Jeff Scace Doesn't Understand How to Quit
Jeff Scace has always been in search of adventure. From a childhood that found him riding horses, learning to fly and blasting around North Texas on motorcycles; to his time in the U.S. Army Special Forces and working as a defense contractor in some of the most remote and dangerous corners of Afghanistan; to his post-military career as a motorsports racer, nascent mountain climber, and triathlete Scace is perpetually looking for the action.
And while his resume proves that he is a tried and true badass, Scace is soft-spoken and responds with a measured temperament that almost belies his past. His stories roll out so matter-of-fact that you’re often left to double take, wondering what this dude just said.
“Wait. You did what?!” Or “Hold on. What happened?!” Was something I repeated throughout our hour-long conversation. He would respond with a hearty laugh, assuring me that, yes, he did that, or yes, that happened, only to quickly resume where he left off, as there was still so much story left to tell.
Where are you right now? Where do you call home?
I live in Magnolia, Texas. It’s kind of a suburb of Houston, horse country. When my mom passed, I inherited her horses, so I needed to find a place to take care of them.
You grew up in Magnolia?
Yeah. I’m from another northern suburb of Houston originally. But now I’m in Magnolia, got about an hour commute into Houston for work, so I try and get down there early, hit the gym and then walk right across the street to work.
And what is work?
I’m the vice president of business development for a powersports company who provides electrical rotating components for major powersports OEMs like Harley-Davidson, Textron and Polaris. So I get to fly around and meet with OEM decision makers, go to powersports events, X Games, Sturgis. A lot of biker rallies and off-road events.
Are you a motorcycle guy yourself or was this something you just kind of fell in to?
Oh yeah. I’ve always been into motorcycles. Got a couple of Harleys now. Been into offroad, too. I actually race UTVs professionally. I was on ABC Sports last year, racing.
What is UTV racing?
The one I race is the Polaris RZR. It looks like a four-wheeler with a cage on top.
Like a side-by-side?
It’s exactly a side-by-side.
And you race those professionally?
Yeah. It’s a race series called TerraCross. I did that for two years, raced all over the country. It was a good time.
I had no idea there was such a series.
(TerraCross) was started by a professional snowmobile racer. He was the vision behind this series. So he a convinced Polaris to let them run stock side-by-sides and tear up these motocross tracks so that people at home can see and say, “Hey. I have a stock RZR. I can do that, too.” So TerraCross was born.
I was sitting here working for this powersports company and nobody in the company was doing anything offroad, so I convinced our board of directors that we needed credibility in the field. And they let me go and race this race series. TerraCross had this military class for veterans, so my first year racing, I won that class. The next year I got to come back and race as a pro. All of a sudden, I’m racing against guys that were my heroes growing up. Guys like Damon Bradshaw and Brian Deegan. It was pretty amazing.
Where does this passion for motorsports come from? Did you grow up on quads and dirtbikes? Tell me about your background a bit.
I grew up in Cypress, Texas and when I was growing up, there was nothing out there but farmlands and ranches. I grew up working on bikes. Since I could walk, I was out in the garage with my uncles, working on bikes. Always riding motorcycles, riding quads, working with horses, being in FFA (Future Farmers of America), you know, anything outside. I was outside all the time, whether I was riding animals or iron horses. I was just wanting to go fast.
Were you racing back then or was it more recreational?
Mostly recreational. I did race BMX for a while. I wouldn’t say I had a future in it but it was fun. I probably have some trophies laying around somewhere. In Texas, everything’s gearing you toward football.
That wasn’t something that was up your alley?
No, it was. In hindsight, I wish I would’ve stuck with something that had a future for anyone but the real standout athletes the way football does. But I did a lot of things. I was in martial arts, I was involved in swimming, BMX. Recreationally, I was into motorcycles and animals. Things like that.
Between your job, your career as a racer and your background, you seem like a perpetual motion machine. To what do you owe this restlessness?
It’s gotta be personality driven. I don’t know where I got it from but I’ve never been able to sit still.
Are you active military or retired?
I got out in 2005.
Go back to the beginning of that. Did you join the Army straight from high school? Or did you do college first?
I actually went to high school at the Marine Military Academy in South Texas, right on the border with Mexico. After graduation, I went to Texas Tech, got my associate’s degree, ran out of money and then joined the Army.
How’d that parlay into you being involved in Special Forces?
I knew I wanted to do something above and beyond just being a typical soldier. I had already had a pilot’s license and my original plan was to do the warrant officer flight training to become a helicopter pilot. But to do that you had to be a certain rank before you could try out for this. So when I reached that rank, the window to try out for it wasn’t for another nine months. But Special Forces training was only two months away, so I figured why not give that a shot just because. I got selected and never looked back.
