A Navy SEAL’s Next Mission: Skiing

Mj 618_348_a seals next mission
Brett Schreckengost

One after another, the world’s top amateur free-skiers drop over a ridge and carve their way through the trees and cliffs and couloirs at New Mexico’s Taos Ski Valley, hoping to earn critical points toward qualifying for the 2013-14 Freeride World Tour. Then, around 2 pm, a small figure in a bright yellow jacket appears at the start gate. Unlike the skiers who came before him, each introduced by their hometowns (“Jackson Hole!” “Crested Butte!”) and their sponsors (“K2!” “Armada!”), the man in yellow is announced without any identifying town or brand. “This is a special skier,” an announcer howls over the PA. “Pete Scobell is a former Navy SEAL.” He pauses a second to let that settle in. “In other words, he’s kind of a badass – and now he’s just out to have some fun.”

Scobell, 36, grew up skiing. “I only wanted to be two things in my life: a Navy SEAL and a professional skier,” Scobell said earlier as he suited up for his first run of the day. “I ran out of money on my initial quest to be a skier and joined the Navy.” Alone at a table in a makeshift athletes’ lounge, where the smell of marijuana was faint but unmistakable, Scobell slipped hardshell knee pads on his ski pants. He was among the oldest athletes in the room and probably the only one who had a firsthand appreciation of the bulletproof quality of his body armor. Last October, Scobell retired from active duty after 16 years as a SEAL, the last four as an officer in the most vaunted military unit on the planet: the Naval Special Warfare Development Group, which the Navy calls devgru and the public knows as SEAL Team Six.

He graduated from SEAL training at 19 (initially joining SEAL Team Three), then, at age 22, became the third (and last) enlisted SEAL ever to be admitted to the Naval Academy, where he still holds the freshman pole-vaulting record. Scobell was a junior and had just left a Middle Eastern politics class when the first plane struck the World Trade Center. He watched in horror with his academy classmates as their future course was forever changed. “I’d already been a SEAL, so everyone asked me, ‘What happens now?’ I said, ‘We’re going to war.’ “

Over the next decade, Scobell completed six combat deployments – two in Iraq, two in Afghanistan, and one that featured the now legendary rescue of the Maersk Alabama, a containership that was overtaken by Somali pirates. Scobell and his SEAL teammates fought during the bloody Shia uprising of 2005, hunted and killed Al Qaeda leaders in the Hindu Kush, escorted critical convoys, and were in close proximity to more explosions than he can recall.

Knee pads aren’t the only extra body protection Scobell incorporates into his ski ensemble; he also employs a set of Kevlar helmet inserts designed to reduce shock by 50 percent. That reduction in impact trauma is especially important, since Scobell has only recently recovered from a debilitating case of traumatic brain injury caused by all those years of training and combat. Some of it, he says, is from blast exposure, but the bulk of the damage may come from the incessant pounding of hours in skiffs and speedboats. For a period in 2011, Scobell’s symptoms were so bad that he checked himself into a facility that specializes in traumatic brain injury. The last of many wake-up calls, he says, was when he found himself behind the wheel of his car in a parking lot with no idea how he’d gotten there.

You’d think a father of three young kids (ages six, four, and two), newly retired from dodging bullets and with a history of head injury, would pick a second career a bit safer than big-mountain skiing, but you’d think that only if you’d never talked to Scobell. He was so certain of his calling that when he left the Navy, he packed up his family from their home in Pennsylvania and moved to a small Colorado town, where he took a $9-an-hour ski instructor job at Aspen, mostly to get the free season pass. Even before there was snow, he worked on tricks to add to his already excellent skiing ability at Woodward at Copper Mountain, where future X Gamers train over foam pits and air bags.

In August 2011, when Taliban insurgents shot down a Chinook helicopter, killing 30 U.S. soldiers, including 17 SEALs (many of them Scobell’s close friends), he began to wonder when his time might come. His kids were still young, and, relatively, so was he. Shortly thereafter, he and three fellow SEALs climbed Alaska’s Denali during a home leave, and on the long, slow slog to the summit, he says he asked himself some hard questions. “And I found those answers on Denali,” he says. “I had to go back to the mountains.”

