Pro skiers vie for titles like “best,” “balliest,” “fastest,” “most stylish.” And in any ski town bar, the beery air is rife with arguments over which skier deserves which title. It’s very likely that Quebec City-raised JP Auclair’s name has been raised in most of these arguments. In freeskiing’s short timeline upon this earth, Auclair’s presence and impact are in one way or another apparent at any given point. But where Auclair stands out from the rest—where he beats them by a long shot—is in a very distinct way. Beyond the first iconic 360 Mutes spun on Blackcomb’s Horstman Glacier back in the day to becoming a hell of an overall skier, and every twist and turn of the sport he helped pioneer, Auclair has stayed on the radar because he’s an engaged, interesting and, more importantly, interested man. Far from the robotic and mimetic moves made by many pros, Auclair has made a living doing things his own, often very different way, an influence that has enriched the sport. True to his nature, last winter, Auclair pulled up roots and resettled in Zurich, Switzerland in pursuit of new terrain both literal and figurative. Where it will lead? Only time and Auclair’s curiosity fueled wanderings will tell.
What brought you to Switzerland?
The Alps. My girlfriend got a job here, and it seemed like a good opportunity to get settled. We’ll be here for at least another year or two.
How do you find living in Zurich?
Swiss Germans and Canadians are pretty far off personality-wise — different sense of humour, different everything. We’ve had to do some adjusting for sure.
You travel so much it probably doesn’t matter where you are. How was your winter?
I traveled a bunch but generally picked projects around here. I did an Orage trip at Retallack, and shot with the Sherpas in Bella Coola, but otherwise, I’ve stuck around.
Speaking of the Sherpas, how did your credit as producer/director on All.I.Can. work?
In 2010, I went to Mustang Powder [catskiing in B.C.] with Steve Saranchuk and the Fresh Sports crew. Steve told everyone invited that they could have footage for whatever film they were working on. [Dave] Mossop was actively filming for [the Sherpas] movie, but I was under the impression I was getting the footage for Poor Boyz. We were trying to work it out, and in the end we were just like, ‘Let’s work together and plan more trips.’
Filming the urban segment in Trail, Dave and I were bouncing ideas off each other, and the chemistry was good. After we parted ways, he asked if I wanted to do a rough cut. I took that on, and in June I got a nervous call from Dave: “Hey, man. Like, what are you up to?” And I knew that they needed help with editing. We had many late nights, and I took on a couple of extra segments. The best part was bouncing around ideas about getting the movie organized and its rhythm. They decided to give me the co-director title because I was so heavy on the back end.
Your role behind the camera and in the editing suite goes as far back as 2004’s UP1.
Yeah, I was tired of things being out of my control. You’d would work your ass off all winter, put your health on the line and everything you had into filming. Then you’d sit, wait and cross your fingers. But you’d see athletes at movie premieres and they would be shattered—just gutted. Disappointed isn’t even the right word. Instead of complaining, I figured I’d just learn how to do it myself and take the fate of my segment into my own hands. I asked Johnny [DeCesare] to send me my Poor Boyz footage in 2003 just so I could mess around with it. I handed them the final segment and they didn’t really touch it.
The urban segment from All.I.Can. was a massive deal. Who came up with the concept?
Mossop had seen Revolver, which was supposed to be my last urban segment ever. He asked if I would be the urban guy for Sherpas, but I just wanted to ride pow and do a different style of tricks with those guys. He said he had some cool ideas for the city, and Sherpas’ ideas are generally worth looking into and not just brushing off.
When we got together, conditions weren’t that great and we had no actual plan. I was relying on him for ideas while he was relying on me. We were in Nelson on the first day and couldn’t find much. But we put our heads down and came up with the shot of the backflip over the hedge—one cut, four seconds or something. I thought it was really cool because I’ve always wanted to do that. Mossop was on the same page, so we built on it. From there it was just another 14 days of sticking with the plan.
Were you surprised at how big it was?
Totally. I was getting a lot of feedback at premieres, and we were really happy with it. We hadn’t planned on putting it online, but others were posting it, and every time the music company shut it down on YouTube, another one would pop up. So Malcolm, Eric, Dave and I thought ‘Hey, if you can’t beat ’em, join’em.’ We were flabbergasted at the response.
JP’s iconic All.I.Can urban segment.
