Ace Kvale, at home in Boulder, UT, May 2017. PHOTO: Matt Hansen
Ace Kvale, at home in Boulder, UT, May 2017. PHOTO: Matt Hansen

A Photographer’s Evolution

From Clambin Kid to wilderness defender, Ace Kvale continues to seek what's around the next bend

Marquee Image: Matt Hansen. All other photos: Ace Kvale

Ace Kvale has been a lot of things in his life: skier, climber, adventure-seeking vagabond, father, dog-owner, photographer. But the thing that has propelled him at each turn over his 61 years of life is his deep love and passion for discovering what lies around the next bend. It could be a powdery slope, a well-executed photograph, or a remote desert canyon gifted by the music of songbirds.

But he's also worked to create positive change, whether it's helping to restore sight for the blind, or helping to preserve wilderness of our most precious landscapes.

Skiers know Kvale as one of the original Clambin Kids, along with Mark Shapiro and John Falkiner, who created a ski lifestyle in Verbier, Switzerland, in the late 1970s that came to symbolize the free, wild spirit of pursuing the good life in the mountains. With Kvale and Falkiner skiing and Shapiro shooting photographs, the crew found success in documenting a kind of skiing completely foreign to an American audience. By producing inspiring content for magazines like POWDER, they found success in the business of freeskiing: skiing for fun and earning a paycheck at the same time. Ever since, athletes all over the world have been trying to figure out that elusive combination.

Blown Away in Verbier: A POWDER feature from 1989 on the Clambin Kids

In the years that followed, Kvale learned how to operate a camera and became one of the world’s best adventure photographers, traveling the globe and shooting for a host of outdoor publications.

Today, Kvale lives with his 11-year-old dog, a blue heeler named Genghis Kahn (aka the Desert Dawg), in a small studio in Boulder, Utah, a tiny ranching town set amongst forested mountains and desert wilderness. When I visited him last week, he was busy helping a friend pour concrete and unload lumber for a yurt-building project. He still shoots and sits on numerous advisory boards, and is a key player in the Himalayan Cataract Project, a nonprofit that works to restore eyesight in far-flung communities in Third World countries.

Kvale, who moved to Boulder in 2007 after spending nearly three decades in Telluride, also works as a hiking guide in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which is currently one of the many national monuments up for re-evaluation by the Trump administration. The fight for public lands occupies much of Kvale's headspace, as he conducts letter-writing campaigns and rallies while using his photography skills to document why places like the Grand Staircase deserve federal protection. With Grand Staircase (and the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument, located 180 miles east) at the heart of the public lands debate, the issue has the potential to tip the scales toward a greater movement attempting to undermine protections for public lands across the West.

Though his obsession with the Grand Staircase canyon country seems unrelated to skiing, Kvale attributes much of what he has accomplished and the relationships he's made to his initial pursuits as a skier. Like the natural world, everything is connected, he says. The people you meet, the places you go, it all comes back to the initial attraction of wanting to be wild and free, and being genuine in your pursuits. In his spare time, he sets out on multi-day backpacking trips with his dog (including a 60-day trip they did to celebrate his 60th birthday, documented in this beautiful short film), and will clean up campsites or otherwise try to erase the impact of humans along the way.

He has also learned some secrets of the canyons—a potentially groundbreaking project that reveals ancient practices of the Anasazi—that he may be willing to share in person over a tumbler of whiskey.

I recently sat down with Kvale to get his thoughts on the different chapters of his life, from Clambin to the Grand Staircase.

I made my first trip out West to ski Bridger Bowl, Montana, at the age of 13. We took the Greyhound and the Amtrak, with the Tyrol Ski Club, from Rochester, Minnesota. The following year I went to Alta and stayed in the Peruvian and jumped out of the windows into the snowbanks. At the age of 17, I went to Jackson, and holy shit, it was so awesome. That's when I skied Corbet's Couloir on my Rossignol Strata 102s with Lange Comp boots and Roffe race pants. That's when the world shifted on its axis, for me personally.

