SAN FRANCISCO -- Sixty-five years after he became the first American to drive a dog team in Antarctica, Norman D. Vaughan is poised to become the last person to accomplish the feat.
Mr. Vaughan plans to spend Dec. 19 -- his 88th birthday -- atop Mount Norman Vaughan after mushing 500 miles across the Ross Ice Shelf. Admiral Richard E. Byrd named the 10,302-foot peak in his honor.
"There's nothing we're going to face that I can't do . . . ," Mr. Vaughan said this week. "I can do the normal kinds of things that are expected of me: drive a dog team, ski and mountain climb. But not with the ability that I had when I was 30."
The "normal kinds of things" he has achieved surpass the extraordinary. For example, Mr. Vaughan, who is from Alaska:
* Finished the 1,151-mile Iditarod sled dog race in 1990 at 84.
* Recovered, piece by piece, a P-38 airplane that crash-landed during
World War II on the Greenland ice cap. To do so, he had to be winched 268 feet down a 42-inch diameter hole.
Mr. Vaughan is one of two surviving members of Admiral Byrd's 1928-30 Antarctic expedition. Of the 120 members, 42 actually engaged in land operations.
"I can remember well the day that we stood on the edge of the ice and saw that boat disappear into the seasmoke going north and leaving us there," he said. "There was just no way for us ever to get out of the Ant
arctic. Today, of course, airplanes fly in at any time."
Byrd had a reputation for egotism and has been trashed by biographers, but not by Mr. Vaughan, who was a rambunctious, 22-year-old Harvard dropout when he signed on to drive Byrd's dog team.
"He is still my hero," Mr. Vaughan said. "He was a great leader and he never asked us to do anything he wouldn't do. I feel very obligated to him and very loyal to him for taking me on the expedition."
Mr. Vaughan still has the parachute Byrd used to drop food to his support team on the first trans-South Pole flight, a pair of Byrd's oversocks and a leather dog collar from the team he drove.
"This expedition is in my bones. I've wanted to go back for 65 years, following Byrd's footsteps, following the same course we ran in 1929," Mr. Vaughan said.
The two hickory sleds his $1.5 million expedition will take to the 7,000-foot level on his namesake mountain are just about identical to
those he drove for Byrd, except that they have plastic runners, Mr. Vaughan said.
Mr. Vaughan's team includes his wife, Carolyn, a brace of world-class mountaineers, a winter survival specialist and a physician. Because he has an artificial knee and a fused ankle, Mr. Vaughan figures to spend some of his time riding the dogsled.
Mr. Vaughan is almost certain to be the last to ride a dog sled in Antarctica because an international treaty bans dogs from the continent after April 1, 1994.