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Interviews: Norman Vaughan, Explorer

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Interviews: Norman Vaughan, Explorer

Radio Expeditions

Interviews: Norman Vaughan, Explorer

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Adventurer Norman Vaughan turns 100 years old today. He is the last living member of Admiral Richard Byrd's 1928 expedition to the South Pole. Vaughan visited Antarctica more recently, 11 years ago at the age of 89, and climbed to the summit of the 10,000-foot peak that Byrd named after him. Elizabeth Arnold visited Vaughan for this National Geographic Radio Expeditions interview.

Unidentified Woman: We're going to light the candles here for his cake. You guys light the candles there for your cake. We'll blow it all out together, and then we'll have a little bit of a champagne toast.


With family and friends, mushers and climbers, here in Alaska and by satellite hook-up in Telluride, Colorado, Norman Vaughan celebrated a century this past weekend and had his first sip ever of champagne.

Unidentified Woman: To Norman.

Group of People: (In unison) To Norman.

(Soundbite of cheering and applause)

ARNOLD: Norman 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 started then to dream big and dare to fail, his motto to this day, as he recounts in this 1998 interview with NPR's Peter Breslow.

(Soundbite of 1998 interview)

Mr. NORMAN VAUGHAN (Explorer): 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. And the first time that I can emphasize that might be when I went--when I read in the paper that Byrd was going, and the very next morning I was at his house trying to see him and the maid wouldn't let me get to see him. And I turned around and went down to the sidewalk to go back to college, I guess, when suddenly I thought, `How can I get in the back door?' So I think the greatest moment was right then, that I wasn't discouraged but it just hit me that I got to do this. And it's almost like a man jumping out of a plane. You've got to jump, you got to jump. And I felt I had to go on this expedition no matter what I did, and so that's how important it became to me at that moment.

ARNOLD: Vaughan's assets were his desire to go and his self-taught skill in handling dogs. He had left college once before to bring medical supplies by dog team to isolated villages in Labrador. His charge on this expedition was to move 650 tons of supplies by dogsled to a base camp where Byrd would launch his attempt to be the first to fly over the South Pole.

(Soundbite of 1998 interview)

Mr. VAUGHAN: Five minutes after we'd gotten to the ice--it was Christmas Day when we landed on the ice--Admiral Byrd called me and said, `Norman, harness your dog team and take me into the interior. We're going to pick out a site for our camp.' Well, I was thrilled to be asked to drive in there and take him in. And imagine the thrill I got that night when we put up our tents and I slept in the same tent with Admiral Byrd. I was nothing but a kid at college. And it was marvelous.

ARNOLD: After three months of hauling supplies and even the plane into the camp, Byrd asked Vaughan to run an advance team. He was to take the dog team 700 miles toward the pole to relay weather conditions and make an emergency landing strip. Vaughan says he'll never forget the sight of the plane flying overhead, and that thrill of adventure never waned. During World War II, Vaughan led more than 200 rescue dogs in the Battle of the Bulge. He raced a dog team in the 1932 Olympic Games. He's run the grueling 1,100-mile Iditarod race 13 times, the last one at the age of 84, winning a place in the Musher Hall of Fame.

But big dreams takes time, money and effort, and perhaps Vaughan's biggest dream was to climb his namesake mountain. In 1930, Byrd had named peaks after three dog handlers on the expedition.

(Soundbite of 1998 interview)

Mr. VAUGHAN: He called Goodale and Crockett and me together at his home and said, `I have--I want to thank you for the work you did in the Antarctica. I want to name a mountain for each of you.' And he chose three mountains right together, all about 10,000 feet high, and named them. And I thanked him by saying something like this: `Thank you, Admiral. I'm honored that you want to do this. I think it's great to have a mountain named after me. I've got to go down and climb it someday.' And he smiled and said, `I bet you will,' and that just keyed it right there. And for 65 years, I dreamed of going back, and on the 65th year I made it.

ARNOLD: But to do so, Vaughan stared failure right in the face several times. A musher, not a climber, and an older man, not a college kid, Vaughan had to overcome not only financial and logistical challenges, but physical. Documented in the National Geographic film "Height of Courage," at the age of 86, Vaughan trained relentlessly, climbing stairwells with a pack in his heavy boots.

(Soundbite of "Height of Courage")

Mr. VAUGHAN: Step, lock weight. Step, lock weight.

ARNOLD: But his first attempt was unsuccessful for reasons other than physical. In a devastating blow to the team, the expedition's main supply aircraft crashed nine miles short of a runway. Vaughan scaled the expedition back and tried again with a smaller team, but storms prevented them from reaching the base of the mountain.

(Soundbite of "Height of Courage")

Mr. VAUGHAN: Things look bad on weather. We cannot fly the distances we need to fly to get to our mountain. We haven't much time left, over.

ARNOLD: Undeterred, two years later, Vaughan tried again. It took nine days to reach the top. With a fused ankle and a plastic knee at the age of 89, Vaughan summited his own mountain. Typically, he vowed to do it again at the age of 100.

This past week, however, Vaughan was admitted to an Anchorage hospital. Still, he rallied for his celebration with friends and family. In a black shammy shirt, sweatpants and down booties, he greeted well-wishers from a reclining chair like Santa Claus, with his white beard, a spark in his eye and a laugh at the ready. He's a man who doesn't linger in disappointments, and a 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; his indomitable spirit a present back to everyone who gathered around him this weekend.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Man: And all that's left now is two rooms full of people who want nothing more than to simply be in your presence and tell you that we love you and that we say thank you for carrying us in your sled bag all these years. Happy birthday, Norman.

Mr. VAUGHAN: Happy birthday to you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ARNOLD: Norman Vaughan, still dreaming big and daring to fail. For Radio Expeditions, I'm Elizabeth Arnold.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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