The Clambin Kids, from left to right: Ace Kvale, John Falkiner, Mark Shapiro.

I just kind of picked a place out West, but didn't know where. Some friends were driving through Steamboat and I hitched a ride with them and they dropped me off. But I only spent one season there. I went to visit a friend in Telluride, and moved there the following year. But I only skied Telluride for three seasons, from 1975-78. One summer I saved 1,500 bucks and went to Verbier for the winter and spent the next 15 seasons there.

I wanted to climb. The San Juans were so big and awesome and I wanted to learn about climbing and skiing and mountaineering. I had a book from Gaston Rebuffat that I still have. I was so inspired. A friend sent me a postcard of him skiing in Chamonix, and so I went straight to Chamonix from Telluride. I hitchhiked to Denver, flew to New York, flew with a girlfriend to London, and hitchhiked to Chamonix. It was October. We were camping out in the woods and it was cold. We didn't know anybody, work was hard to find, and my language was bad. But I knew there was a shop in Verbier with some American guys who sold The Ski, Spademans and Scotts, which I used at the time. Verbier was only an hour and a half away, so I hitchhiked over there and thought, 'Fuck, I can't do this. Switzerland is expensive.'

I walked in a bar and there was Mark Shapiro. I didn't know who he was. But there was Marko with an American woman. He said, 'Do you need a place to live? You wanna job?' Well, yeah, I said, and that was it. The first person I met was Mark Shapiro, and he's still one of my best friends of my life. He was just here a year and a half ago and he did 30 days in the backcountry with me.

Photographer Mark Shapiro, who many have called the “Godfather” of freeride ski photography, doing his thing in 1985.

I only had enough money for rice and beans, a season pass, and I just wanted to ski. Right away, I met this guy John Falkiner. He had already done some freeride comps, and was the coolest, nicest guy I'd ever met in the world. He still is. Marko's photo career had hardly started, and John was going to do some sport-action modeling and I got in on that, purely for fun. That first season we did a bunch of photos for fun. Marko sold a poster to a ski company and we had a double page photo in POWDER. We thought, 'Holy shit, we can make money and have fun!'

In His Own Words: Mark Shapiro

John and I were among the first sponsored freeskiers, simply with a company of three, and Marko was always great about sharing the wealth. Immediately, it grew and grew and grew till we had a production company and went all over the world. It lasted for the next 20 years.

Based out of Verbier from the late 1970s until early 1990s, Kvale and his crew produced images that were entirely foreign to an American audience. As opposed to posed shots in a controlled setting, they were capturing images, like this one of Scot Schmidt, that included steep skiing in an unforgiving, big mountain environment.

Marko goes, 'What are you going to do with your life? You can't just be a ski model all your life.' I had an artistic background. I was really into art and graphic design. I'm analy neat and clean, as you can see—I can't help it. And I went on a hitchhiking trip to Africa. I showed some pictures from my little Rollei 35 to Marko, and he says, 'You should think about photography.' He got so busy that he was giving me the small jobs he didn't have time to do. So I became second photographer. John started his guiding and stunt skiing for Bond films and Willy Bogner. And our company grew and I became the other photographer. Then I started to get my own contracts.

Kvale captured this moment of Doug Coombs in Alaska. It is quintessential Coombs, showing his calmness amongst the chaos, not to mention the sheer cool factor of perhaps the greatest skier who ever lived.

In 2004, Outside magazine flew me to see Geoff Tabin in northeast India, where he was doing eye cataract surgery. I flew by myself halfway around the world—big planes, small planes, jeeps—and went up to see this guy and he has since become one of my best friends and the most inspirational character in my life.

Geoff Tabin, of the Himalayan Cataract Project, with a happy patient following eye cataract surgery in Duk Payuel, South Sudan.

I've now been involved in this foundation that has provided over a half million free eye surgeries in Asia and Africa. They do 10 to 20 camps per year. I go along to help with patient flow, documentation, gallery shows, grant applications, and fundraising.

