Mitchell was born William John Schiff III. He subsequently changed his name to W Mitchell in honor of his stepfather, Luke Mitchell.
At the time of his first injury, Mitchell was a gripman on a cable car route in San Francisco. After his burn accident and recovery, Mitchell completed his training as a pilot and in 1975 co-founded a company called Vermont Castings along with Murray Howell and Duncan Syme. The company made energy-efficient wood-burning stoves and was later valued at $65 million. It was on a business trip for this company where Mitchell injured his spinal cord. In 1977 he was elected Mayor of Crested Butte, Colorado, where he stopped AMAX (now Freeport-McMoRan) from building a billion-dollar molybdenum mine on Mount Emmons. Because of the anticipated environmental impact, Mitchell claims that he "saved a mountain."
Mitchell was burned over 65% of his body on July 19, 1971 when a laundry truck turned in front of the motorcycle he was riding in San Francisco. His face and hands were badly scarred and his fingers were badly burned and he lost most of each of his ten fingers. He had just completed his first solo aircraft flight. He later won a $500,000 settlement in a lawsuit against Honda Inc. because the gas cap on his Honda CB750 was deemed faulty for having fallen off during the accident.
On November 11, 1975 he crashed on take off in a small aircraft he was piloting due to ice on the wings and injured his spinal cord, leaving him paralyzed from the waist down, but his other passengers escaped injury. The NTSB investigation indicated that the accident was due to his failure to detect the thin layer of ice on the wings during his pre-flight inspection.
- The Man Who Would Not Be Defeated (with Brad Lemley) (1993) ISBN 1-56796-026-X
- It's Not What Happens To You, It's What You Do About It (1997) ISBN 0-9637901-0-2