Interviews: Norman Vaughan, Explorer

Norman Vaughn reflected in his pickup truck's side mirror in Trapper Creek, Alaska, 1999.

Norman Vaughn reflected in his pickup truck's side mirror in Trapper Creek, Alaska, 1999. Morton Beebe/CORBIS hide caption

itoggle caption Morton Beebe/CORBIS

Editor's Note: Vaughan died on Dec. 23, 2005, just four days after his 100th birthday.

Adventurer Norman Vaughan, the last surviving member of Admiral Richard Byrd's 1928 expedition to the South Pole, turns 100 years old Monday. Just 11 years ago, Vaughan revisited Antarctica to summit the 10,000-foot peak Bryd named after him.

Vaughan was born in 1905, when Theodore Roosevelt was president and polar exploration was front-page news. At the age of 21, Vaughan saw the headline "Byrd to the South Pole" and decided he had to go, too.

Vaughan's assets were his desire and his self-taught skills with handling dogs. He won a place on the expedition, and a huge responsibility: moving 650 tons of supplies by dog sled to a base camp where Byrd would launch his attempt to be the first to fly over the Pole.

"I was nothing but a kid in college, it was marvelous," he says.

Vaughan started then to dream big and dare to fail — his motto to this day — as he recounted in a 1998 interview with NPR's Peter Breslow. "I have failed a lot of times — but when I fail, I try to come back and get a better way of doing the same thing."

In 1930, Byrd named a peak after three of the dog handlers on the expedition. Since then, Vaughan's biggest dream was to climb his namesake mountain. "For 65 years, I dreamed of going back — and on the 65th year, I made it."

To climb his peak, Vaughan again risked failure. He was a musher, not a climber, and an old man, with financial and physical challenges. The National Geographic Society film Height of Courage documented his training and the first attempt at the summit. It would take three separate attempts before he reached the peak.

But now his biggest challenge may lie ahead of him. This past week, Vaughan was admitted to an Anchorage hospital for heart surgery. Even now, however, he is dreaming of his next expedition.

"He's is a man who does not linger in disappointments," says Elizabeth Arnold. "One hundred years and a triple bypass doesn't appear to stand in the way of his next challenge — he says he's planning an expedition in the coming year, this time to the North Pole."

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