By Rob Story
The phrase “man crush” was invented for guys like Pete Scobell. I like the cut of his jib the moment we meet. This is in Basalt, Colorado, downriver from Aspen, in Scobell’s gear-strewn driveway. Handsome, buff, and athletic, standing a shade shy of six feet, Scobell grins behind thick dark facial hair and reaches out to shake hands. I instantly realize he could crush my fingers to bone dust, but he nicely refrains, dialing back his grip to really, really firm.
Scobell grew his hair out after retiring from the Navy SEALs and now sports a carefree shag that tickles his trapezius muscles. Bright blue eyes burn below, eyes that any man, anywhere, could put to good use in a singles bar. And you’d sure want him as wingman in a conflict. In 17 years of Navy action, Scobell served major roles in Operations You Have Heard Of. He refuses to say which exactly, but any bag of skin with the ability to type could guess one of the newsy ones. One can’t blame Scobell for withholding information, though. Journalists have burned him before, causing both rebuke from the Navy and fears for his family’s safety: There still exist very bad people who wish him dead.
As a battle-tested SEAL, Scobell could kill me with an unbent paper clip. Yet that’s just one talent to envy. The gosh-darned studmuffin is also a fast-rising music star. I meet him just days after his last gig on the Patriot Tour, a traveling theater performance in which big-name veterans share stories of war and military life, headlined by the author of Lone Survivor, Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell. While most vets speak, Scobell also plays guitar and sings (in a strong, Vedder-esque voice). On tour, he belts a mean acoustic version of “Born in the U.S.A.,” supplemented by self-penned outlaw-country tunes. A Scobell song, “For the Ones I Stand Beside,” is featured in The Hornet’s Nest, a new documentary about Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history. By the time you read this, Scobell will have recorded at least one song with Wynonna Judd. And he sometimes jams in Aspen with John Oates.
On this balmy April afternoon, Scobell sorts an exotic, expensive mountain of upper-echelon, extremely macho adventure equipment. Stuff for serene backcountry exploring; stuff for hell-bent throttle twisting; stuff for...I don’t know... snipering? Clearly, Scobell feels comfortable around weapons. Now 37, he completed six combat deployments—in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other violent hellholes. In 17 years on active duty, Scobell served on several SEAL teams. Along the way, he earned two Bronze Stars with Valor, Joint Commendation Medals, multiple combat action ribbons, and two Presidential Unit Citations. Hanging out with Scobell keeps a line from Fletch on the tip of my tongue: “God, I admire you.”
So what is an All-American Hero like Pete Scobell doing here in a bland duplex development in downvalley Basalt? Lots of SEALs retire directly to defense contractor jobs or Wall Street, where they’re handsomely compensated for their unmatched problem solving and strategic thinking. Not Scobell. Even though he’s deep into his 30s, married, and a father to three kids, he chose to pursue a post-SEAL career as a professional skier. Namely, as a freeskiing competitor on the Freeride World Tour. Which seems batshit crazy: a thirty-something who went almost two decades between turns, throwing down against extreme monkeys 10 years his junior who hurl their carcasses every day.
How’s that working for him? It’s complicated, and we’ll get to it. But right now we’re ducking into Aspen Mountain’s Sundeck for lunch and Scobell is talking about how he and his Special Ops comrades recited “This is our concern, Dude” and other Big Lebowski lines to each other during firefights! This information seals the deal, in the parlance of our times, on my man crush. And then Lieutenant Pete Scobell, U.S. Navy (Ret.), goes and buys the first round of beer.
To follow Scobell around Aspen Mountain is to tail a jackrabbit with a chemical imbalance. Age notwithstanding, he skis like a rubbery, young freeskier—tight and compact, railing around berms, exploding off moguls and lips. SEAL training has obviously endowed him with otherworldly fitness and confidence. “He’s not afraid of anything,” says ski photographer Brett Schreckengost, whose younger brother was one of Scobell’s best friends growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania. “The guy took 17 years off from skiing because he was busy defending the free world, but he’s so athletic he picked up where he left off.” At the 2013 Freeride World Tour in Taos, says Schreckengost, “Pete showed up on the day of the comp—having never skied there—and ripped the course blind, while his competitors had pre-run it for days. He has an uncanny ability to on-sight an unfamiliar course. It’s that SEAL thing: Let’s go. Let’s do what it takes.”
Scobell first put on skis at age two, when his dad “pushed me up and down the driveway.” He never knew his mother, who died in a snowmobile accident when Scobell was 10 months old. His father, who was 50 when Pete was born, acted as his sole mentor. “It was just me and the old man for years,” Scobell says. “We never threw the football or any of that kind of crap. We just skied.” They skied mostly in New York State, at hills like Holiday Valley and Peek’n Peak Resort. As a junior slalom and GS racer, he competed all over the Northeast, once placing in the combined at the New York State championships.
Scobell also excelled at competitive swimming and worked summers as a lifeguard on the Lake Erie beach. In fact, he was awarded the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resources Heroism Award for a rescue he made at Presque Isle State Park. You can add pole vaulting to his list too; he finished first at a Pennsylvania state meet. “I had several track-and-field scholarship offers,” Scobell says, “and enrolled at [Pennsylvania’s] Slippery Rock University. But I never went to class and bailed after just six weeks because I was too intrigued by the Navy.”
