An extreme sports site usually means that we come across extreme sports personalities in almost every direction we look – and Colonel Norman D. Vaughan is no exception.
He had two main motto’s in life. The first was: DREAM BIG AND DARE TO FAIL and the other was YOU HAVEN’T FAILED UNTIL YOU QUIT. Two mottos that dictated the pace of his life.
I first came across his name when I discovered that he was the oldest person to have finished the Iditarod – the Last Great Race in the World… At the age of 68 he left California and moved to Alaska where he became a musher. But this was not his first encounter with dogs and sleds. In 1928-29 he was the dog driver on the Byrd Antarctic Expedition to the South Pole – a geological party which explored the mountains in the vicinity of the Hays Mountains in the Queen Maud Mountains in Antarctica and where Byrd named a mountain on the continent in his honor – Mount Vaughan. Later, Vaughan Glacier, a tributary glacier 10 nautical miles (18 km) long was also given his name.
Born in 1905 Norman D. Vaughan is a man from the last century – an early explorer, a keen musher, long-time polar adventurer, mountaineer and the oldest person to finish the Iditarod.
Fascinated by tales of early polar explorers such as Amundsen and Scott, Vaughan dropped out of Harvard in 1925 to join one of his heroes, Sir Wilfred Grenfell in Newfoundland, bringing medical supplies by dog sled to isolated villages. He went back to school but dropped out again when he heard about the Byrd Antarctic Expedition and was accepted as its dog musher. This expedition was to see the end of an era – the end of the early polar explorers who used dogs to help their exploration, and the beginning of the aviation era.
But in honour of his work as the dog musher, Bryd named a mountain after him and on 16th December, 1994, three days shy of his 89th birthday, Norman fulfilled a lifelong dream. He climbed his namesake, Mount Vaughan, a 3,048m (10,302′) Antarctic peak. National Geographic was there to capture the event and called the film: “Height of Courage, the Norman Vaughan Story”.
In 1932 he competed in the Winter Olympics on Lake Placid, New York when sprint mushing was first introduced as a demonstration sport.
During World War II, Vaughan was employed by U.S. Army Air Forces Search and Rescue as a dogsled driver, attaining the rank of colonel and engaging in many rescue missions in Greenland. He was also a veteran of the Korean War. His military feats are extraordinary:
- With 425 dogs under his command in WWII, trained men and dogs for daring rescues.
- Instigated the rescue by dog team of 26 air crew on the Greenland ice sheet, saving the fighter pilots and bombardiers of the Lost Squadron
- Under enemy eyes, returned solo by dog team to the crashed planes to salvage the top-secret Norden bombsight.
- Fifty years later, traveled to Greenland for 11 years to help salvage one Lost Squadron P-38 plane from its prison of ice.
- Persuaded top brass to risk a brilliant scheme to evacuate wounded soldiers by dog sled from the Battle of the Bulge with 209 dogs and 17 drivers.
- Served as Chief of Search and Rescue for the North Atlantic Division of the International Civil Aviation Organization, the air wing of the U.N.
- Served in the Psychological Warfare Department with the Pentagon in the Korean War.
In 1967 he drove a snowmobile 5,000 miles from Alaska to Boston.
And at the age of 68 he moved to Alaska to start a new life. He competed in 13 Iditarods running his first one at the age of 72. He completed 6 with his last finish being in 1990 at the age of 84.
He and his dogs gate-crashed President Carter’s inaugural parade and were invited to the following two.
He taught Pope John Paul II how to mush, and in 1997 he organized the annual 868-mile Serum Run from Nenana to Nome, Alaska which commemorates the 1925 dash to Nome by the fastest village dog teams to deliver diphtheria serum to save Nome.
In all this time he had never tasted alcohol. He promised his mother he would not drink until he was 100 and so in celebration of his 100th birthday he toasted the occasion with champagne surrounded by over 100 friends and family!
He died on 23rd December, 2005 – the end of an era and the end of an extraordinary man.