You got your pilot’s license in high school?
I did. I got it at the Marine Military Academy to fly single-engine fixed-wing.
So you didn’t set out for SF. You just knew you wanted to do something beyond being a regular soldier, something cool, and SF was just kind of what presented itself?
Actually, you hit the nail on the head. I was looking for the cool factor. I wanted to do some cool stuff.
What was your role in SF?
I was on a HALO team. Basically parachuting with guns.
Define “high altitude” and “low opening” for me. What are the hard numbers there?
Technically the hard numbers? Or the reality? Because I was known on my team as being a “low opener,” which, looking back isn’t really that smart of a thing. But it was so much more exciting to pull your parachute at 2,000 feet instead of 4,000 feet. But Army regulations say 4,000 is the absolute latest you can deploy your parachute.
As for “high altitude,” I jumped as high as 23,000 feet with supplemental oxygen.
Had you skydived before that training process?
Technically yes, because I was part of a pilot program that Special Forces was using to get guys onto HALO teams. HALO school is being plugged up by all of the services and it was really hard to get the proper training for people. So this program was going to take guys from SF teams, pay civilian instructors and have these SF guys get their civilian skydiving licenses. So then you go to HALO school, you’re already an awesome skydiver and you can prove that you have all the skills.
Take me through the process of HALO school. Do they just kind of take you up there and toss you out?
That’s it, yeah. The training with civilian skydiver starts on the ground, in the harness, learning how to do all the fundamentals. You learn how to pack a parachute, how to spot where to land in a drop zone, how to read windsocks and things like that. You learn how your body reacts in the wind. The basic principles of flight. You know, lift versus weight, thrust versus drag. How to maneuver your body to get where you want to be, how to stay stable.
And then you show up at the HALO school and you’re expected to know all of these things. So they strap you down with a fifty-pound rucksack, a rifle and an oxygen mask, and you just jump out and figure it out. It was a really, really cool experience.
What year was this?
- At that point, I’d been in the Army four years.
What is the purpose of a HALO team in a conflict area?
The purpose of a HALO team is to do a silent, undetected infiltration behind enemy lines, in a known hostile area. To get an entire team and their supplies behind enemy controlled territory undetected.
So then you’re deployed into combat areas?
Yep. Immediately deployed to Afghanistan. But unfortunately, I never got to do the HALO stuff in combat. I showed up, I was part of an airfield mission. So essentially it was, “We have a mission, let’s go into planning, get on a helicopter, fly through the night, fast rope down into some village, kick down doors, kick ass and take names, fly back to the airfield and relax.”
Until the next one.
Until the next one. Exactly.
How long were you over there for?
First time was five months. I did two deployments on active duty. I was in the military for seven years.
What’d you do when you got out?
I went to work for Blackwater, so I did three more deployments to Afghanistan. I was a team leader of an Afghan border patrol mentor team. That was insane.
I was the team leader of a twelve-man team, all comprised of former special operators. So I had SEALs, Green Berets, Air Force CTT guys, and one law enforcement officer that was attached to our team. We were out in the most remote areas of Afghanistan, unsupported, working directly with a company of Afghan border police. From 2005 until just four years ago I did that.
So once you started working as a private contractor, were you just over there the whole time?
Yeah, I stayed over there as long as I could. I would just take a couple of weeks of vacation in Dubai and then I actually started my own company in Afghanistan, with an entire labor force of Afghans. I reconnected with one of my former interpreters and we started a company together. I would fly to Afghanistan alone on civilian aircraft, dressed like a local, the locals would pick me up and we would drive around to the different U.S. bases where I would pitch their procurement guys on barriers, walls, guard towers. We were a force protection and logistics company. That basically kept me in Afghanistan all the time.
And eventually you get back home full-time?
No. There was actually a significant event in there. When I was in Afghanistan, I had a buddy that I had gone through SF training with, a medic. We went to two separate areas of Afghanistan and he had a completely different experience than I did.
His team was ambushed and he lost a lot of his teammates, a few of which, U.S. bases are named after now in Afghanistan. He was never really the same after that, he was having a hard time, so I got him over on my Blackwater team as a medic.
One day he shows up and he’s got this flag that the locals made for him. It was just a simple flag but it had the names of all his dead buddies on there. He told me he wanted to take that flag to the top of this mountain in Nepal.
