One percenter is a fairly new term used to describe the richest of the rich, the very few people who control most of the world’s wealth. But when it comes to life experiences, Carroll County High School teacher Fred Mitchell feels wealthier than Warren Buffett right now.
As the winner of the prestigious McGlothlin Award for Teaching Excellence, Mitchell recently became one of an extraordinarily select group of people ever to travel to Antarctica. Presented annually to one elementary school teacher and a middle school/high school teacher, the McGlothlin Award honors two of the Blue Ridge region’s outstanding teachers. Each winner is presented with a check of $25,000 to take the international trip of their dreams.
Mitchell has taught chemistry at Carroll County High School for 20 years. During that time he has twice been named the Carroll County Public School Division’s teacher of the year – in 2007 and again in 2015. His unique teaching style, and high praise from his students, led to the McGlothlin Award.
“I don’t have an education degree. I have two chemistry degrees and I never student taught. I just do what I think is right and I never realized it’s different than what others do,” Mitchell said. “It is humbling to have people speak unsolicited about how I teach and how my classes work. I don’t know what to say when people say such things. Then they put a TV camera or mike in front of me and that is even tougher. But that is part of this, you tell the story to your community because that is the meaning behind the reward.”
Prior to Mitchell’s recent trip to the South Pole, McGlothlin Award winners had been to six of the world’s seven continents. One of the award’s requirements is to bring back an experience to your community most would otherwise not have a chance to take themselves. Mitchell certainly fulfilled that quota with his trip to Antarctica. It’s been little more than 100 years since Roald Amundsen became the first human to reach Antarctica in 1911. And of the estimated 108 billion people to have ever lived on planet Earth, an infinitesimal number still have ever visited the continent.
“A couple of us were trying to calculate that (percentage) and you have to make some wild estimates because there are rules. Antarctica is governed by a treaty. If you have more than 100 people you can’t put them ashore, and if you have more than 200 people your ship can’t go within x-number of miles of Antarctica,” Mitchell said. “They have been traveling to Antarctica in this ship-based format for about 20 years. It is about 8,000 people total per year, including the ones that don’t go ashore. So you start doing the math and you count how many people on earth and it is a tiny percentage. It is the last place that looks like it always had. You are standing on the continent and look at this mountain and that mountain and realize nobody has ever been there. Folks have looked at it, but it is vastly unexplored still.”
During his two-week trip, Mitchell shared his experiences with his students and hundreds of others following his adventures on Instagram and Twitter. The whole time was filled with awe-inspiring sights and moments. From taking the world’s most extreme polar plunge to watching killer whales chase penguins, the Carroll teacher amazingly was able to use his ship’s satellite internet to share his experiences. He said the journey blew away anything he ever imagined.
“I kind of had it set in my mind how things were going to go and it wasn’t even close. We saw things that most folks don’t get to see because we just happened to be in the right spot at the right time,” Mitchell said. “We saw a leopard seal pup. It was the fourth one the captain had seen in 26 years. We saw three emperor penguins we weren’t supposed to have been able to see at that time of year. We saw killer whales, which are not uncommon, but the whale expert had been coming for 14 years and had never seen a killer whale hunt a penguin. We saw it happen right in front of our ship and he had been waiting 14 years to see it. Those kinds of intangibles blow your expectations out of the water.”
One of the more memorable moments for followers came when Mitchell took a true “polar plunge.” The CCHS teacher said the dip into the Southern Ocean came about while kayaking one day with an elderly friend he made on the boat. Mitchell ate breakfast every morning with the 83-year-old man and his 81-year-old wife. On the way back from kayaking, the man asked the expedition leader if a polar plunge might be possible.
“And she said, ‘As a matter of fact we are thinking about doing it today. Would you want to jump?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I am and so is he,’ and he pointed at me,” Mitchell said. “How could I look him in the eyes at breakfast the next morning if I didn’t jump? So I jumped and it has grabbed folks’ imagination.”
Mitchell joked that it was not the smartest decision he has ever made. At the time of the jump, the air temperature was 24 degrees and the water temperature was 28.1 degrees.
