In Memoriam: JP Auclair

Nate Abbott

JP Auclair, who died Monday in an avalanche in Chile, was one of skiing's most creative minds.

An innovator and creative force in skiing for nearly 20 years, JP Auclair's death Monday in an avalanche in Chile while filming a movie project will be felt by the sport in ways large and small. Writer, skier and editor Micah Abrams remembers his friend. Auclair was 37.

In the summer of 1999, I got into a debate with JP Auclair about the merits of the "safety grab" in skiing. It had been two and a half years since JP and the New Canadian Air Force initiated a revolution by leading skiers into the "snowboard park," and the sport was evolving at a disorientating pace. No place better illustrated that than where we sat, in Whistler Village after a day on the glacier at High North Ski Camp, where JP was coaching.

The camp lane was crawling with young skiers mastering in a matter of days spins and grabs it took JP a whole season to figure out. Meanwhile, JP was incorporating switch takeoffs and landings into ever-bigger and more technical tricks at a similarly frenetic pace.

I was covering the chaos for Freeze magazine, where I was editor for the publication's eight-year run, and the magazine had made a solemn pledge to defend skiing's honor against the harshest accusation known in action sports at the time: "That looks like Rollerblading." Hence my insistence that skiers shouldn't do safeties -- a grab on the outside ski edge just below the boot -- because it was originally a Rollerblading move.

I was surprised JP disagreed with me; while reasonable men could debate who among his peers was the most innovative skier, JP was the consensus pick for the most stylish of the era. This was in part because of the fluid, beautiful way he used grabs to position his body in the air -- precisely the kind of grace that wasn't required to do a simple safety grab.

JP was a soft-spoken guy from Quebec, and even more so at 22, when his English wasn't great. But he was passionate that day as he argued that skiing was at a creative inflection point where the worst thing you could do was try to define what was "right" or "wrong."

Nate Abbott

In 2005, Auclair was balancing being one of the foremost freestyle skiers in the world with a bad back. At that point in his career, he did tricks with style, said very little, then went off to the real mountains to hone his craft.

"We can't only be expected to grab for body position in the air," he told me, "because that would limit the grabs that we'll figure out. And there are so many more grabs for us to figure out."

I was staring into a crowd and seeing meaningless insults; JP was staring up the mountain and seeing an unpainted canvas.

Over the next 15 years, few skiers left more vibrant colors on that canvas. His urban segment in the 2011 Sherpas Cinema film "All.I.Can" -- five stunning minutes best described as skiing graffiti -- was delivered a decade after he helped define what was possible for skiers on handrails and more than five years after successfully tackling the big mountain proving ground of Alaska. The segment is all the more remarkable for the fact that he didn't just star in it -- he did the edit as well. Along with his collaborators at Sherpas, they took the least photogenic location imaginable in the worst possible conditions and created the most inventive segment of the past 10 years.

When he wasn't teaching himself to edit video, landing on contest podiums (as recently as this year) or winning accolades for film segments he starred in, JP found time to co-found Armada Skis and a nonprofit organization that builds orphanages in Africa. 

When the final history of skiing is written, JP will go down alongside Shane McConkey as one of the sport's two most creative minds. So it's worth noting that over the years, he devoted more and more time to the one style of skiing in which creativity is subservient to mastering the techniques of those who came before you: ski mountaineering.

JP earned his reputation in a community that values edge and innovation, but ski mountaineers value patience, wisdom and humility. Perhaps due to the difference in consequences, the former remains the provenance of "kids" while the latter is the realm of adults, and the line between the two crackles with a life-affirming energy that inspires so much passion in so many skiers. No skier has ever straddled that line more effectively than JP.

The two of us reconnected in April after several years when he was looking for feedback on his new film project, "Apogee." He was just noodling with the branding, but it already bore the creative hallmarks -- artistic and abstract without taking away from the natural power of the mountains -- that made him such a compelling video editor. All that took a backseat, however, when we both realized we were expecting our first children around the same time. His son Leo was born in May, and over the summer, I absorbed JP's wisdom about sleep training an infant the same way I once absorbed his wisdom about grabs.

My own child is due in a few weeks, and I've already spent countless hours thinking about the day I'll first put him or her on snow. I want this child to find in skiing the same combination of challenge and joy that gave my life direction, and I want this child to see the villages and ski the runs that I count among my best memories. But if nothing else, I hope I help him or her learn to stare up the mountain and see an unpainted canvas.

If I succeed in that, it will be because I simply passed along a gift that JP had already given me.

In memoriam, JP Auclair

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