IT IS 9 A.M., AND NORMAN VAUGHAN IS IN ANCHORAGE’S Blondie’s Cafe negotiating an omelette the size of a snow-shoe. The Colonel, as he is called in Alaska, is tucked away in a booth. No matter. The tourists find him anyway.
“Colonel Vaughan, we’ve taken such heart from you,” says an elderly New Jersey man seeking an autograph. “I guess,” apologizes the man’s wife, “we’re the only ones who have the nerve to bother you.”
“Nerve!” booms the irrepressible Vaughan. ‘You don’t have to have nerve in Alaska! Everybody knows everybody in Alaska!”
Certainly everybody in Alaska knows Vaughan—ex-Air Force colonel, former Olympian and adventurer nonpareil, who may have more nerve than anybody in the 49th state. And in the Lower 48 too, for that matter. Seventeen years ago, at an age when many men are reduced to perambulating the mall, Vaughan entered his first Iditarod, the 1,160-mile trans-Alaska dogsled race that turns much younger mushers into mush. Since then he has competed in 12 more Iditarods, despite injuries that have left him with a plastic knee, a fused right ankle and a permanent limp.
Now Vaughan has set off on what even he admits could be a final adventure. He and his wife, Carolyn, 51, and four companions, plus two dog teams, have gone to Antarctica to climb a mountain—but not just any mountain. They will travel 500 miles across the frozen continent to make a first ascent of 10,302-foot Mount Vaughan, named for Norman by Adm. Richard Byrd; Vaughan had been the famed explorer’s chief dogsledder on his first Antarctic expedition (1928-30). If all goes well, the party will reach the mountaintop on Dec. 19, which is also Norman’s 88th birthday.
“In Antarctica all the cards are stacked against you,” says Vaughan. “There are crevasses, hurricane force winds, intense cold. When you’re up against nature, there are always problems, which is just the way I like it. If I die, I’ve told everybody to just leave me in the nearest crevasse.” He adds, smiling, “I’d be better preserved there than here.”
Like many adventurers who abandon comfort for hardship, Vaughan was reared in affluence. His father was a Boston tanner who made his fortune when he invented a process for dyeing women’s shoes. A reluctant schoolboy—first at Milton Academy, then Harvard—Vaughan preferred the books he read on his own. One, says Vaughan, “was about Eskimos and how they made harnesses and drove dogs.” It inspired Norman and pal Eddie Good-ale to hitch their own pooches up to a Flexible Flyer. “We thought all we had to do was say ‘Mush!’ and they would go,” says Vaughan. “But the dogs just ran back and licked our faces.”
In 1925, Vaughan, then 19, dropped out of college to work in Labrador with missionary Dr. Wilfred Grenfell, who tended the natives in the wilderness, and he became a dogsledder for real. Three years later Vaughan—whom Carolyn describes as a supersalesman as well as an eternal child—wangled his way onto Byrd’s expedition. “I had seen a banner headline in a Boston newspaper, ‘Byrd to the South Pole,’ ” says Vaughan, “and I knew I had to go.”
The two-year expedition, which Vaughan describes in his 1990 memoir, With Byrd at the Bottom of the World, was a formative experience. “It was living under grave pressure,” he wrote, and on any given day one might be required to kill one’s dogs simply to eat.
In 1931, Vaughan joined an advertising agency in Philadelphia as a junior account executive. He soon transferred to Boston, where he met and married Iris Rodey, a secretary, with whom he had a son, Gerard, now 55, and a retired Air Force pilot. Life should have been good. But Vaughan says he found his return to the world of getting and spending to be a “terrific letdown.” It was also hard on those around him. He was divorced from Iris after three years. (He would get married and divorced twice more—and sire a daughter, Jaqueline, now 51—before wedding Carolyn Muegge in 1987.)
In 1932, Vaughan competed in the Winter Olympics, placing 10th in the dogsled demonstration race. But life held little excitement for him until America entered World War II—-and he entered the Army Air Corps search-and-rescue division. In 1942, when six P-38 fighter planes and a pair of B-17 bombers were forced to land in Greenland, Major Vaughan and one of his buddies from the Byrd expedition, naval officer Freddie Crockett, drove dog teams 18 miles across the ice, recovering both the crew members and their Norden bombsights—lop-secret devices coveted by the Germans.
Vaughan managed to get into the Korean conflict as well. “Then, in 1955,” Vaughan says, “I resigned from the Air Force to enter business—not a very good move on my part.”
He sold chainsaws for a while, then heat-and-massage units, then snowmobiles. In the winter of 1958, still pining for adventure, he drove a snowmobile from the Arctic Circle to Boston. “Everything was great with the snowmobile business,” he says, “until the early ’70s, when we went two winters without snow.”
By 1974, Vaughan was broke. His third marriage was effectively over. He was 68. By any conventional measure, his life was unraveling. Was he depressed? Hardly. “I wasn’t going to throw myself out the window just because I was bankrupt,” he says. “I was looking forward to something I could do. I went to Alaska with $100 in my shoe.”
Arriving in Anchorage, he shoveled sidewalks in front of restaurants for food. He worked for a time on the Alaska pipeline. Then he got a job as a janitor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage—and caught a break. “I have always loved working with dogs,” he says, “and I had 16 of them living with me downtown, in a cellar on 7th Avenue.” In 1976, sponsored by students and staff at the university, Vaughan entered his first Iditarod. An Alaskan legend was in the making.
These days Vaughan lives with Carolyn in a log cabin in Trapper Creek, near Mount McKinley. He survives largely by his wits, scraping by on royalties from his book and personal appearances. “Norman is a dreamer,” says Carolyn. “Can’t is not in his vocabulary.”
Indeed there is a sense that Vaughan is even trying to rewrite the past. In 1934 he was supposed to return with Byrd for a second Antarctic expedition. But at the last minute Byrd, a notorious egotist, decided not to share the glory. Now Vaughan is getting that second trip.
That’s only part of it, of course. The other part is the dogs.
“Imagine that you’re going down this big hill, and you’re scared to death,” says Vaughan. “You’re driving 18 or 20 dogs with your voice alone. And they run for the love of you and of running itself. And you accomplish this deep pitch without tipping over. Can you imagine that? Can you? God, it’s a thrill!”