When they do an eye camp, they do anywhere from 500-2,500 eye surgeries over a week to 10 days…Geoff has The Flow: There's positive flow, medium flow, or negative flow. If you're positive flow, you get invited back. It might be dealing with generators and duct tape or helping to wash feet. Or maybe you're good at telling jokes or you're good with your hands. But you find a job and you stick with it. My other job is to document as much as possible, to bring images back for National Geographic and Outside and everyone else. It's the greatest work of my life.

Patient after eye cataract surgery. Kvale started documenting the work of the Himalayan Cataract Project in the early 2000s, and calls it “the greatest work of my life.”

When people are getting their cataracts done, they need their face and eyes washed, and to have their eye lashes trimmed. Using these tiny scissors, it's one of the jobs you have to do. You are holding people's eyes and trimming away. Sometimes it means you're trimming for about 15 minutes or one day somebody was sick and couldn't do it so that's what you're doing for the day and there's 200 people.

With cataracts, your hair turns white, your eyes turn white, and you die. Being blind in a Third World country is a death sentence because you're basically a mouth to feed and you can't help with the chores, with the goats, with the kids. But it's totally curable in a five-minute procedure.

A woman awaits cataract surgery in Mekelle, Ethiopia.

They're very stoic, nervous, and scared, but very quiet. And they have to sit all day and all night, waiting for hundreds of people. There's never any complaining.

We take the bandages off and suddenly they can see. There's dancing and music and they're trying to kiss the doctor's feet. That energy, that vibe, just spreads, and people know what they are in for.

So far, we've done eye surgeries in South Sudan, Rwanda, Ethiopia, and Nepal.

Being completely untrained but having the opportunity to give back is so satisfying. There is no other lesson. The thing we take for granted are first-world problems. They pale in significance compared to what these people are dealing with. That we could go there with a team and give them sight, it's beyond belief.

As a photographer, Kvale is intrigued by both the natural world and human connections. He took this photo in Kashmir, India.

Skiing took me to climbing, and the best climbing near Telluride is over in Indian Creek, in Utah—that light of the canyon country, and that vibe of beers over a campfire at the end of a day. I love the whole life. It dates back to my first trip to Jackson and the Western life, yurts and trucks and living in the dirt. I still love it now. I always have and I always will. But I realized that climbing is not a zero impact sport, and I became really attracted to the desert wilderness, and backpacking through untrammeled wilderness.

I came over here in 2004 to photograph the low water of Glen Canyon for National Geographic Adventure. I was with this ranger who told me about 10-day trips he'd do. I started to piece it together, and it comes back to that random word, or random day that suddenly launches an obsession. I moved here to satisfy my own obsession with it, and it's launched something in me that I care so deeply about wilderness. And now it's turned into educating people about leave-no-trace camping, reporting vandalism, and cleaning up campsites.

That could be my epitaph: Left every campsite cleaner than he found it.

Genghis, the Desert Dawg.

Today, I find my powder skiing in an untouched canyon.

It's a visual thing. As a photographer, I'm always composing everything in a visual field. If I'm going to be in a spot, it's got to be visually clean.

Suddenly, it got personal. I make my living as a guide and photographer, and I've wandered these canyons as much as probably anybody else. I can't describe how insane it is. It's all based on cultural wars, religious wars, and racism. The irony of fighting our elected officials for our public land is really what's so crazy about it.

Ace Kvale found Genghis, a blue heeler, in an abandoned litter of puppies 11 years ago. They have taken many desert trips together.

You can't put a price on wilderness. When it's gone, it's gone, and you can't get it back. There's this quote [John C. Sawhill, former president of the Nature Conservancy]: "Civilization is not judged by what it creates but by what it refuses to destroy." Water and air and stars are some the most important commodities left, and this is one of the wildest places left in the West.

We need wilderness whether we're in it or not.

Friday, May 26, is the last day to comment on an attempt to strip protections from Bear's Ears National Monument. The deadline to comment on other monuments, including Grand Staircase-Escalante, is July 10. Comments are being accepted through Regulations.gov.