Friday Interview: JP Auclair

Leader of the New Canadian Air Force and one of the most influential skiers in the sport talks about the importance of creativity, skiing with Glen Plake, and how the need for freedom has defined his career

JP Auclair.     Photo: Chris Figenshau/Oakley

"Individuality and creativity will happen whether it’s in the halfpipe or not."

Before the X Games, freeskiing’s induction into the Olympics, and the proliferation of twin tips and tall tees, there was a renegade group of mogul skiers known as the New Canadian Air Force. In the late '90s, disgruntled with FIS’s overregulation of competitive bump skiing, they headed into the snowboard parks and began experimenting with off-axis rotations, tricks, and airs. In doing so, they revolutionized skiing, breathing new life into a sport that had all but gone stale.

Leading the pack was JP Auclair, a Quebec City, Canada-born-and-bred bump skier. Through the competitive mogul scene in Canada in the late '90s, Auclair connected with Mike Douglas, J.F. Cusson, Shane Szocs, and others, who would later be known as the New Canadian Air Force. With his creativity and innovation, Auclair became a pioneer of the newschool movement. In 1998, Auclair won the first U.S. Open, one of freeskiing’s earliest competitions. He popularized grabbing in ski tricks, which is now a standard move. In 2002, along with Tanner Hall, he co-founded Armada, the ski company that spawned the ever-popular JJ ski. In 2008, he co-launched Alpine Initiatives, a non-profit that works on charitable projects worldwide, including building and improving a home for children of women with HIV in Kenya. His urban segment from the Sherpas’ 2011 film All.I.Can is the most watched ski segment ever, with over three million views. Whether it’s product development, films, or new tricks, for the past 15 years, Auclair has been one of the most progressive, high-minded, and influential skiers in the sport.

These days, Auclair, 35, lives in Zurich, Switzerland, where he’s immersing himself in European mountain culture and alpinism. Last fall, he left his longtime outerwear sponsor Orage to work on a backcountry apparel line for Armada. This winter, he’ll tackle the Haute Route with the Poor Boyz, who he has filmed with since 1997. He’s also working with the Sherpas again on their upcoming film Into the Mind.

From laying down tricks in the park to his film segments and launching Armada, self-expression has been the driving force of Auclair’s career. Here he talks about the importance of creativity, skiing with Glen Plake, and how the need for freedom has defined his career.

It seems like freedom—freedom from FIS, freedom from the rules—has been a big part of your skiing. Can you talk about that?
It might sound cheesy, but freedom has been the baseline of my whole pursuit with skiing and my life. It started even before moguls, in my racing days. In Quebec you couldn’t do tricks. You’d get your pass pulled if you were hitting jumps or going too fast. And that felt really restrictive and it was holding me back in a big way. I’d be getting in trouble all the time.

I joined a freestyle team because I thought I’d be allowed to do whatever I wanted there and it felt like it for a couple of years. But then once you learn a few tricks and you decide you want to make up tricks and be creative and express yourself, then all of a sudden you’re not allowed to because it’s not in the books. You can’t do tricks that don’t exist in that format. And then it started feeling restricting again. So, I left.

Filming segments is the one thing throughout my career that’s really given me freedom, endless possibilities. It’s been keeping me happy for at least 10 years and I’m still just as excited to build film segments as I was back when I started. And I think to move from the parks to the backcountry to bigger mountains, and to end up here, where I’m at now, it definitely speaks to a baseline theme of freedom.

Talk about your progression from the park into the backcountry, ski mountaineering, and alpinism. It seems like that as skiers mature—you, Seth, Plake—you all gravitate to ski mountaineering. What’s that about?
For me, it’s about an ongoing journey. I’m from Quebec City and grew up skiing the East Coast resorts, doing the ski lessons thing, doing the ski racing thing and freestyle team. Around 16, 17, I started to travel a little bit more and get a glimpse of what bigger mountains look like. I was in awe. The first time I saw the Rocky Mountains, it was mind blowing.

Throughout my career I was always had lots of opportunity to travel and got to see all these mountains everywhere. I was blown away and intrigued and attracted to them. Slowly, over time, I shied away from the park and groomed runs and started venturing into the backcountry. That led me to living in Whistler and spending all of my time in Whistler’s backcountry when I was there in the early 2000s.

From spending a lot of time in the backcountry, one thing leads to another, and you realize all of the things you need to know to access the backcountry. You end up signing up for Avy classes and that sort of thing. Every time I would peak around the corner of what else there was to learn about the mountains, something else would open up that would be massive. You see how much there is to discover. It’s a world full of possibilities. It’s mind blowing to see everything that’s out there.

Can you talk about the similarities and differences in the experience between skiing the park and the backcountry?
It’s just as intense but I think the timespan in which you feel things is different. Skiing the park is one jump—a lot of preparation went into it, but in the air it lasts only a couple of seconds. With ski mountaineering, the biggest thing that strikes me is time—the time you put into it, the time you spend on the slope itself, hours and hours. I wouldn’t say one is better than the other, but right now this alpinism and ski mountaineering suits my personality better. I’m a slow person. When I’m making my way through the backcountry by foot, the situation is still intense, but I like it better. I embrace it better.

Who have your mentors been in the mountains?
With ski mountaineering and alpinism, I’m still really new to it. I can count my outings, big missions, on one hand. Andreas Fransson has been taking me out and teaching me. He’s a great teacher. I enjoy skiing with him. Obviously, Seth Morrison, who I went out with a bunch for the Ordinary Skier. Seth, though he was learning at the same time I was, he’s a natural mentor. He’s so good at caring for others and making sure that people are OK. He’s got this way of looking out for others.

