When JP Auclair and Andreas Fransson disappeared in an avalanche in South America in 2014 — along with the trauma into which it threw family and friends — came the single biggest blow yet to a freeskiing community still reeling from years of high-profile losses: Sarah Burke, Shane McConkey, Doug Coombs and other notables had all gone down within a decade, and losing two luminaries at the same time seemed particularly cruel, albeit entirely fathomable given the circumstance. With Auclair's passing, however, also went another slice of ski history.
Like McConkey, Auclair was a ski and style revolutionary who helped redefine the sport at a crucial crossroads, and his name, like that of McConkey, became forever synonymous with the result. When I launched Canada's SBC Skier magazine back in 2001, our first cover urged readers to "get lost" with guest editor JP Auclair. And we did, on a ride through the cosmos of ski possibility. The feature that Auclair oversaw, "Homme Fini" (a reference to an absent-mindedness competition with New Canadian Air Force teammate, JF Cusson) was filled with the seeds he'd scatter into the ski winds to germinate on every continent. Whether through the hilarious recollections of his one-time coach, Mike Douglas, his Whistler-based travel agent Diane Foster, or in Auclair's own generous commentary on fellow athletes and the sport in general, readers gained insight into the mind and ways of a creative genius both on- and off-slope, a leader by dint of innovation and accomplishment otherwise reluctant to place himself ahead of anyone else. Sadly, coincidentally, perhaps fittingly, 14 years after the magazine's debut, the last-ever issue of SBC Skier was a tribute to the late, great skier featuring an iconic Bruce Rowles shot from the Whistler backcountry.
In spring 2015, however, Auclair's longtime ski sponsor Armada hit upon an active way to honour the man: the JP Memorial, a gathering of like-minded people celebrating a hero with the kind of fun he would appreciate, captured the "forever grateful" sentiment perfectly. Staged at the Riksgränsen ski resort in the Arctic hinterlands of northern Sweden, the accompanying copy said it all: "It's not a contest, but there is a contest. It's not a festival, but there will be music. It's an intimate springtime event and will be comprised of some pros, some ski-industry-types, and a bunch of other people who love skiing. A true throwback, the JP Memorial calls for a 90s outfit, film cameras, hi-8 video, etc. We encourage all documentation to be analog... Simply live in the now, live in the then. Let's take it back to the good times of skiing, circa 1997. Let's celebrate JP."
After two successful years at Riksgränsen, this year's 3rd annual JP Memorial rolls into Whistler — one of Auclair's de facto adopted homes — April 7 to 11 during the World Ski and Snowboard Festival. The event bills itself as a "one of a kind retrospective," and previous incarnations would tend to confirm that. Friends new and old from around the world journeyed to Riksgränsen to throw down backflip mutes (Auclair's signature trick), wear silly clothes and retro skis, and ski tour in the midnight sun, an emotional tribute that defied all expectation of what a ski event could be. Whistler version 3.0 coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Salomon 1080, the turning-point ski Auclair helped popularize, and is bound to be at least as fun — if not more populous — given how much easier it is to get to Whistler than Arctic Sweden. Whatever the case, it will hold true to the ethos of the first: there will be parties; there will be jumping and; there will be retro airs and retro heirs; and everyone is welcome, skier or not.
"It's going to be pretty informal. I'm the most dialed-in person on the event and I have no idea what's going to happen," says filmmaker Douglas, 1080 designer and former New School Mob Boss, who's helping organize the festivities. "JP was like my little brother. We'd met in 1996 when JP earned a spot on the Canadian Mogul Team and I was one of his coaches. Within two years we'd designed the first high-performance twin-tip ski, and along with JF Cusson, Vincent Dorion, and Szocs, were dubbed the New Canadian Air Force. The rest is a little piece of ski history that I'll always be glad to have shared with JP. The last time we'd spoken, in fact, we reminisced about those days where everything was exciting and new."
The event landed in Whistler with JP's widow Ingrid and Tyler Hamlet of Poor Boyz Productions looking to move it to this side of the pond. At first they thought of summer camp season, but speaking with Douglas about his planned 20-year 1080 reunion they thought the fit was perfect. "I had planned something much smaller for the anniversary," says Douglas. "But when we joined forces with these guys on the JP Memorial it created something much bigger that's bound to be more fun with a wider group of old and new skiers."
Given the many fond local memories of Auclair, there's no doubt.
"JP was an amazing human who inspired many, and I feel honoured for the gift of having known him," wrote New Canadian Air Force member Shane Szocs in that final issue of SBC Skier. "For somebody who accomplished so much, it's incredible how he remained so humble and never lost his focus on living life the way he wanted to. There are a few things I can't see now without thinking of JP and cracking a big smile: Kendamas, snowy bus stops, GT racers, Sushi Village, monoboards, and, of course, backflip mutes."
There's no shortage of people who feel JP forever changed them for the better.
"'I don't think it's about doing less, I think it's about doing more. It's about being more creative, it's about being more active.' I'll never forget the moment, during the making of All.I.Can., that JP spoke those words," said Dave Mossop, the Sherpas Cinema principal who considers it a privilege to have worked with Auclair on what became a landmark film for both. "We were discussing climate change, one of the most complex problems humanity has ever faced, and this phrase completely blew my mind and changed everything. It was a profound shift in fundamental perspective, presented with absolute simplicity. This was quintessential JP — a true visionary, a noble leader, a humble genius. He knew how to listen to nature to help guide his decisions. He knew how to catalyze other people's creativity and collaborate on grand endeavours."
Although known for the many ridiculous but rad things he engineered — including the first GT racer backflip — Auclair's most noteworthy stunt prior to the street-skiing scene in All.I.Can. was defying (or perhaps using) gravity as the first person to ski through a vertical "loop," which his friend, Poor Boyz director Johnny Decesare called "the most important single shot of my filming career."
Decesare worked many years with JP, who'd head down to the California studio to participate in the edit of his film segments. "For the Poor Boyz crew it was like losing a brother," recalled Decesare. "JP was such a huge part of our lives — a fixture in the office, a talent, a friend, a travel partner, inspiration for our films and overall one hell of a guy. Walking around the office I have constant reminders of JP, from the first pair of Armada JJs he gave me, to movie posters, and things he left or gave us. All reminders of that smile he always had, and memories I'll cherish forever."
From a local perspective, you don't have to be part of any "insider group" — or even a skier — to create your own JP memories. Though some things — like a Blackcomb windlip jam on the 9th — are highly weather dependent, good prizes are to be had in Best Period Trick; Best Mute Backflip; Best QP Straight Air; Best QP Trick; Best 90s outfit; Most Fun; Best Photo; and a Send It Award. And of course a big finale party at the GLC Monday the 10th starting at 8 p.m. Ten bucks is the cover with all proceeds going to Auclair's charity Alpine Initiatives (alpineinitiatives.org). There will be movies and skier/musician Marc Andre Belliveau will be playing. Information and scheduling at thejpmemorial.com.
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