Scobell is well aware of the risks inherent in a life that, should things go according to plan, would involve hucking cliffs and attempting perilous lines on some of the hairiest mountains on Earth. But he feels the risk of not chasing that dream is even worse. “I’m not going to put myself in a bubble and spend my whole life attempting not to get hurt,” he says. “The best advice I’ve ever been given was from my wife.” He was about to step onto the plane to return to Iraq for a second deployment when she stopped him. “Don’t be careful,” she told him. “Every time people try to be careful, they get hurt. Go all-in all the time. Be aggressive and do what you do best – win.”It’s not like Scobell didn’t have other options. SEALs – who carry in their brains thousands of hours and millions of dollars of training and expertise – have all kinds of employment opportunities once they retire. As some of the most elite fighters, their entire purpose is to be versatile and quick thinking, to be able to do virtually any task with little preparation. Scobell says he “had several offers” to work on Wall Street, where the “Navy/SEAL network is very strong,” in addition to more obvious jobs with defense contractors or one of the U.S. intelligence agencies.

But if anyone understands the limitations of an office job and the concept of living every day like it’s your last, it’s a retired SEAL. Just days before he left for Taos, a search had been called off for one of his best friends and former teammates, a 33-year-old named Matthew John Leathers, who’d gone missing at sea during training exercises in Hawaii. “I’m skiing this weekend for Matty,” he says. On his wrist, Scobell wears a black metal bracelet with the name of another of his best friends, Jon “J.T.” Tumilson, one of the 17 SEALs killed in the 2011 helicopter crash. And among his gear in Taos is a T-shirt from the funeral of Nic Checque, a former teammate who was shot in the head last fall during the rescue of a doctor being held hostage in Afghanistan.

“When you get up in the morning and have to decide which dead-friend T-shirt to wear, you have to start wondering what the fuck you’re doing,” Scobell tells me the night before his Taos event. He’d gotten in late that evening and would be getting his first look at the course – and first-ever look at the mountain, for that matter – in the morning, when it was open for a one-hour inspection. Locals would have been surveying their lines for months, and most anyone with a real hope of winning had probably been there all week picking a line out of the hundreds of acres of terrain available for skiers.

Scobell, though, was essentially winging it, and it showed. He skied fast and strong, but his line, compared with that of so many others, was too simple and lacked the flashy moment, the cliff drop or the inverted air. The event’s organizer had advised him that his goal should be to make the cut to day two, and so to worry most about being clean and finishing the course on two skis. Scobell probably took that advice a little too much to heart, and he finished 37th, missing the cut by five spots.

The following day, he planned to rise early and drive to Telluride, to meet up with some friends for a day of hiking and backcountry skiing. Taos had been an eye-opener. With only this single day of competition experience, he worried that Aspen wasn’t a challenging enough mountain to get where he needed to be. He was thinking maybe he’d need to move the family to Telluride. “We just don’t have gnarly terrain like this,” he says. Almost immediately after the race, he’d called a retired pro who was acting as an unofficial coach and adviser. “I told him we need to find bigger, badder lines.”

Scobell had no delusions about beating 25-year-olds who’d been training a decade to join the Freeride World Tour, but he also knew that he didn’t have to. Given his history, he doesn’t have to win ski events to be attractive to sponsors. (He finished ninth at his second qualifier, in Winter Park, Colorado.) Certainly, it’s not hard to imagine outdoor brands having an interest in a guy who fought on America’s most elite fighting force and then passed on the spoils of war in order to risk going broke trying to become a big-mountain skier – and for no reason other than he felt he had to.

“I don’t want my past to be what I rely on for my future,” he says, knowing full well that if he flames out of every event he enters, the mere fact that he was once a SEAL isn’t going to land him a North Face contract. “But I do want to take what I’ve learned about myself in the teams and apply it to something completely different. I’m a believer in following your heart and dreams, and I preach it to my kids,” he continues. “What kind of dad would I be if I said one thing and did another? Is there risk? Sure. Is life without risk worth living? No.”

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