Instead of having Christmas dinner with his family in Camden, Thomas Mullikin was on another continent with his head in the clouds — 22,841 feet above South America.
It was the first Christmas he didn’t spend with his wife, Virginia Ann Mullikin. The couple, married for more than three decades, have been together on the holiday since they were in high school.
“I was in the dog house a little when we got back,” Mullikin says. “She said I took her son.”
Mullikin, a corporate energy and environmental attorney, scaled the Andes mountain range alongside their 24-year-old son, Thomas Jr. One of the Seven Summits, Aconcagua, in Argentina, is the highest peak in both the Western and Southern hemispheres.
Aconcagua, a mountain known as The White Sentinel, was once covered with glaciers. But the glacial ice has receded so much that Mullikin, his son and their guide didn’t see ice until they pierced the clouds at over 20,000 feet.
Climbers like Mullikin are fueled, in part, by the knowledge and thrill that one misstep while climbing at breath-stunting altitudes on glaciated rock at steep grades could be catastrophic.
A week after Mullikin left Argentina, two Americans died on the mountain. And on his own summit day, a member of another group had to be rescued.
“It really gets in your blood,” says Mullikin, 53.
Also in Mullikin’s blood: hot-button global warming issues. Mullikin says he was having discussions about climate change and carbon footprints with Al Gore in the ‘80s.
“When we first started talking about carbon, you couldn’t fill a phone booth with people interested,” he quips.
Mullikin recently went to Fiji, an island country in the South Pacific Ocean, to lead a contingent of attorneys consulting on a seabed mining law. In December, he will travel to Antarctica to teach a course on global climate change.
“I don’t view work and these outdoor activities as mutually exclusive,” says Mullikin, who’s also the environmental policy executive-in-residence at Coastal Carolina University.
An ultimate adventurer, Mullikin is one of a small group of people who have scuba dived in every ocean. He’s now summited the highest mountains on four continents, with three to go. He climbed Mount Elbrus in the Greater Caucasus Range last year. The range is near Sochi, site of 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.
Mullikin’s first climb was Mount Kilimanjaro in 2010. He had read the glaciers were receding, so he flew to Tanzania with a friend, arriving with a pair of Chuck Taylors and hiking shoes one would wear around a mountain town — not to climb 19,000 feet above sea level.
“I’ve learned a lot since I climbed the first one,” he says. “I didn’t have heavy gloves. I just had on thermal socks.”
Still, he made it to the top — despite the fact that Mullikin was born with severely deformed feet, and physicians said he’d never walk.
“That’s probably why I’m so hard-headed,” says Mullikin, who adds that all his shoes are specially made.
In June 2015, Mullikin will scale Mount Everest in the Himalayas, the highest peak in the world at 29,029 feet. Mullikin says he might do a waste collection program while there. Thomas Jr. will be with him.
Mullikin and Virginia Ann met in high school in 1976, when Mullikin’s father’s job relocated the family to Camden.
“I asked her to marry me when she was 16,” Mullikin recalls.
Besides Thomas Jr., the Mullikins have three daughters — Mary Elizabeth Van Horn, and Alex and Charlie Mullikin.
When Mullikin returned from South America, the inside of his nostrils were sunburned from the sun reflecting off the ice. The outside of his nose and his lips were wind-burned.
“The Christmas thing, she should’ve never let me do that,” Mullikin says in jest. “Think of all the skin I could’ve saved on my lips.”
The SCC is a column about interesting people in and around Columbia.
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