From Ocean Floors to Mountain Peaks

Tom Mullikin thrives on the seemingly impossible.

When Maj. Gen. Thomas Stowe “Tom” Mullikin took command of the all-volunteer South Carolina State Guard less than three years ago, he had a singular goal of taking the organization from, as he says, “Good, to great, to elite.” It was a lofty ambition for a new then-brigadier general at the helm of a somewhat-struggling military organization with few resources, a marginal mission and a less-than-stellar reputation at that time. 

But for Tom, it was the sort of ambitious undertaking that has defined his life’s work. It was also the kind of quest that has led him now, among other “lofty” pursuits, to be three mountains shy of a world record: that of becoming the first human to have climbed Earth’s seven great mountain summits and to have SCUBA-dived in all five oceans. 

Tom has already logged the dives, including ice dives in the Arctic and the Antarctic Oceans (he’s a certified polar diver), and he’s successfully climbed four of the seven great summits, including Mount Elbrus (the highest mountain in Europe), Mt. Kilimanjaro (the highest in Africa), Mt. Kosciuszko (the highest on the Australian mainland) and Argentina’s famed Mt. Aconcagua (the highest in both the Western and Southern Hemispheres).

His hopeful-record’s remaining mountains are McKinley (the highest in North America), Vinson (highest in Antarctica), and, finally, the 29,000-plus-foot man-killer, Everest.

“Daunting, but absolutely doable,” says 56-year-old Tom, who is often accompanied by his son, Thomas Mullikin Jr., who the elder Tom says is “pound for pound, one of the physically strongest, mentally toughest young men I’ve ever climbed with.”

Tom should know. He’s climbed with the best.

During a recent exploratory, conditioning and training excursion up, around and through a deep stretch of the unforgiving environs of Mt. McKinley (today best-known by its Native American name, Denali), Tom was accompanied by Thomas Jr. and two recently retired U.S. Army Special Forces operators with multiple combat deployments, one of whom has since become Tom’s hand-picked commander for the South Carolina State Guard’s relatively new mountain search-and-rescue team (one of three such State Guard teams including mountain, wilderness and swift-water rescue; all of which are the brainchild of the Guard’s commander).

“The team we took up Denali proved to be superb climbers and able to endure great physical hardship,” says Tom, “But Thomas Jr. was like a pack mule, able to hump more than twice his own weight, never complaining, always smiling, never quitting.”

“Navigating Denali has always been grueling work,” says Tom, who has ventured to the rugged Alaskan mountain range on more than one occasion. And it was deep inside a remote stretch of the Denali range that Tom and his team honed their search-and-rescue skills. “There’s an old saying that ‘the sharpest edge is made with a blunt whetstone,’” says Tom. “There is nothing blunter or more unforgiving than Denali.” But it’s not so much the challenges –– though challenges are always present on Tom’s mountain expeditions –– but the “near-spiritual experience” of being on top of the world that makes it such an unforgettable experience.

In the summer of 2012, Tom ventured to the Caucasus Mountain Range in Russia to climb Mt. Elbrus, a truly treacherous region in more ways than one.

“The Caucasus Mountains are the natural dividing line between Europe and Asia,” Tom says. “The dangers associated with the remoteness of where we were, the mountainous terrain and struggles with extreme cold and altitude were combined with ongoing threats –– at that time –– from Chechen and Georgian rebels and the risk of terrorist attacks on Russians and other foreign nationals in that part of the world.”

The risks were well worth the magnificence at the point of the summit. He and Thomas Jr. spent weeks in Russia prior to the summit to further condition and acclimate themselves before attempting the pinnacle of Elbrus. “In the wee hours of summit morning, shortly after midnight, we awoke to freezing temperatures. We shouldered our gear and began a slow ascent up into the pitch-black darkness. The higher we climbed, the more ferocious were the winds. The sub-zero temperatures plummeted down still further rapidly.”

As the wind and temperatures worsened, it began to sleet. “The sleet can best be described as slapping against our faces and bodies like shotgun pellets,” Tom adds. “There were times in the darkness that we believed the winds would force us to turn back.” The little band of mountaineers pushed onward. Then it happened — daybreak!

“It is impossible to describe the sun’s dramatic rise over the mountains there at the very ceiling of Europe,” Tom says.

