This story originally appeared in the February 2013 edition (Volume 41, Issue 6) of POWDER Magazine which can be purchased here. Chilean authorities confirmed on September 30, 2014 that J.P. Auclair died in an avalanche off of Monte San Lorenzo in Chile. He was 37.
Over a bowl of homemade oatmeal and French-pressed coffee, J.P. Auclair reflects on an old photograph. On a gray February day, we are in Zurich, Switzerland, and the 35-year-old harkens back to a time long ago that directly brought him to where he is today.
The Canadian moved to Zurich from Quebec in 2011 after his girlfriend was offered a job. With Chamonix an easy four-hour drive away, it wasn’t a difficult decision to relocate. The one-bedroom apartment the couple share does not look like the home of one of the most influential skiers of the last 15 years. It is modest yet cozy, with wood floors, a tiny kitchen, and living room that also serves as Auclair’s office. On the walls are various works of art, including a few abstracts painted by friend and former professional skier Anthony Boronowski. His ski gear rests in a storage space in the basement. Everything has its place, including the scuba diving notepad he keeps in the shower. “I got a lot of stuff on my mind and usually the shower is the only spot where it would come together,” he says. But there are no testaments of ski career grandeur. Only the three by five photograph on a bookshelf hints at the expanse of Auclair’s life as a skier.
Looking at the image—taken in 2001 shortly after filming with skier Julien Regnier for the Poor Boyz Productions film Propaganda—Auclair says he received an unexpected phone call while in the middle of shooting his segment in Europe.
The voice on the other end of the phone cackled, asking Auclair, “Where are you?” and declaring, “I’m coming to get you. You need to experience this.” After a few more exchanges, Auclair ended the call, looked at Regnier, and said he was pulling out of their film trip. Glen Plake was coming to get him.
The two met on a highway, Auclair joining Plake on a backcountry jaunt to Italy. There, they stayed in a small refuge, toured and skied for 10 days with no photographers, no filmers, and no objectives other than free skiing.
“It was the point in my career where obviously I was still super driven to make good parts, but it seemed kinda crazy to take 10 days off in the middle of winter and just ski for yourself,” remembers Auclair. “It was the first time I got to go around the mountains and see how big terrain could get—experience the approach of accessing slopes on your own.” It was a formable trip for Auclair, the memories burnt in his conscience and replayed for the next 10 years.
J.P. Auclair is skiing’s renaissance man. From his humble Quebec City beginnings as a bump skier, to becoming a terrain park revolutionist as a member of the New Canadian Air Force, to ground-breaking urban exploits, and his entry into the big-mountain world of Alaska film segments, he has spent thousands of hours in front of cameras and computer screens, filming and editing timeless movie segments. To boot, Auclair is also a co-founder of Armada Skis—helping to design the popular J.J. with Regnier—and Alpine Initiatives, a non-profit organization that aids in humanitarian efforts. His segment in Sherpas Cinema’s 2011 release All.I.Can., redefined the genre of urban skiing with a follow-through-the-streets part that added another bullet point to his career—Internet sensation. The segment has been viewed 1.4 million times on Vimeo alone, even appearing on “Good Morning America.”
Though his resume is long and diverse, genres of skiing and film segments do not define the man. Rather, it is Auclair’s approach—one of patience, deep concentration, empathy, and respect—in all aspects of his life that distinguishes him. Also, he is remarkably humble. Despite most of his peers dropping off the ski-industry radar, he has never been busier or more relevant to skiing.
Talk to friends and ski-industry veterans and they cite Auclair’s unwavering work ethic, meticulous attention to detail, and original perspectives as to why he remains so influential to the game. “He’s stubborn,” says girlfriend Ingrid Siroius. “It pisses me off sometimes, but it helps him go a step further. His passion is also the reason I love him.”
Leaving Zurich by way of the Glacier Express train, we are en route to Laax in search of fun. As the landscape rolls out the windows like a well-crafted slideshow, Auclair’s nose is buried in Mont Blanc, a guidebook by Lionel Tassan and Pierre Tardivel. In it, Auclair points out numerous spine-tingling routes, some of which he pursued alongside Seth Morrison and Nathan Wallace in the 2011 documentary The Ordinary Skier. The film served as a catalyst (Auclair refers to it many times in our week together as “a golden opportunity”) to jump back into the type of terrain he first explored with Plake 10 years prior.
“My favorite part is the pace,” he says, looking up from the book. “The whole ski approach basically is like one step by one step the whole time. It’s comforting to know that you can just take your time and follow protocol.”
The darkness of a tunnel gives way to light and the mountains reveal themselves. Our conversation leads to the most famous lift in the world, the Aiguille du Midi in Chamonix. “The first time I rode in the bin, someone pointed out tracks on the North Face,” says Auclair. “I thought they were talking about animal tracks.” Curious about his evolution from freestyle hero to legit ski mountaineer, I ask about the new set of rules he adheres to.
“If you’re building a booter in Whistler, I think it’s the same level of seriousness,” he says. “That’s how I feel anyways. I think maybe it’s more how it’s portrayed.”
Less than 24 hours after our ski mountaineering conversation, Auclair is standing atop a concrete structure beside another Quebecois, Phil Casabon. Together, they have built an opposite tranny-finding feature. In the distance is the sound of avalanche bombs blowing apart a ruthless snowpack that has closed the mountain for the day. Not one to sit still, Auclair launches a 270 tail grab into the tranny. Unsatisfied with his grab, he hikes back up, cheering on the 22-year-old Casabon as he stomps an impossible air to switch into the transition. Auclair is comfortable, sessioning an urban feature with one of his Quebecois prodigies and waiting for the mountain to open.
“I believe he is the best that has ever come out of Quebec,” says Casabon quietly to me as we wait for Auclair to drop. “He’s such a good all-around skier.” When I mention that a younger generation would consider Casabon himself one of the best out of the province, he shakes off the notion. “Talk to me in about 10 more years.” On the final hit, Auclair skates in, pops, spins, and gets the grab exactly how he envisioned it.