Norman D. Vaughan

Norman D. Vaughan (Courtesy of Norman D. Vaughan)

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."