Diving has also brought its own unique –– and equally challenging –– adventures. Sailing from Ushuaia, Argentina, the world’s southernmost city, for a SCUBA-diving adventure in Antarctica in November 2011, Tom and his team encountered terrific 45-foot sea walls. Upon arrival at the great ice continent, they boarded Zodiac boats in a blizzard and ventured out for a bit of ice diving.

“Beneath the ice, the water-temps were almost too cold to bear,” says Tom, who described the exposure of minus-4-degree water as something akin to feeling a frying pan on his face.

At one point while diving, Tom nearly experienced disaster. “As we dove deeper into
the ice, we looked above to see the ice closing in around us,” he says. “We had lost ourselves watching the penguins and seals swim around us.” The team made it to the surface, and thankfully the adventures continued.

“Tom Mullikin, and those like him who have climbed many of the world’s great summits, is a model of perseverance,” says retired U.S. Marine Maj. Gen. James E. Livingston, a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for combat valor.

Retired U.S. Navy Commander Richard Marcinko, the founder and first commanding officer of SEAL Team Six (aka DEVGRU) and the New York Times bestselling author of Rogue Warrior, agrees. “Men like Tom are the kind of men who push the envelope beyond normal human endurance to achieve life’s great summits,” he says.

What drives Tom? A desire to achieve the “seemingly impossible” to be sure, and he thrives on challenges. But, it’s also perhaps a striving to overcome. 

Though athletically fit today, when Tom was a small child, doctors told his family he’d never walk. He was born with severely deformed feet. But after a few successful surgeries and stalwart parents who refused to accept their son’s prognosis, he not only walked, but ran, played youth league and high school sports, earned a black belt in karate, and is today ever-pursuing all of his other athletic endeavors as if there had never been any hint of a childhood physical abnormality.  

But perhaps one of his best-defining monikers is that of “the great sea change agent” when it comes to his beloved South Carolina State Guard. A historically significant military organization under the broader South Carolina Military Dept., the South Carolina State Guard was struggling for relevancy when Maj. Gen. Bob Livingston, the adjutant general of South Carolina, called on Tom to take the helm and infuse it with that unique Mullikin touch.

“Tom has brought a strong sense of duty and love of state and nation along with a wealth of experience and network of respected leaders across South Carolina to his post as commander of the State Guard,” says South Carolina Sen. Thomas Alexander. “He has transformed the State Guard into a meaningful asset for our state and the South Carolina Military Department. The State Guard has evolved into one of the finest military organizations in the nation dedicated to natural disaster response. Their professionals’ support during the Joaquin floods cannot be overstated. Simply put — an elite, dedicated organization of selfless professionals.”

Tom has taken his State Guard from an organization of rich historic beginnings (its roots stretching back to the First Provincial Militia of 1670) to marginal relevancy in recent decades to a newfound recognition of developing and fielding one of the finest search-and-rescue (SAR) capabilities in the nation.

Many former and retired U.S. Army Green Berets – like the retired special operator who now leads the State Guard’s mountain SAR team – are serving among the ranks of the South Carolina State Guard, which is responsible, and heavily relied upon, for operating in seven professional lanes: Judge Advocate General (attorneys), Provost Marshal (law enforcement officers), engineers, medical professionals (physicians and others), chaplains, communications experts and the elite SAR teams.

“The State Guard was good. Now we’re great, and we’re becoming elite,” says Tom, whose time management is one for the books.

It’s not unusual for Tom to fly in from Alaska – where last fall he was helping lead an expedition for National Geographic as a National Geographic expert –– then preside over a State Guard drill or related event, then fly back out hours later to a far-flung meeting or to one of the world’s most remote environs to research first-hand the environment and the issues impacting it. 

Like other globetrotting adventurers, Tom combines business with pleasure, often meeting with top government officials representing the various nations he’s visiting to discuss regional environmental issues; and frequently accompanied by his wife Virginia Ann and their four children.

Tom also works in two or more adventures into the same expedition. For instance, during a climbing excursion to Australia, he slated time for one of his many dives in the Great Barrier Reef — the largest coral reef system in the world.

“Life on earth is short,” says Tom. “Opportunities are fleeting, and there is too much work to do in terms of enjoying, learning about and being good stewards of the physical world around us. Our work has shown that we can in fact have concurrent environmental and economic sustainability. It is a more complicated conversation but should be our goal.”