While the deaths of JP Auclair, one of our 2014 Adventurers of the Year, and Andreas Fransson have sent the ski community reeling, the skiers leave behind a rich legacy. We honor them here and share new details about the accident and attempt to rescue them.
At approximately 12:30 p.m. local time, on Monday, September 29, JP Auclair, 37, and Andreas Fransson, 31, two of the world’s premiere professional skiers, climbed up a narrow, 50-to-55-degree, approximately 3,000-foot couloir on Cerro San Lorenzo, a 12,158-foot peak that straddles the border of Argentina and Chile in the Patagonian Andes.They planned to ski the couloir, which was to be a highlight of their two-week trip to Patagonia, according to Miles Smart, an American guide living in Chamonix and close friend of Fransson.
When the skiers were two-thirds of the way up the couloir, which slices up Cerro San Lorenzo’s north side, an avalanche released high above them, knocking them 2,300-feet down the couloir and onto the heavily crevassed glacier that sits at the bottom of the mountain, according to a report by Stefan Palm of the Swedish Guide Association, who was involved in the rescue effort. (The report was originally given to Trey Cook, a Chamonix, France-based journalist and confirmed by National Geographic Adventure).
Four miles away on a ridge north of the couloir, filmmaker Bjarne Salen and photographer Daniel Ronnback were filming the skiers for a new project called Apogee, a word which is defined as the highest or most exalted point, or the position in the orbit of a heavenly body at which it’s farthest from the Earth. They watched as the snow enveloped Auclair and Fransson and carried them down the steep couloir.
While the line wasn’t particularly risky for the two seasoned ski mountaineers, the couloir topped out in a large, steep face that fanned up toward the summit.
“There’s a fair bit of steep terrain that can hold snow high on the line,” said Smart. “The best that we know is that some type of natural snow slide came down and took them off the face. It doesn’t take much in that type of terrain, especially in up mode,” he added.
When their friends disappeared, Salen and Ronnback tried to radio them, but received no response. Two days by foot from the closest town, Cochrane, Chile, Salen then used his satellite phone to enlist the help of some of the most skilled mountain professionals on the planet.
First, he called Smart, Fransson’s emergency contact, who was at home in Chamonix. At 12:35 p.m., Salen left a detailed message on Smart’s voicemail.
“He conveyed that he was in a very serious situation and that he needed my help. Right then. Immediate help,” Smart said in a telephone interview from Chamonix.
Next, Salen called Per As, former technical director of the Swedish Mountain Guide Association, and the respected Argentine climber Rolando Garibotti, who has pioneered several first ascents in Patagonia and penned books on the area. The Spanish-speaking Garibotti, who was also providing weather forecasts for the skiers while they were on the expedition, has an extensive network of contacts throughout the region and proved invaluable to the effort. Salen also recruited the help of Stefan Palm, of Servoz, France, who guides heli-ski trips in Chile during the South American winter, and is similarly well connected in the region. The men began to put into action a plan to try to save the men trapped in one of the most desolate and inhospitable corners of the planet.
Salen and Ronnback were four hours away from the base of the couloir. The weather was warming up, small avalanches were starting to break off, and the terrain was dangerous, complex and littered with crevasses.
“We all agreed that based on the time of day it was and the way Bjarne described the conditions and the equipment that they had there, we advised them to stay put and not further expose themselves at that point,” said Smart.
Palm, As, Smart, and Garibotti alerted Chilean authorities and tried to organize a helicopter, but the closest helicopter wasn’t able to arrive until the following day, Tuesday, September 30. However, within a half an hour of the accident, the men had launched a ground rescue operation.
Once the team on the ground was underway, they advised Salen and Ronnback to descend to the Toni Rohrer hut, a small mountain refuge about 3,000 feet below them, where they later met the rescue team, including Armando Montero, an experienced guide, mountaineer, and friend of Garibotti, who had coincidently been at the Cerro San Lorenzo trailhead when Garibotti called him that day, asking for his help.
At 9 a.m., on Tuesday, September 30, a helicopter picked up Montero from the hut. With bad weather and dangerous conditions on the glacier, the helicopter was unable to land. Instead, they flew low over the accident site and Montero was able to spot the bodies of Auclair and Fransson. Due to the trauma the bodies had sustained in the slide, he knew definitively that they were dead and had most likely died instantly.
While the deaths of Auclair and Fransson have sent the ski community reeling, they leave behind a rich legacy.
“JP Auclair was a pioneer in freeskiing and had a visionary approach to his riding and his style,” said professional skier Chris Davenport
Born in Quebec City, Canada, Auclair, 37, helped revolutionized skiing by forging the way for a new genre of the sport called freeskiing to emerge. As a competitive bump skier in the 90s, Auclair grew weary of the International Ski Federation’s overregulation of mogul skiing. So, he, along with a group of renegade skiers that became known as the New Canadian Air Force, broke away from the sport and headed into snowboard parks and began incorporating tricks into their skiing.
In 1998, Auclair was a part of the Salomon team that introduced the twin tip, a ski that allowed skiers to ski, jump, and land backwards and forwards. This innovation afforded skiers greater creativity, advancing the sport ever further. In 2014, freeskiing made its debut at the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, thanks, in large part, to Auclair’s contributions to the sport.
