Explorer extraordinaire

Special to The Times

IT'S just another Monday taping of "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno" at NBC Studios in Burbank.

Only the Ohio tourists and Valley groupies filing into Studio 3 for an hour of yuks with Leno don't know it yet, but they are about to come face to face with a time traveler from the early 20th century era of exploration.

"We've got Norman Vaughan with us tonight!" pipes Leno, warming up an audience that can't quite place the name. "This man, ladies and gentlemen, is a living legend. He's the last surviving member of the 1928 Adm. Byrd expedition to Antarctica."

Adm. Byrd? That name doesn't ring a bell either with this crowd. No matter. In a few minutes, Vaughan will steal the show — just for being who he is, for doing what he does and, mainly, for what he intends to do Dec. 19 when he turns 100.

Seated on Leno's couch, Vaughan looks like St. Nick in brown slacks. He's all whiskers, smiles and Alaska-by-way-of-Boston outspokenness. He's brought along his favorite pair of polar bear mittens for the occasion. They're enormous. They've seen a lot, including 70-below weather on the bottom of the world nearly eight decades ago.

And so has Vaughan, a storyteller lucid enough to fill up several eight-minute segments of the show. It's a quantum leap from being Adm. Richard E. Byrd's chief sled-dog driver to Hollywood talk show fodder, but Vaughan bridges the gap breezily with discussion of his birthday celebration.

On Dec. 19, Vaughan plans to summit Mt. Vaughan, a 10,302-foot mountain in Antarctica that Byrd named for him. Nevermind that he gets around in a wheelchair and will be hauled to the top by six guides — if he makes it, it will be only the second time this desolate peak in the Transantarctic Mountains, 240 miles from the South Pole on the edge of the Ross Ice Shelf, will have been scaled.

The first recorded summiting occurred 11 years ago. The climber was Vaughan — three days before his 89th birthday. The climb, documented in a 1994 National Geographic film "The Height of Courage," took him eight days.

"For an average mountaineer, it would have been a day climb," says Gordon Wiltsie, a longtime expedition photographer and mountain guide who led the summit quest. "But Norman had a knee replacement, serious ankle problems, had never climbed a mountain before and was almost 90 years old. He was slow but very strong — and incredibly strong-willed. He just had this huge supply of willpower, confidence and mental fortitude. I was amazed."

In a world full of explorers challenging every natural barrier between the Poles, Vaughan is still busy conquering the toughest one of all: the age barrier. The Anchorage-based dog-sledding hall of famer has led a life full of odds-defying adventures, starting with a decision to drop out of Harvard and mush dogs in Antarctica for Byrd during the famed explorer-aviator's 1928-30 Antarctic expedition and successful flyover of the South Pole. Vaughan continued to make his mark over the last three decades by defying (or redefining) what it means (or doesn't have to mean) to be 70, 80, 90 or 100 years old.

"Just keep going," advises Vaughan backstage in his "Tonight Show" dressing room last month, his eyes sparkling, his beard a hard-earned silver, his Boston accent weathered by nearly 30 years in Alaska.

He hands over a business card, before adding, "And if you fail, you can just keep trying over and over again until you succeed."

Vaughan's card neatly summarizes this never-say-die philosophy. On the front: his beaming face in a parka hood with the motto "Dream Big and Dare to Fail." On the back: an abridged list of walk-the-talk credentials spanning eight decades. A few highlights:

•  1932 Winter Olympics: dog driver.

•  WWII Air Force Search & Rescue, North Atlantic: Took 209 sled dogs, 17 drivers to the Battle of the Bulge.

•  1967: Drove a snowmobile 5,000 miles from Alaska to Boston.

•  1981: Gave Pope John Paul II a dogsled ride.

Vaughan also entered 13 — and completed six — Iditarods, Alaska's annual 1,150-mile sled dog race. Incredibly, he ran his first one at age 72, shortly after moving to Alaska. Before finishing his last Iditarod in 1990 at age 84 and being inducted into the Musher's Hall of Fame, Vaughan had dared to fail on more than one occasion.

"I had so many misadventures," he says. "Once, I got lost, really lost, and froze both my legs. Another time my sled crashed, fell on top of me and cracked six of my ribs. It was 30-below and it took 30 hours before anyone could come and evacuate me."

