their members were brain-injured.
We salute the Challenge Team today and every day. What an amazing and inspiring feat proving once again that when brain-injured youngsters are given a fighting chance they can do the impossible.