Peak performance

An unrelenting wind howls over the mountain’s uppermost ridge as Tom Mullikin trudges toward the summit, sleet pellets striking his goggles in the -30 degrees cold.

There’s little room for error on Mt. Elbrus, southern Russia’s 18,510-foot peak, one of the world’s Seven Summits. Mullikin, his son, Thomas, and a Russian guide follow the narrow beams of their headlamps as they shuffle upward in the predawn darkness — they must reach the top by early morning to descend safely before nightfall.

“You’re climbing on a ridge where it’s a long way down on either side,” Mullikin says. “Summit day is very steep, it’s the hardest part of the mountain, but you get unbelievable views — it’s very much a religious experience.”

And it’s a dangerous pursuit, too. Wind gusts blew a pair of American hikers off the side of Aconcagua the same day Mullikin and his son climbed that 23,000-foot Argentinian peak. But Mullikin is driven to keep climbing — no small feat for a man who doctors said would never walk.

Best foot forward

Mullikin has SCUBA dived in each of the world’s five oceans — under the ice in the Arctic and Antarctic — and planted the S.C. flag on four of the Seven Summits (he could become the first person to dive the five and climb all seven). In keeping with his law firm’s focus on corporate environmental, health and safety issues, and his own keen interest in the environment, he has also hiked active volcanoes and melting glaciers and explored pristine and polluted places on every continent.

If that weren’t enough proof of his prowess, Mullikin has a karate black belt, has qualified as an Army master fitness trainer and serves as a volunteer rescue diver.

“His lifestyle would tax a 20-year-old,” says W. Thomas Smith Jr., one of Mullikin’s close friends. “A fit 20-year-old.”

But this kind of swashbuckling, globetrotting life was never supposed to happen. Mullikin was born in 1960 with two club feet pointed backwards, toes touching calves. The initial prognosis was that he’d never walk. But surgeries turned the feet around, and perseverance and his parents’ tough love propelled young Mullikin forward.

“Tom’s parents never let him use the fact that he was born with club feet as an excuse,” says Virginia Ann, his wife of 34 years. “They always told him he could do anything he set his mind to — and he believed it.”

That parental support played a large role in shaping Mullikin’s character. The family moved frequently, following Mullikin’s dad to several DuPont industrial plants. Some kids might have been daunted by the near-constant transition — seven different schools by the time the Mullikins landed in Camden, S.C. — but not Tom.

“He was always so confident. He’d walk into a school on the first day like he owned it,” says Mary Pat Kornegay, his twin sister. “I’d be hanging onto his shirttails for confidence.”

Making the grade

Mullikin was a straight-A student at Camden High School, playing tennis and always working a part-time job or two. He started Carolina in 1978 with his sights set on medical school, excelling in organic chemistry and math courses and paying his own way as a State House page and an intern in U.S. Sen. Ernest Hollings’ Columbia office.

His never-met-a-stranger personality proved more than merely charming. While working in Columbia’s federal building, Mullikin reached out to a suicidal man who was about to leap from the building’s 15th floor. A legislative resolution later commended Mullikin’s “quick reflexes and soothing manner” in helping to pull the individual to safety.

Though he was putting in 40 hours a week and signed up for a full slate of classes, Mullikin also found time to serve as president of his fraternity and keep an eye on Mary Pat, who didn’t quite share her brother’s enthusiasm for academics. “He had my schedule taped on his wall,” she says. “He knew I had to be up and he’d make sure I went to my 8 o’clock classes.”

While he remained interested in medicine, Mullikin’s work with Sen. Hollings steered him toward environmental issues, and he graduated in 1982 with a degree in political science. By 1986 he had completed a law degree from Carolina and joined the staff of then-U.S. Sen. Al Gore. He later began to practice at a large firm in Charlotte where he tackled complex environmental problems.

