JP Auclair’s death in South America sent shockwaves throughout the world of skiing.
_By STEVEN THRENDYLE in December 2014 issue
It was a cold Friday in January 1998 when a foursome of wiry, scruffy guys strolled through a parking lot at Vail in T-shirts and baggy pants, babbling in French. If it had been Whistler or Red Mountain, you would have thought they were dishwashers out for a smoke break. One of these guys was JP Auclair. He and his Québecoise pals were in Colorado to compete in the first-ever U.S. Open Freeskiing event where Auclair would win in Slopestyle – a brand new event that by 2014 had gained Olympic status.
JP (Jean-Philippe) Auclair, a 37-year-old Quebec City native, died on September 29, 2014 from traumatic injuries suffered after being swept away in an avalanche deep in southern Chile. Auclair was in Patagonia with Swedish big-mountain skier Andreas Fransson and a two-man Swedish film crew. Fransson perished in the slide as well. They were working on a new adventure film, tentatively entitled Apogee.
Auclair’s narrative arc covers three acts, beginning as an upstart (and by his own admission, not very good) mogul skier roaming Le Relais, a small ski hill outside Quebec City. Bored by the bumps, Auclair and several of his freestyle friends began dropping into (and sometimes getting kicked out of) “snowboard” parks, as they were then called, imitating the spins, grabs and other creative tricks that had pushed snowboarding into broad mainstream popularity among teenagers. Once decent twintip skis were developed, thanks to input from Auclair, Mike Douglas and ski designers at Salomon, new manoeuvres became possible. The 1998 U.S. Open served as a coming-out party for this rather curious form of skiing—a trend that was quickly dubbed New School due to its free-flowing style. Indeed, Auclair and his teammates in the New Canadian Air Force debuted the revolutionary Salomon Teneighty at this competition—one that was dominated by Salomon athletes.
As a summer instructor at High North Ski Camp at Blackcomb Mountain, Auclair was not only teaching impressionable kids who couldn’t believe they were skiing with their hero, he was pushing the boundaries—“progressing the sport” as it became known. Veteran freeskier Dana Flahr was quoted on the Armada Skis website: “I first met JP when I was a camper at High North Ski Camp. I was 17, super-shy and very star-struck with my surroundings. It was JP, JF [Cusson], Shane Szocs, [Seth] Morrison…but JP treated me differently than everyone else. He almost treated me like the pro skier I would become, and gave me verbal assurance that I was on the right path… To have that sort of vibe and respect from someone of JP’s stature was something I had never experienced before. It totally gave me confidence that I was on the right path, and that I shouldn’t have any doubts about my far-fetched dreams.”
Mike Douglas, Auclair’s former coach and mentor to the New Canadian Air Force, praised JP’s creativity and the impact he had taking young skiers in a new direction. In fact, the New School movement—though it’s over a decade and a half old—has become so popular that snowboarding itself is in danger of becoming irrelevant, an unthinkable prospect to even the most evangelic park rats not long ago.
While dozens of freeskiers came and went during the ensuing decade, Auclair remained. His jump from Salomon to form Armada Skis—a rider-owned ski and clothing company that he formed with Tanner Hall in 2002—signaled a bold departure and a willingness to put serious skin in the game when it came to believing in the financial future of the freeskiing genre.
In his second act, Auclair enjoyed rare mainstream fame when a film edit from Whistler-based Sherpas Cinema dropped and went viral months after it was released in October 2011. Filmed over the course of two weeks in the Kootenay towns of Trail and Nelson, the segment from All.I.Can.—officially known as Imagination—created an end-point for the kind of urban jib skiing that Auclair and his acolytes popularized. Here, sparks fly from the edges of Auclair’s skis as he grinds over wet asphalt. Snowbanks are vaulted over, a clothesline is jumped. Some smartass grommet throws a snowball at him to throw him off his game, but Auclair is oblivious—the entire segment flows like a snowflake falling in a light wind. Imagination has been viewed more than two million times, in addition to everyone who attended the movie when it was released in 2011.
Sherpas Cinema’s Dave Mossop told Ski Canada of the segment: “JP’s original vision was from a childhood memory of looking out the window of his parents’ car, imagining a skier there, bouncing his way down the street. He realized that putting limitations and restrictions on ourselves would lead to increased creativity. So the dreary backdrops of Trail, B.C., in the worst snow conditions imaginable, proved the perfect recipe.
“It was incredibly hard and hazardous work,” continued Mossop, “building and camouflaging features, breaking skis and sometimes repeating takes up to 30 times until we got it perfect. When we released the segment, we were both shocked with its success. We both would postulate what else really made the segment intriguing: the music, the flowing storyline, the long takes, the reckless destruction of his skis. But like JP, it was a magical combination of qualities that made it special. What was once a figment of his imagination became reality, and it caught the imagination of millions.”
Auclair’s final act would be one that eventually led to his tragic demise—taking on the challenges of alpine ascents and descents. Very, very few skiers have successfully made the transition from park-and-pipe freeskiing to the often hugely frustrating world of ski mountaineering—where the risk of injury or death is often close, but where majestic scenery and a feeling of accomplishment are sublime.
His move to Zermatt in 2011 resulted in one of the most compelling storm-skiing segments of all time. Set to an instrumental-only version of “Riders of the Storm” and searchable on Vimeo, Chamonix Storm Riders presents flat-light whiteout skiing at its worst, yet the edit—Auclair edited many of his own film segments—is an outstanding use of point of view filming to describe an often disorienting experience.
About his transition to ski mountaineering, Auclair told National Geographic writer Fitz Cahall: “At 34, I just discovered this wide-open world of ski mountaineering. It was brand-new to me. It’s amazing to be able to have that feeling 27 years into your ski career. I want[ed] to soak up the European approach to skiing mountains, be there and be immersed in it as much as possible.” Auclair was named one of National Geographic’s 2014 Adventurers of the Year.
“He hit that stride,” said filmmaker Todd Jones, founder of Teton Gravity Research, “one that very few people do, during which he really turned himself into a legend, and not just a flash in the pan. I always felt that presence of him, even when he was a kid, of him being a legend, and he since became this mature, humble, gracious guy who respected and loved the mountains and the sport more than anything, and transmitted that attitude to everyone, big or small, he came in contact with.”
A generous spirit to everyone he met, Auclair started Alpine Initiatives, a non-profit organization that has constructed orphanages in Kenya and supports meaningful small-scale sustainability initiatives.
Auclair is survived by his wife, Ingrid, and their infant son, Leo. A trust fund has also been set up in Auclair’s name at alpineinitiatives.org.