Life on Purpose book cover

Born to Run With the Dogs

The occasion, hosted by his wife, Carolyn, was held at the bottom of the world and on top of a mountain named for Vaughan by Admiral Bryd when the two men shared another expedition to the frozen wasteland of Antartica, some 65 years before. Vaughan has been itching to get back to Antartica to climb his mountain ever since. Some dreams take longer to fulfill than others.

At 89, Norman Vaughan has led a life of adventure most of us can only dream about. His escapades began in 1927 when he dropped out of Harvard to accompany Admiral Bryd on this trek to the South Pole. Since then, he has competed in the first demonstration dogsled race in the 1932 Winter Olympics, recovered one of the Allied Forces top secret instruments, a Norden bombsight, from under the German’s noses during World War II, and competed in his first Iditarod at the age of 70. (He’s entered 12 more since then.) Through it all, there’s been a line of strong willed, well-muscled northern sled dogs leading the way.

It was an exciting evening back in 1927 when Vaughan read the banner headlines in the evening newspaper, BYRD TO THE SOUTH POLE. Vaughan turned to his college roommates and proclaimed his intention to accompany the famous explorer on the expedition. Of course, his roommates thought he was crazy but little did they realize how determined Vaughan could be. Before the dust had settled, not only had Vaughan finagled his way on Bryd’s team but he’d convinced his two college pals to accompany him.

Much to his parents dismay, Vaughan told Bryd he would leave Harvard to work with him for a year for free. Bryd accepted the offer and for the next year Vaughan worked at a nearby inn as a butler while driving and training Bryd’s 97 dogs. The three Harvard dropouts, who had promised themselves they would return to college if their gamble with Bryd did not pan out, then accompanied the explorer on the 1300-mile, 77-day expedition to the South Pole. None of the “three muskateers,” as they were called by Bryd, ever returned to college after the expedition.

For Vaughan, the expedition was only the beginning of a remarkable life. His next big adventure was in 1932, when he competed in the Winter Olympics, placing 10th in the dogsled demonstration race. Life quieted down after that for Vaughan until America entered World War II. He joined the Army as part of the search-and-rescue division, where again, his experience with sled dogs paid off in a big way.

The year was 1942. Six P-38 fighter planes and a pair of B-17 bombers ran out of fuel and crashed off the southeast shoreline on the world’s largest ice sheet of Greenland. When Vaughan first proposed to the Air Force that the 26 crew members of the downed planes be rescued by dogsled, the Air Force brass laughed, but after further consideration agreed to the rescue attempt. Vaughan coordinated the expedition which was the largest successful rescue of airmen in World War II.

But the drama along the Greenland glacier was far from over. Immediately following the rescue, the Air Force realized they would need Vaughan and his dogsled team once again to recover one of the Allied Forces greatest secrets of the war — a Norden bombsight. This top-secret device allowed the Allied bombers to fly at night above flack and without fighter interference and was highly coveted by the Germans. Although one of the bombardiers of the B-17 successfully followed orders and destroyed his bombsight, the other one had not, leaving behind a prize which could redirect the war tremendously if it fell into the German’s hands. Under the eyes of the German’s U-boats which cruised along the shallow shores of Greenland, Vaughan slipped in with his team of sled dogs, disguised as a trapper, and recovered the bombsight which was later returned to the war effort.

Since 1981, and for 12 seasons, Vaughan has returned to the site of his WWII drama in an effort to recover one or more of the downed planes which now lay some 256 feet below the glacial ice. Nine years after starting the project, Vaughan’s team melted a 42-inch shaft through the ice with hot-water hoses and reached one of the bombers which was unfit to fly. In 1992, they returned and recovered one of the P-38s from its 226 feet deep icy grave. The plane, which Vaughan estimates is worth 1.5 million dollars, is currently in Kentucky being re-assembled to fly again.

After his valiant efforts in World War II, Vaughan resigned from the Air Force to enter business. “Not a very good move on my part,” Vaughan claims. He traveled to Alaska in 1952 to bring the first dog team from the United States to race in the North American Championships. “I was the first one,” notes Vaughan, “Now it’s an every day occurrence.” At the time though, it was unbelievable that someone could raise a team in the United States and yet compete in the world championship.

Vaughan eventually settled in Anchorage, Alaska where he’s lived for the last twenty-plus years. In 1958, still longing for adventure, he changed modes of transportation for a short time. Having become a snowmobile dealer, he drove, not a sled of dogs, but a snowmobile from the Arctic Circle to Boston. The snowmobile business was great until the early 70s, when two winters passed with no snow.

At 68 Vaughan found himself out of business and financially broke although hardly broken in spirit. For a couple of years he floated from job to job, worked for a time on the Alaska pipeline until he got a job at the University of Alaska where his luck started to change.

In 1976, at an age when most people would consider their life of adventure to be over, Vaughan entered his first Iditarod, sponsored by students and faculty members from the university. All total he has entered the 1200-mile dogsled race 13 times, finishing it six times, most recently in 1990.

For the past two years Vaughan has been planning his biggest adventure yet — to return to Antarctica, ski and dogsled over much of the same trail of 1929, then take a side trip to a 10,302-foot mountain named after him by Colonel Bryd and there to celebrate his 88th birthday. It was to be the culmination of a 65-year old dream. Vaughan and his wife, Carolyn, were scheduled to leave the day after Thanksgiving in 1993, a day behind the first plane which carried their 20 dogs, dog handler, radio operator, and their team veterinarian, Dr. Jerry Vanek.

Unfortunately, they arose on Friday morning to the news that the first plane had crashed over six miles from where it had been scheduled to land.

Bad weather and icing of the plane caused the crash. Although all the dogs were safe, they had to be tethered to a picket line away from the plane to keep them away from fuel leaking from a ripped line. Unfortunately, during the rescue four dogs were lost as they wandered down wind from the snow machines which they had been following back to camp. Despite a 3 week search by snow machine, air, and with over 30 people on skis at one point looking for them, the four dogs were never found.

Dr. Vanek was the only person who suffered serious injuries when one of the props of the plane ripped through the fuselage where he sat, fracturing his leg and skull. Dr. Vanek was later flown back to the States where he is now recuperating.

Undaunted, the Vaughans and three others, booked a flight to the bottom of the world in January of 1994 to climb Mount Vaughan. Upon arrival, bad weather socked them in for sixteen days making it impossible for them to leave camp. By this time the season had ended and the Vaughans were forced to return to the United States.

“After having worked for so long and so hard and to finally be there and then to have two things beyond our control stop us,” says Carolyn Vaughan, “well, it was extremely disappointing.” Her voice brightens, “but we are going back to climb the mountain.” With such an undaunted spirit, it was inevitable that the two Vaughan’s would find a way to return to Antartica, which they did last December, accompanied by mountaineering professional, Vernon Tejas, who has climbed Mount Everest, and Larry Engel, who was the producer and cameraman filming the ascent for “National Geographic Explorer.”

Due to a fused ankle and a replaced knee on his right leg, Vaughan, was forced to scale the 10,302 foot mountain, climbing straight up rather than the customary zig-zag ascent. Tejas led most of the way, cutting 7,128 steps in the snow and ice for Vaughan, but as they neared the summit, Vaughan took the lead. At the summit, he shouted his creed to the rest of the world, “Dream big and dare to fail.”

Before starting the descent, Carolyn had prepared a surprise birthday celebration. Telling him she had brought a birthday cake, she pulled 89 sparklers from her backpack. They stuck the sparklers into the snow and lit them. Mount Vaughan became a huge birthday cake for its namesake; mother nature provided the snowy icing.

by W. Bradford Swift