“My team had engineers and scientists. We produced two documentaries on climate change,” he says. “I’ve met with the scientists who study these things, but I’m not getting my information only from someone else’s lens. I go to the places where climate change is happening now — that’s what has led me into climbing and diving.”

Years later, Mullikin opened his own environmental and health focused firm in Camden. His clients have included a London-based hotel chain that wanted to become more energy and water efficient. His environmental support helped them earn a reputation for sustainable business practices.

The environment is not a partisan issue. I’ve tried to bring people with very different perspectives and, with the help of field scientists, give participants a close-up look at what’s happening on the ground.”

Tom Mullikin, '82 political science, '86 law

Mullikin advised another client, a large manufacturer, to plant 30,000 trees to offset its carbon footprint. “We also did rainwater collection at the plant powered with solar and used solar on some of the administrative buildings,” he says. “If you can advise businesses how to take steps toward environmental sustainability that can be achieved at a reasonable cost and in an economically sustainable manner, they’re all over it.”

A company that recycles solvents sought Mullikin’s assistance in getting operational permits for its plant in a troubled south-central Los Angeles neighborhood. The firm was up against stiff neighborhood opposition, and the company was prepared to spend millions to navigate what was shaping up to be a contentious process.

Mullikin started knocking on doors and began working with neighborhood organizers to create a collaborative model, he says. The company had been hiring contract employees — none of whom lived in the surrounding neigh­borhoods — “so we started a training program that created good technical jobs for nearly 75 neighborhood residents. We found a way to get the community to embrace that company.”

An eco adventure

Mullikin has done that rare thing in life, combining his passion with business. That drive to understand the global environment and help corporate clients adopt sustainable practices has taken him around the world — and he wants others to go, too.

That’s why he, Virginia Ann and daughter Alex founded Global Eco Adventures. The nonprofit provides opportunities for lawyers, industry representatives, students and environ­mentalists to travel to fragile ecosystems such as Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands and the Namib desert. The trips are occasionally offered as continuing legal education courses; others are fact-finding missions for those who want to better understand the causes and effects of climate change.

“The environment is not a partisan issue,” Mullikin says. “I’ve tried to bring people with very different perspectives and, with the help of field scientists, give participants a close-up look at what’s happening on the ground.”

A separate component for teens and preteens involves science exploration in Congaree National Park and a hike to the top of Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina. The nonprofit has also supported scientific research, such as an East Coast shark migration study.

Mullikin’s burgeoning reputation as an extreme explorer recently came across National Geographic’s radar, and that venerable institution has invited him to begin leading trips to places like Alaska’s Denali peak.

“I enjoy teaching,” says Mullikin, who serves as a research professor at Coastal Carolina University, “especially when the classroom is the outdoors.”

Saving the Amazon

Mullikin’s world travels have taken him to places of nearly indescribable beauty and some places he would rather forget — but can’t.

One is in Ecuador, not far from the Amazon River, where a North American oil firm left behind a mind-boggling mess of tar pits and other refuse that is threatening the environment and human lives, Mullikin says.

“This is something I’ve dedicated my business to solving because it weighs on me,” Mullikin says. “If I don’t do it, I don’t see anyone else who is going to do it. There is a multi-billion dollar judgment and millions in legal fees that, quite frankly, have spawned a sense of inertia. But something has to be done.”

One of Mullikin’s personal maxims states, “Identifiable tasks with identifiable goals will lead to identifiable progress.” Toward that end, he is working to bring his firm’s technical and legal resources to the table, partnering with a South American university and its academic research capabilities. The hope is to use best practices from other large environmental remediation sites to break down hydrocarbon pollutants stored in huge open pits before they seep into the Amazon.

“What I saw will stay with me — some things you just can’t unsee,” he says. “If it was easy, someone would already have cleaned it up, but if we work collaboratively, we can do it. I know we can.”

Learn more

This story appears in the Winter 2017 issue of Carolinian magazine. Visit the My Carolina Alumni Association website to learn how you can get Carolinian delivered to your door three times a year.