And Plake. Even though I haven’t been out with Plake that many times, he’s still my all-time ski hero. The fact that he’s been in Chamonix for a long time, his aura, it’s just amazing and draws me to that place. The first time I went up the Aiguille du Midi, Plake came along. We’re going up the tram and I told him it was my first time. And he was like "Oh my God." He pushed people out from the window and started pointing everywhere and naming everything in sight. I had goose bumps. I have goose bumps talking about it now. It was such a cool moment. The crew was skiing pretty fast off the top, but Plake said, "You stick with me." We took our time and he pointed everything out on the way down. Toward the bottom, I had some questions about ice screws and we found some ice and played around for an extra hour. Spending an afternoon with him was mind blowing. He’s definitely one of my mentors for sure.

When you were first getting into the park and pipe scene, who were your biggest influences?
My biggest influences then were the guys I was skiing with—J.F. Cusson, Vinny Dorion, Mike Douglas, Shane Szocs, and that whole crew—the New Canadian Air Force. There were different crews from everywhere doing their thing and breaking out of conventional skiing but even though there were a lot of people around the world doing it, the communication wasn’t there. You couldn’t watch clips on the Internet like you can today. Everyone was doing their thing with their own crew and evolving on their own. So most of my inspiration came from my crew.

How would you characterize what you were doing back in the day that was different?
We just wanted to make stuff up. We wanted to come up with ideas and try to see if it worked. That was our favorite part. It wasn’t full-on groundbreaking stuff, but the books and freestyle wouldn’t allow us to do it. We could do it on our own time but we couldn’t do it in the competition realm. At a point, we had to ask ourselves what kind of skiing would we rather do. Do we want to do stuff in the books or try to do stuff on our own? And that’s why we all left—because we all wanted in our hearts to be creative.

What do you think about halfpipe and slopestyle being included in the Olympics?
There’s the whole dilemma: Is the Olympics going to be good or bad for the sport? It’s probably going to open opportunities for lots of kids all over the world. That’s really cool and I’m excited for these kids who will be involved in these programs. If you want to see a high level of anything, you have to have people that commit to that one, precise thing for many years and that’s what the Olympics are going to do. And it’s amazing to watch that and see what humans are capable of.

On the other hand, if it affects the spirit of the sport, that used to bother me. But then I realized that there will always be free-spirited guys that are just going to break out and leave and do something better anyway. You can’t stop that from happening. Individuality and creativity will happen whether it’s in the halfpipe or not. Once I realized that, I stopped worrying about it.

How did the All.I.Can segment come about?
The segment came out of a collaboration between Dave Mossop and I. We both had different visions that we were able to combine together. From my side, the main inspiration came from being a kid, sitting in the back seat of my parents car, looking out the window and imagining a skier playing with all the features passing by. I always wanted to be able to express that somehow. I still catch myself doing that every now and then.

You have some cool projects coming up. You just moved on from Orage and are starting up with Armada’s backcountry apparel line. Do you want to talk about that?
I’m super pumped with everything’s that’s ahead with Armada. I had great years at Orage. I was really happy and it sucks to leave a healthy relationship. At the same time, there’s something good about leaving on a high note. When I first started skiing with Orage, Armada didn’t make outerwear then. Then a few years ago, Armada started making outerwear. There was a conflict of interest in the scope of things coming up. But now, Armada is going to do a real solid backcountry program. They want to put a lot of effort into it and they felt there was a lot I could bring to the table with R&D, product testing and design, and I love doing that stuff. There was something really appealing about doing something head to toe—a more holistic approach to design.

Why did you guys start Armada back in the day?
Well, it goes back to what we were talking about—the need to break out and break away. It’s funny how big a theme it is. Basically, there was a ton of energy put into our side of the sport around ’98 and ’99, with companies launching twin tips across the board and being really excited about freestyle. And then we wanted to keep it going—take it to marketing, make crazy, different style ads. We wanted to put more art into it. We wanted creativity to be a way bigger part of everything than it was—more than just producing product to sell. We felt like the culture was not carried through. We had a ton of energy and a ton of ideas and the best thing to do with ideas is to turn them into reality. We needed that outlet and we felt restricted within the industry.

Basically, Armada was created as that outlet for us—to try new design, launch new products. We were at a point where we wanted to try things and see what happened. That’s a bit too hard to make that happen with the bigger brands, so it seemed like we needed our own small company to try things and mess around and communicate the culture of the sport also. We felt like we needed a voice in a different way.

Why did you start Alpine Initiatives?
A few skiers started it with the desire to reach out of our comfort zone—part of a desire to have an experience, an interaction with the world that was different than the one we were having with skiing, which was great, but after a while, you want to have a different travel experience and interaction with people. The other thing was a desire to put ourselves in a situation that was fairly out of our reach to see if we could take it. With A.I., we’re putting ourselves way out of our comfort zone, and seeing if we can pick up new challenges. People who enjoy the mountains, who enjoy snow sports can get together to work on different kinds of projects together. We’re working on a bunch of new projects that will launch this spring. We have a project in Kenya, a project in Madagascar, and we’re starting a local program that’s really exciting.

What’s been the most rewarding accomplishment of your career?
The whole thing. I like the ongoing journey. I like how it’s changing all the time. I like the path that I’m on. I’m happy with where I’m at and I basically have my whole career to thank for that.

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