As the years progressed, Auclair won competitions, launched his own ski company, Armada, and starred in countless films. In 2010, he began to collaborate with Sherpas Cinema, a British Columbia-based ski film company that released All.I.Can, a 2011 film that featured a segment of Auclair riding rails in Trail, Rossland, and Nelson B.C. By 2012, the video clip, Auclair’s creative brainchild, had garnered over three million views and become the most watched ski segment ever. In 2014, Auclair was honored for his extraordinary achievements in skiing and named one of our 2014 National Geographic’s Adventurers of the Year.
Whether on the slopes or behind the camera, Auclair’s contributions to skiing were almost unparalleled in their breadth and vision.
“I consider JP to be one of the most brilliant minds of the action sports world—creative, dedicated, principled, and universally loved. He’s had an outstanding career as a pro skier and has been one of the most influential skiers of all time,” said Mike Douglas, known as the “godfather of freeskiing” who was Auclair’s New Canadian Air Force peer and dear friend.
Beyond his immense talent, Auclair was kind, humble, and gracious. In 2008, he launched a non-profit, Alpine Initiatives, that connects the mountain sports community with community service projects worldwide.
“He was a man of great humility and grace,” said Davenport.
Underpinning Auclair’s career was a drive for freedom and self-expression.
“Freedom has been a real baseline theme for me and I think I’m still on that journey, on that search.”
And it was this desire for freedom that eventually moved him to into the big, pristine and untrammeled mountains.
“I always think that one thing leads to another,” said Auclair. “It always feels like something is right around the corner. It’s a huge world that is wide open.”
First introduced to the backcountry by the legendary skier Glen Plake in about 2000, Auclair had become increasingly fascinated with backcountry skiing in the last years of his life and had focused on acquiring the skills necessary to move safely in wild mountains.
Auclair took avalanche courses, worked with respected backcountry skiers, and in 2011 moved to Zurich, Switzerland, to be with his girlfriend and to soak up European alpine culture. He also began skiing with Andreas Fransson, a Swedish ski bum and accomplished skier, who lived in Chamonix and quickly became one of Auclair’s ski-mountaineering mentors, Auclair said in 2012.
While Fransson didn’t have the same mass popularity as Auclair, he had established himself in the core ski world as one of the world’s premiere steep skiers. He had notched first descents across the globe, including a pioneering descent of Denali’s south face in 2011, which earned him Sweden’s adventurer of the year award in 2012, which is awarded each year to the Swedish person or team who demonstrates outstanding performance in adventure.
“There’s a lot of people who have skills, a lot of people have desire, but every now and then there’s a few of them that have another gear and Andreas was one of them,” said Plake, who often skied with Fransson in Chamonix. “He had the opportunity to do some mind boggling things and with frequency,” said Plake, “That’s the main thing—the frequency he was doing things was pretty impressive.”
While known for skiing steep, difficult lines, he was meticulous in his approach to risk.
“He tried to be as calculated as he could. He loved to do steep skiing, but he tried to take every precaution,” Smart said.
He was a soulful guy, who took a spiritual approach to skiing and often wrote eloquent musings about his experiences on his blog, Life From a Different Angle. He was also in the process of obtaining his International Federation of Mountain Guides Association certification, the highest and most prestigious guiding accreditation.
But it was not just his skiing that stood out to his peers, it was his enthusiasm, passion, and generous spirit.
“Andreas Fransson is one of those guys who lived every minute like it was his last. Constantly in motion, always stoked and full of life,” said Douglas, who directed Tempting Fear, the 2013 documentary about Fransson.
The film explored Fransson’s near fatal accident, in which he broke his neck in an avalanche on Chamonix’s Aiguille Verte in 2010. The accident forced him to confront death and the risks inherent to his sport. But he was not deterred. For him, death was just another aspect of life, and he didn’t fear it.
“One of the reasons I think I can do this is because I don’t think the consequences behind the risks are as bad as society wants us to think,” he told me in an interview for Outside in 2012.
He was fueled by a desire to explore the unknown and test the outer limits of what he was capable of.
“I have to challenge my own expectations to go beyond, into the unknown—the only place where real adventure can be found, as I see it,” he said.
For Fransson, Patagonia offered up the experience of the unknown, perhaps more than any other place on the planet.
“His fascination with that part of the world is the same as a lot of mountain people,” said Smart. “It hasn’t been explored that much for its skiing and that excited him,” said Smart.
The day before he left for South America, Fransson met up with Smart at Pie, a restaurant in Chamonix. Smart asked him if the trip was going to be similar to the one he took in 2012, a boundary-pushing expedition in which he claimed the first descent of the Whillans ramp, a 60-degree, fall-and-you-die-ramp on Mt. Poincenot in Argentina.
“His response was something like, ‘Oh no, it’s not that type of trip. We’re just going to go ski a really beautiful line, but something that’s not overly serious.”
Last Monday, while pursuing that big beautiful line, Auclair and Fransson stepped into the great unknown, the biggest adventure of them all.
To support Auclair’s partner and his three-month-old son Leo during this time, please donate to the Auclair Fund.
Skier JP Auclair was one of our 2014 National Geographic Adventurers of the Year. Our thoughts go out to the families and friends of all the adventurers lost in the mountains over the past week.