This happened when he was 80.

Vaughan's passion for mushing came early in life from reading tales about childhood heroes and explorers Roald Amundson, Robert Peary and Sir Robert Falcon Scott while growing up in Salem, Mass. — no place for a boy obsessed with mushing dogs. Soon enough, he would get his big break.

"I noticed a front-page headline on the Boston Transcript that Byrd was going to the South Pole and that he was going to have dogs with him," says Vaughan. "I went straight to his house on Beacon Hill to volunteer as an unpaid dog driver and got turned away by a buxom maid. I would've tried the back door but figured she'd be waiting for me there too."

Instead, Vaughan tracked down the journalist who had penned the newspaper article and convinced him to relay his offer to Byrd, who took him up on it. The expedition leader would end up so indebted to his chief dog driver that he named a mountain in his honor.

"He wanted to give me cash," Vaughan says, "but he didn't have any. So he gave me a mountain instead."

Later Byrd tried to dissuade young Vaughan from taking up a life of adventure and exploring. "He told me there was no money in it and that I would be much better off going into business instead," recalls Vaughan. "But I said to him, 'Well, it's such an honor having a mountain named after me that I think I'll go down and climb it.' And then Byrd said to me very dryly, 'I suppose you will.' "

Vaughan's dream to climb Mt. Vaughan sat on the to-do list for the next six and a half decades before he got his shot. After a false start in 1993 — during which he and his crew suffered major setbacks, including last-minute funding problems, expedition-wrecking weather and a plane crash — Vaughan persevered the next year. He fought off exhaustion, snow-blindness and wear and tear on 88-year-old legs to become the first man to conquer his namesake peak on Dec. 16, 1994.

Expedition leader Wiltsie says Vaughan's toughness held the key to their success.

"Norman was a real trouper and virtually unstoppable, but he did end up collapsing and briefly passing out on the summit. It was pretty alarming, and we were all very concerned about him. We ended up camping right there on the summit that night. Getting him down was a little hairy because he was so exhausted."

The toughest part of Mt. Vaughan is a knife-edge ridge along the peak's first 1,500 feet, wide enough only for a pair of boots and an ice ax. On either side are deep crevasses. Vaughan, who uses a wheelchair to get around, plans to be hauled to the top by six guides pulling a specially designed sled on a fixed rope. He plans to assist by pressing forward with ski poles.

"I have nothing but good wishes for them," says Wiltsie, "but I am concerned about it. He's turning 100, and it's obviously going to be a major undertaking; the responsibility on the guides is going to be enormous. But if they're strong and safe — and if they make good anchors and have a good hauling system — I guess there's no reason why they can't get to the top."

The centennial expedition to Mt. Vaughan comes with an estimated $1.5-million price tag. Vaughan and his wife and longtime expedition partner, Carolyn Muegge-Vaughan, 62, are still busy raising money.

"The biggest challenge in planning a climb like this isn't the climb itself, but the funding," says Carolyn. "We have been planning for two years, but not aggressively until this year. Norman is, after all, 99 years old, and we wanted to be sure that he continued to be healthy and able to make the journey, which he is. The lion's share of the costs are the airplane and the fuel."

The Vaughans have been approaching oil companies, pharmaceutical companies, credit card companies, insurance companies, cruise lines, even a champagne company. Why a champagne company? Vaughan, who says he's never had a drink in his life, plans to have his first sip of champagne at the top of the peak on his birthday. Following that toast, he plans to visit the North Pole in April — traveling the last mile by dogsled.

"The topic of 'overcoming odds' is something a lot of explorers are now doing motivational talks about," says Rebecca Martin, director of the National Geographic Expeditions Council. "And Norman Vaughan is one of these grandfatherly figures who just embodies this theme. He makes a decision, sets himself these incredible goals, and it keeps him going. If you run your life that way, look what you can accomplish."

A few years ago, Martin says, he wowed the crowd at an Explorers Club dinner and received a standing ovation — not just for what he said, but for what he has done with his extraordinary life.

On the Leno show, Vaughan scores another standing ovation. Not just for what he says but for the inspirational model he has become.

"So you were born in 1905. It's 2005. How d'ya feel?" asks Leno.

"I feel like I did in 1905," says Norman Vaughan. "I'm hungry!"

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