Photograph by Chris O'Connell
Skier JP Auclair
This skier and artist has made a career out of reimagining and then redefining his sport.
Editor’s Update: Skiers JP Auclair and Andreas Fransson died in an avalanche on Chile’s Mount San Lorenzo in late September 2014. Our hearts go out to their families and friends. Read about their contributions to skiing and the accident here.
The path of a professional skier typically follows a rigid course. Find a very specialized niche, whether it is half-pipe, urban freestyle, or dangerous big mountain descents in the world’s grandest ranges. Concentrate entirely on that one skill set. Push the standards in that given discipline through to the conclusion of a career.
For the last 15 years, skier JP Auclair has done the exact opposite. Through athleticism, product design, filmmaking, and philanthropy, he has found a place among the sport’s icons and defined what it means to be an adventurer.
As a teen, Auclair’s freestyle wizardry and performance in competition launched him into the spotlight. His imagination and creativity led him to every facet of the sport, from urban freeskiing to Alaska's mammoth powder runs to the Alps' technical and dangerous ski mountaineering lines. Few skiers have excelled in all of the sport’s disciplines.
In 1998, Auclair was part of the Salomon design team that created the first mass marketed twin-tip ski, which made skiing backwards an option and allowed skiers to effectively enter the half-pipe—without that innovation, there would be no half-pipe skiing event to debut at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. In 2002, he co-founded Armada Skis, where he still works as a designer. Then in 2008, he started Alpine Initiatives, a not-for-profit organization that connects the snow sport industry with community-building projects across the globe, such as constructing orphanages in Kenya and fighting hunger in a remote Madagascar village.
Auclair grew up skiing a now-defunct 100-meter ski hill in Quebec City, but it was the city’s old-world architecture that sparked his imagination. With western Canada’s massive mountains thousands of miles away, Auclair’s imagination instead drifted to the urban maze of stone, concrete, and metal. This would become his canvas for skiing.
“The ability to reimagine your environment—that is the coolest thing,” says the 36-year-old, who currently lives in Zurich, Switzerland. “You don’t need an extravagant location or money in order to travel.”
In 2011, Auclair worked with Sherpas Cinema director Dave Mossop to create a unique, wonderfully inventive skiing sequence (watch it here) shot on the snow-parched streets of Trail, Rossland, and Nelson, British Columbia, set to the song “Dance Yrself Clean” by LCD Soundsystem. One part Rube Goldberg inspiration and one part athleticism, the segment was a highlight of Sherpas’s award-winning and wildly popular film All.I.Can. At the behest of Mossop, Auclair took the lead, conceiving and editing the scene so effectively that he received a co-director credit. The clip leaked online, prompting Sherpas to release it as a stand-alone video online. It went viral, amassing millions of views, and turned one of the most influential skiers of the last two decades into an Internet star.
Auclair and Sherpas teamed up again in 2013 for Into the Mind. This time Auclair spent nearly a month scouting locations in Montreal and Calgary before settling on the latter. Auclair imagined a dizzying chase scene between two skiers complete with spotlights and nods to action movie car chases. Auclair made appearances throughout the film, including the culminating scene shot on an improbably steep alpine face.
The film’s loose narrative centers on a skier’s decision-making process and the risks associated with skiing the world’s most difficult terrain. Viewers witness an unknown skier, listed as Mr. Purple in the credits, swept from his feet by cascading snow down the 1,000-foot rocky face in Bella Coola. Later, the skier—played by Auclair for this scene—returns to the same face and picks a fluid, bold line over spines into a high-speed runout. Auclair describes it as the best line he has ever skied. Into the Mind has been met with sold-out venues, rave reviews, and awards from outdoor film festivals.
“The Sherpas are putting a lot more thought into moviemaking instead of just editing in trick after trick,” says Auclair. “I think they like having me around to bounce ideas off of.”
Whether it’s film, design, or community, Auclair is known for applying his unique perspective to the ski world. At his home in the Swiss Alps, he has been concentrating on ski mountaineering, which is about as far on the spectrum from competitive freestyle as possible.
“I always think that one thing leads to another,” says Auclair. “It always feels like something is right around the corner. It’s a huge world that is wide open.”
Adventure: You are an incredibly well rounded skier, from big powder lines to street skiing all the way to technical ski mountaineering. How did you evolve in so many ways?
JP Auclair: It’s mostly curiosity and wanting to learn. I started my career as a freestyler, but that got me traveling around. That freestyle background got me tickets to different ski locations, trips to Whistler. Fortress Mountain in Alberta was my first trip out West. A kid from Quebec who sees the Rockies for the first time … it’s superimpressive and just draws you in. I was always drawn to the mountains and was just waiting for the right opportunity to learn about skiing bigger mountains.
A: Was it a smooth learning process?
JA: My first day heliskiing in 1998 was for Warren Miller. I was supergreen and they threw me right into the mix. My first day, I got caught in a pretty scary slide—it wasn’t massive, but it was enough that I got dragged down 100 meters. I got superhumbled on my first day. The guide had told us about the risk, but I just didn’t understand anything. I just dropped in and got worked. It was a traumatizing experience. My level of respect went way up. I said, I need to learn a lot about avalanches.
A: Where did you develop your fascination with street skiing?
JA: As a kid, I remember driving with my parents and seeing the landscape go by and imagining where you could ski. I’d picture an imaginary person skiing a line. That started way before I got into street skiing.
A: How did you get interested in editing film?
JA: I would see athletes at a movie premiere be pretty disappointed that certain shots were missing or cut too early or a landing is missing. I experienced that also—the bitter athlete syndrome. I decided I would just go to the production company and edit. I knew I had to learn the software so I could have good input when I went to them. I really, really loved it. I’ve been editing movies for Poor Boyz Production since 2002.
A: How did you get connected with Dave Mossop and Sherpas?
JA: We were editing a Poor Boyz film and staying right next to Dave Mossop. He would pop in to watch the progress and give feedback. He asked me if I wanted to be the street skiing guy for All.I.Can.
A: How much time does it take to create one of your segments for a Sherpas Cinema’s film?
JA: Oh, man. We did almost three weeks of just location scouting. At first we went to Montreal and looked around there. We ended checking out Calgary. That seemed good. We had to plan out each shot. We wanted to shoot in the big city so we needed permission for what we wanted to do. We had to fill out a bunch of paperwork. I’ve never worked like that before. The street skiing has always been guerilla style. We did stuff that we couldn’t have ever done without permission.
A: The segment from Into the Mind reminds me of a scene out of the recent Batman movies.
JA: Yeah, we wanted it to be dark. Almost claustrophobic. That’s why we used the spotlights.
A: Why have the Sherpas films resonated so much with the ski community?
JA: If you look at the last 15 years, most ski films have been super action based. It goes in cycles. The Sherpas are definitely doing something different and breaking the status quo of the last 15 years.
A: You moved to Europe two years ago. What prompted that?
JA: 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 to soak up the European approach to skiing mountains, be there and be immersed in it as much as possible.