I hadn’t heard of this mountain and hadn’t done much mountain climbing but he asked if I’d go with him. I said, “Of course.” So we pulled up this mountain called Ama Dablam on the computer and it’s the most beautiful, majestic mountain I’d ever seen in my life. Next thing I know, we’re in Nepal, hiking the Khumbu Trail, to this giant mountain.
It was just three of us; my buddy, his cousin and myself. And we climbed this giant mountain unaided, no sherpas, no guides, no nothing. And that was a significant event for me, not only because of the mountaintop perspective but I also got severe frostbite and lost all my fingers from the last knuckle onwards. Basically, all of my fingers were shortened by a third.
And you had no experience climbing mountains outside of the mountains in Afghanistan you’d climb while doing your job?
Did these other guys have any experience?
One guy, yeah. He’s a pretty famous Irish mountain climber. Not a lot of mountains in Ireland but he’s done some big-name, technical mountains.
So you’re climbing up this mountain to plant a memorial for this guy’s buddies. What was it about that particular mountain that made him choose it?
What I learned was that real mountain climbers don’t like the idea of climbing Everest because it’s such a tourist attraction. Ama Dablam is a little bit more technical. It’s just a beautiful mountain and he just had his mind set on it as the one we needed to climb.
How and when did you lose your fingers?
It’s about a two-week hike to get to the base camp of the mountain and that time is spent acclimating to the altitude. But somewhere along the way of that route, I got salmonella poisoning. Every thirty minutes, day and night for six days, I was unable to hold down whatever I was trying to ingest.
Were you still moving? Or did you just hunker down until you got better?
We hunkered down for about two or three days and then it was like, “We gotta move or else we’re gonna miss this whole opportunity.”
It was kind of like if we didn’t do it then, we were never going to do it. But I have this mentality that I’m just gonna keep pushing through. Obviously, until body parts start falling off, I’m going to keep going no matter what.
It was hard.
Do you think your being sedentary had to do with the frostbite?
I think my resistance being low was a huge contributing factor to the severity of my frostbite and my susceptibility to it.
But you got to the top.
And this was after you lost your fingertips?
We weren’t quite to the top. We were climbing through the night, I’m basically on this cliff of rock and ice, it’s pitch black, the sun’s coming up, I’m hanging there on this rope and I looked back at my buddy and say, “Hey. I think I’ve got frostbite, man.”
And he looks up at me with disgust and says, “What the fuck do you want me to do?”
And I’m like, “Nothing more to be said.” So I just kept on climbing. So we make it to the summit ridge and there are these hundred-mile-per-hour winds that were threatening to throw us off the mountain. So we got stuck at the high camp, completely exposed. We didn’t have sleeping bags, our mats to separate our bodies from the ice. All we had were our summit bags, which are smaller versions of rucksacks. Fortunately, somebody had abandoned a tent so we hunkered down into this tent but we were absolutely miserable.
It was the coldest night I’ve ever had in my life.
But the next morning, we were able to make it to the summit and it was perfect.
Why did you not have any of your stuff?
So our plan was to climb through the night, make the summit with time enough to get back down before nightfall. So we didn’t need any of our overnight stuff. We weren’t anticipating the high winds that were extraordinary; winds that could literally pick you up and throw you off the mountain. To ensure success for the next day, we decided to stay at the highest camp.
Were your fingers physically intact at this point? Did you get them surgically removed later?
Somewhere along the way down, I lost the use of my hands. If I peed, I had to ask my buddy to help me put it away. We made it back down to the basecamp and there were some local sherpas there who called a helicopter and tried to get hands defrosted. At that point, my fingers looked like fingers but the tips were blue and when I would touch anything, it felt like my fingers were made of blocks of wood.
So I flew via helicopter to Kathmandu to save that two-week hike out.
Did your buddies fly with you or did they hike out?
One flew. There was only room for two in the helicopter. My buddy and I flew to Kathmandu, met with a doctor who told me there was nothing we could do except maybe try hyperbaric treatment. So I flew to Duke University and immediately started hyperbaric treatment. We did that for about four months, meanwhile, my fingers are turning black and wrinkling up. Eventually, I just had these dead tips as fingertips. And then I had them surgically removed, had them amputated much in the same way you would cut a cigar.
So I was left with a cross-section of all my fingers, all exposed, skin and bone, and I would sprinkle this pixie dust on it every other day. The skin would heal over, so I’d have to take needles and stab the ends so that the pixie dust could get access to the blood.
It was a pretty heinous six-month-long process. Needless to say, my Afghan company became defunct and I started working as a civilian contractor on a Special Operations range at Fort Bragg teaching Special Operations techniques.