Like the instant fame of the New Canadian Air Force…. Can you take us back to those days?
I was on a regional mogul team, and we would compete against guys from Montreal. That’s where I met JF [Cusson] and [Vincent] Dorion. We started hanging out on a provincial team and hitting parks, which was illegal at the time. We got on the national team, with [Mike] Douglas as our coach. We were hitting jumps and halfpipes, and he was the first coach that wasn’t totally against it and thought it was good for mogul skiers to blow off steam by just having fun. That’s when he started documenting everything. Douglas is really the one that decided to get organized—we were too young, too pumped up. Good thing he was there.
When did you realize it was more than just a couple skiers having fun?
We were aware that it wasn’t just a hobby, and believed in what were doing. But I thought I was being treated like a bad mogul skier, because I was a bad mogul skier. Douglas was blown away that I made the team. (I was actually a marginal bump skier.) So I was trying to say ‘Hey, I’m better than that’—but at something that doesn’t really exist yet.
And then it went nuts. Do you think kids understand the scope of that shift?
Probably not. I think it’s something that comes later. There are different phases in a sports career. At first, you’re just focused on getting better, and it’s normal that you don’t care about much else when you’re younger. When I was on the mogul team I didn’t know about how it went from hot-dogging to FIS Mogul World Cup. I was just stoked to be doing it.
So it comes down to an individual athlete’s choice as to which path to take?
Totally. The Olympics isn’t a bad thing or a good thing; there are issues, for sure. But if you care about free, creative, individual aspects of freeskiing, the Olympics alone won’t jeopardize that. As soon as there’s any big competition—even the X Games—there will be kids doing tricks that will help them win. And then there will be companies supporting the kids doing the tricks that they have to do to win. I shy away from that, but I look at guys like Henrik [Harlaut] and Phil [Casabon] that are self-deciding free spirits who are going to do what they feel like no matter what. And sometimes constraints create an arena for new things to happen, so I’m not concerned.
After making your name as a park and urban skier, you made your way into big-mountain skiing. Was that a natural evolution or a conscious choice?
I have a hard time focusing on only one thing, and I really get into the things I discover. What happened with editing and photography also happened with skiing; you start from Quebec and the next thing you know you’re traveling the world and seeing these mountains, and it gets really hard to stay in the park—even though I loved it. Having a plane ticket meant there was more to discover, and the more you discovered the more you dug up. It’s a natural progression.
In The Ordinary Skier, you visit Chamonix with Seth Morrison and step up to true extreme skiing. How did you wrap your mind around that?
I had no experience, but when you invest yourself, the mountain opens up to you and you can go a level further—though, that was more like five levels further than I was expecting. That’s why I’m in Europe and why I love it here. It’s addictive, and you just want to soak it up as much as you can. The more you learn, the more intimate you become with the mountains and the better experiences you have. Going to Cham with Seth was mind-opening… and then mind-blowing.
The farther you go into that world, the greater the danger. Do you feel more fear?
There’s a different way to think about it when you’re actually doing it. You aren’t thinking that you might die, you just have an acute awareness of what’s happening around you. That’s part of the allure— that’s the power. You’re paying attention, times 20.
JP taking on Chamonix.
How did Alpine Initiatives get started?
I met Mikey [Hovey] and Seth [Koch] in Haines in a guiding class, and we all felt like there was more than just skiing and mountains out there. Traveling and making great connections through skiing is cool, but it’s a bit of a selfish lifestyle. The spectrum within skiing is quite wide, but narrow in the larger perspective. We wanted to engage with the rest of the world in a different way.
The first thing that came to mind was to go somewhere totally foreign where there was no skiing. We started looking for people that needed a hand with projects and found an orphanage under construction in Kenya. Our initial involvement was simply helping them finish. We reached out to the ski industry to raise funds, and the response was awesome. People chipped in with financial aid, but also with time and skills. We thought that it was only going to be the one trip, but people were keen to keep helping, and it seemed like a shame to stop when we had that kind of momentum. Our goal was to create a personal platform to get involved with the world, but it became a platform for the whole ski and snowboard industry to reach out.
Exploring beyond your comfort zone seems to drive everything that you do. What’s next?
I don’t know. I have my hands full right now with alpinism and ski mountaineering, but it’s a good place to be because I have so much more to learn and that much more to look forward to.