“When I hit the water I don’t remember it being cold. It was painful like thousands of little needles sticking into you,” Mitchell said. “I remember jumping and I remember coming up. I remember reaching up and grabbing the rescue diver and the next thing I remember is being wrapped up in my towel inside. Basically your body went into shock. It took about 45 seconds or a minute to do that. I don’t remember walking across the boat’s climbing ladder back into the ship. I know I did because there is a video of me doing it but I don’t remember it.”
The chemistry teacher said it made him realize the sheer will to live survivors of the Titanic must have had when the ship sank in waters 10 degrees warmer. Mitchell told friends on the ship he would never have to do another polar plunge because that one could not be topped.
“That is the coldest polar plunge theoretically possible because the salt in the water keeps the water from freezing. Antarctica is surrounded by the saltiest ocean so the water can get the coldest before it freezes,” he said. “You might do a polar plunge in the Arctic Ocean up north but it is not as salty so it will be warmer, slightly. This was the extreme polar plunge.”
Mitchell said he was fortunate that his expedition was part of a package offered by National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions. Some of the perks included traveling with National Geographic photographers, a naturalist and an expedition leader. The folks from National Geographic would join Mitchell and other travelers and explain things to the group.
“To hear from the experts that had been traveling in the arctic polar region and to hear the details and specifics and have them put it in context…it was wonderful,” Mitchell said.
And while he booked the trip because of the National Geographic connection, it wouldn’t have happened without the group’s affiliation with Lindblad. When he called to book and found out the price was twice the amount of his award, Mitchell thanked the agent, hung up, and started making plans to go to his backup destination – Australia.
“A week later Lindblad called me back out of the blue and said they had researched and read about it. And they said, ‘We want to help you get to Antarctica. How much money will you have left after taxes?’ I did the math and told them, and she said, ‘We would like to bring you to Antarctica for that price,’ and they discounted my price,” Mitchell said. “Mr. McGlothlin’s rules say you have to spend at least half of your money on the international travel. Well, I spent all of mine. But I still couldn’t have gone if Lindblad hadn’t made it possible. Not only did they discount the price of my trip, they bought my plane ticket from Miami south, covered all the tips and gratuities on board so once I got to Miami there was no other expenses. The generosity of Mr. McGlothlin and the generosity of the Lindblad Expeditions made this trip happen.”
Since he was there during the Arctic Summer, there was literally no darkness. The sun set for about 50 minutes each day, not dark enough to even see the stars. One of his favorite moments came when the driver of his zodiac turned off the engine for a minute while near a glacier.
“I was expecting silence and what I heard was a constant rumble of thunder from the glacier as it was breaking and collapsing and shifting inside. It sounded like one of our thunderstorms,” Mitchell said. “It is a dynamic thing and it was just doing what glaciers have been doing for centuries. I knew glaciers moved and they fall in the waters once in a while, but nobody talks about the constant noise. That is why I would go back, for the ice. I would go back tonight. And that is quite a statement because it is a long way to the end of the world.
Everything about the trip exceeded Mitchell’s wildest expectations.
“It is amazing. It is more than you think in every measureable dimension. It is bigger, it is farther away, it is more colorful,” he said. “The pictures look white. It wasn’t white. It was blues and greens. The animals were bigger and closer. I never got tired of looking at the colors and shapes. I would go back to Antarctica tonight, even if it was the exact same trip.”
Now that he has returned, Mitchell will be presenting a formal presentation for Carroll County students and folks in the community at some point in the near future to share his experiences. In total, Mitchell’s journey took him over 16,300 miles, to 12 countries, three continents and six percent of the world. At his southernmost point, he was 7,107 miles from home. He hopes his trek will inspire others in Carroll County and the region to get out of their comfort zone and explore the world.
“Even more than coming back and sharing my trip, I hope it inspires folks here to take their trip. Maybe not to Antarctica, but not to be afraid to go out and travel,” he said. “The large majority of our county doesn’t go much more than to Winston or Christiansburg. I hope maybe this inspires some of the folks I teach or folks in the community to take a trip. The world is a different place, but just because it is different doesn’t mean it is bad. Go out there and be a part of it and see different things and meet new people.”
Allen Worrell can be reached at (276) 779-4062 or on Twitter@AWorrellTCN