As an SF guy and a contractor, I’m sure you’ve faced mortality in a variety of ways. But when you’re sitting there in hundred-mile-an-hour winds that could pick you up and throw you off a 23,000 foot mountain with blue fingers, did you ever think, “This is it. This is how I’m going.” or was it like, “Fuck it. We’re gonna get this shit done.”?
It was never the former. It was always, “We’re gonna get this done no matter what.”
Special Forces guys have this saying, “Embrace The Suck” for when times are particularly horrible, times that you couldn’t even imagine could get as bad as they did. But when they do, it’s just funny to us. You just have to laugh at how stupid the situation you just put yourself in is. Like, “Why am I here? I’m such an idiot. This sucks so bad, let’s just get through it because this is hilarious.”
All you can do when that stuff happens is just laugh about it and keep moving forward because you know it’s gonna suck.
So you’re back on the SF range, does that bring us to today?
Nope. There are wife and kids in there. That’s when they happened. My wife and two daughters.
How long were you back teaching advanced techniques for?
I did that from 2010 until about 2015. That’s when I moved to Houston, got this job. My mother got sick with cancer and that was the impetus for the move from Fort Bragg to Houston.
But before that, when I was still at Fort Bragg teaching homemade explosives, my second daughter was born and I flew down to Argentina to climb Aconcagua, which is the highest mountain in this hemisphere at 22,000 feet. With my fingers all messed up.
So after this experience in Nepal, one that cost you your fingers, now you’re into mountain climbing?
That’s right. This is probably the most dicked up story ever.
So me and this other Green Beret go to Argentina, just the two of us, to go climb Aconcagua. We’re climbing the Polish Glacier side, which is the harder, more technical side, I guess. We’re the only ones on the mountain and we get weathered in up at the high camp for like five days. It was miserable. It was howling winds, we ran out of food. So we had to go all the way back down to the base camp to get more food and my buddy looks at me and goes, “I’m not going back up.”
I’m like, “Well screw it. I am.” So I got myself some food and went back up by myself. I started climbing this motherfucker by myself. I got up to the high camp again and there are professional tour guides leading groups up there, so I talk to this one reputable guy, asking what the weather was like. He told me it was gonna be clear all day, said go for it. So I start humping, I get up to the summit ridge, about a hundred meters from the top and this lenticular cloud comes and settles over top of the mountain. This is extremely dangerous. So I’m sitting there and I’m looking at my fingers and thinking about the kid I just had, on this mountain alone like a complete asshole and I’m like, “You know what, I’m gonna leave that summit. I’m not doing it.”
A hundred meters away.
I think someday I’m going to go back with the daughter that held me up.
“Hey, I was thinking about you,” I tell her. “That’s why I didn’t do that last hundred meters, it wasn’t worth it.”
So someday I’m going to go back and take her and we’ll summit.
That’ll be her tax.
That’ll be her tax. Exactly! Yes!
So, beyond the racing, what else are you doing now to keep yourself engaged? Still skydiving?
Still skydiving here and there. Racing. Diving. Trying to get to the bottom of the ocean. But a couple of years ago, my wife, who is down for whatever - except the death-defying stuff - and I went to Upstate New York to go climb Mount Marcy.
We were out by the lake one day and somebody told me there were going to be hosting an Ironman the following week. So I jumped in the water and knocked out the Ironman swim and thought, “Hey, that wasn’t too bad.”
Then in August, I was in my office building here and one of my office buddies was talking shit about cycling. So I was like, “Okay. I did that as a kid. How hard can it be?”
But he was talking about this event called the Hotter Than Hell 100, which is a hundred miles, temperatures over a hundred degrees in Wichita Falls, Texas in August. This guy says I could never do it so went and borrowed a buddy’s bike and agonizingly finished. But I finished it nonetheless. So in my mind, I’ve done the swim, done a hundred-mile bike ride, so I decided I was going to compete in the Texas Ironman, which is April 27. So I’ve been training since September. Bought my own bike and it’s been swim, bike, run as much as I can in between work, travel, kids and things like that.
Are you doing any more mountain climbing?
Well, that trip to Argentina was supposed to be the beginning of my mountain climbing career as a soloist. But what I didn’t realize was that the buddy who said he wasn’t going back up, beat it and flew back to Seattle as fast as he could. His wife called my wife and asked if I made it back. My wife had no idea what she was talking about and this woman was like, “My husband’s back here in Seattle.”
For over a week, my wife thought I was dead on this mountain. So when I made it back down to base camp, needless to say, she was pissed. She’s at home with a one-year-old and a newborn and she was livid. Obviously, no more mountain climbing for me. That was the end.
Until the next one.
Until the next one.
Interview by Michael Venutolo