He drove to California, attempting to work on the ski patrol at Mammoth Mountain. But he couldn’t secure lodging and soon ran out of money. “I woke up one morning in Mammoth and told myself I had to join the Navy.” While there was “a line out the door” for the SEAL test that week, only Scobell and another competitive swimmer passed.
After training, Scobell became only the third enlisted SEAL to win admittance to the Naval Academy. While there, he set the Academy’s freshman record in pole vault and started for the rugby team. Then, early in his junior year, 9/11 happened. He deployed to southern Iraq shortly after graduating in 2003, working as a liaison to British and Danish troops and bracing for IEDs “that could flip a tank over.” During his duty in Afghanistan in 2010, one IED blew up beneath his vehicle’s seat, which was sufficiently fortified to prevent any apparent injury.
Scobell suffered more from combat’s invisible wounds. Years of exposure to detonating weapons and mortar blasts, not to mention the hammering of countless speedboat sorties, rattled his brain. By 2011, he says, “I couldn’t finish an e-mail. I was drinking myself to sleep, and my marriage was falling apart.” He once found himself in a parking lot with zero idea how he’d gotten there. He soon checked himself into the National Naval Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
“The doctor said, ‘You’re broken, but we can fix you,’” Scobell says. After a month in treatment, Scobell not only felt better but was also inspired to become a motivational speaker for corporations, hospitals, and the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres, though he’s mostly concerned with helping veterans get their lives back. “It’s for all service members suffering from PTSD. We don’t like to call it that. We like to call it PTS; it’s not a disorder. It’s curable and fixable. We’ve all been knocked down and we’re just gonna share stories of how we got back up again.”
Leaving the military for the mountains helped Scobell regain his life and his family. He heeded the words of a Vietnam vet who told him, “When you get out of war, you’re gonna have good and bad days, but if you go somewhere you love, the good days will be great and the bad days won’t be so bad.” And that’s how the decorated Navy SEAL wound up thousands of miles from the ocean in Basalt.
Arriving with his wife and kids in the Rockies in autumn 2012, Scobell took the first paying ski job he could find: teaching lessons at Aspen for close to minimum wage. He essentially went from overseeing top-level military operations to overseeing “French fries, pizza pie.” It went...OK. While teaching Saudi royals, Scobell enraged their security director by calling him out as a Pakistani. The security guard investigated, and told Scobell in a menacing voice: “We know who you are.” Then, during Gay Ski Week, some students hit on him (a man crush gone too far). While this discomfited Scobell, the week wasn’t a total loss. “I learned a lot,” he says, grinning, “about skin-care products.”
Regrettably, Scobell earned significantly more as an instructor than he has as a freeski competitor, but the Tour was something he’d always wanted to do. He finished 37th at the 2013 Taos comp, 32nd at Snowbird, and 9th at Winter Park. Because of the demands of the Patriot Tour, he didn’t compete at all in 2014. “I want to do Taos one more time,” he says, “because I felt I could do so much better and because that mountain has such a cool energy.” But he’s not about to hurl his meat at every tour stop. “Part of competing is, ‘How stupid can you get?’” Scobell says. “I’m almost hesitant to compete again, because I might get hurt and miss out on the joy of skiing. I also fear you have to treat it as a job, and there are days you don’t want to put those boots on.”
Meanwhile, Scobell had never donned a transceiver or adhered climbing skins, but he had caught the beginnings of an alpine-touring bug in Afghanistan years earlier. “It was gorgeous around our base in Jalalabad, with big fucking steep mountains. I’d look at couloirs and think about skiing them. I told myself I’d like to come back and heli ski off the mountain passes.” He approached Schreckengost and said, “I need to learn everything about backcountry skiing and I need to learn it now.” So between competitions, the two Erie escapees took several tours in the San Juan Mountains near Telluride, which blew Scobell’s rebuilt mind. “When I first got out of the Navy, I thought you’re nothing as a skier if you’re not competing on the FWT,” he says. “Then I learned the depth of backcountry skiing and realized comps are just one small sliver of the whole scene.”
For Scobell, these wilderness excursions filled “the void of SEAL missions past,” he says. “You’re with a good group of guys who can do the mental math on risk versus reward. It’s like the SEALs in that you’re operating more as a team. You have to be transparent and rely on each other. It’s tough, with a similar kick-in-the-ass mentality. While safety is paramount, you know what you’re capable of and learn to trust your Spidey Sense.”
Scobell later researched the possibility of going back to Afghanistan to ski those couloirs. “You don’t have to go through the U.S. government at all,” he notes. “You can rent a heli in Uzbekistan. You would have to do your own avy control, of course. And you’d need to go in winter, because spring is when bad guys start coming over the passes.”
After watching Scobell’s fast development into a capable alpinist, Schreckengost seems to think that if Scobell does have a future in skiing, it very likely lies out-of-bounds. “I think someone will sponsor him due to his experience and skills,” he says. “I could easily see Pete guiding and guarding expeditions in danger zones like Afghanistan. You’d want to be with him in a sketchy place.
Or anywhere, really.
Photos by Brett Schreckengost.
Words by Rob Story, who calls Telluride, Colorado, home. He's also Skiing’s columnist.