Democratizing the mountains

Democratizing the mountains

Alpine Initiatives’ Canary Club is unlocking experiences for the
next generation


Six years before an avalanche cut JP Auclair’s life short, he founded Alpine Initiatives (AI), a non-profit that’s taken on causes important to the pioneering skier’s philanthropic spirit—everything from building a community home for HIV-positive children in Kenya to fighting hunger in Madagascar to building mountain huts that inspire adventure. About climate change, Auclair once said, “It’s not about doing less… it’s about doing more,” and that principle is applied to all of AI’s projects. At its core, AI connects people and mountains by fostering authentic experiences—the kind that shaped Auclair’s genius, humility, creativity and empathy. 

Auclair aimed to broaden skiing’s audience, and AI’s Canary Club program strives to accomplish that. A grassroots youth initiative launched with the city of Edwards, Colorado, Paragon Guides connects underprivileged youth in mountain communities to the playground right out their back doors. 

“We believe that skiing and the outdoors are for everyone,” says AI co-founder Mike Hovey. “The goal of this program is to provide an outdoor experience to someone who lives in the mountains, but doesn’t have the means or support to experience them on his or her own.”

Last spring, AI approached Edwards’ Red Canyon High School, a school that caters to students seeking an alternative high school environment and offered to take a group of students on an overnight backcountry hut trip. Eight students signed up, but only three completed the three training sessions prior to the trip and returned the parental consent forms. In March, Hovey, along with ski guide Will Elliott and ski patroller/photographer Andrew Warkentin took Alex Schreiber and Matt Crotwell, both 16, and Lorenzo “Ace” Molinar, 15, to the 10th Mountain Division Hut near Leadville, Colorado. The skiers had zero backcountry experience but were just the kind of guys Auclair would have enjoyed taking out into the mountains. Considered “at-risk” students, all three have part-time jobs while attending high school and don’t have the resources to execute a hut trip. 

“We look closely at our school data and factors that lead to at-risk behaviors. Lack of community involvement and lack of constructive use of free time are contributing factors to why our students might struggle,” says Red Canyon High School Principal Troy Dudley. “Connecting with mentors and learning the value of the environment we live in is especially important for our students. It’s also an opportunity to appreciate the incredible therapeutic aspects the mountains can bring to their day-to-day lives.”

The trio first heard about Auclair during a meeting with Hovey prior to the hut trip, and Hovey assigned “homework” to go watch some of Auclair’s more well-known film segments. The students were surprised nothing more was being asked of them. All that was required of the participants was that they enjoy the mountains. 

The day before the hut trip, the group met at Meadow Mountain, a hill in Minturn, to practice skinning on Black Crows skis mounted with Dynafit touring bindings, learn how to use a beacon and prep for the following day’s adventure. “When I hike the hill with my dog, it takes about 10 to 12 minutes,” says Warkentin, who lives nearby. “It took our group about an hour. Someone was laying on the ground with his pack sprawled out, overheating with four layers on. I was a little concerned with Ace, but he ended up being the most positive of the bunch. He was having so much fun that nothing—not even total exhaustion—phased him.” 

The next day, the group gathered on Tennessee Pass to start the adventure. While the 10th Mountain Division Hut is one of the easier huts to access in its namesake network, the 3.2-mile skin and 800 vertical foot gain proved difficult for the beginner backcountry skiers. The skinning particularly destroyed Ace, despite his positive disposition. “He’s maybe one of the most positive people I’ve ever met,” says Hovey. “He was, like, ‘This is crushing me, but I’m having so much fun.’” The predicted two-and-a-half-hour trip took four hours. “There was tripping, falling, sprinting and crashing, cramping, yelling… they were questioning whether the hut existed,” says Hovey. “But I was really impressed with the overall kindness displayed—they were super supportive of each other. Each kid had a moment or two of freaking out, and they didn’t harp on each other for that; they encouraged one another.” 

The moment the group saw the hut, with 13,200-foot Homestake Peak looming in the distance, the students started cheering and their defeated demeanor quickly shifted. Once at the hut, the boys sought out a small cliff to jump off and built a kicker. After numerous tries to nail 360s and front flips in breakable crust, the group retreated inside where the guides introduced the students to hut life—how to melt snow for water, share cooking chores and clean up. Within 20 minutes, they had figured out how to open an upper-level window and hop out. They begged to jump off the roof. At dinner, there was talk of girls, unpopular teachers and the trouble they’ve gotten in. The adults tried to paint a bigger life picture. At 8:30 p.m., the trio finally gave in to their exhaustion. After years of structured camps, classes and jobs, with instructions for every hour of the day, the boys reveled in their freedom. “It was an escape from daily life,” says Schreiber. “Being in the middle of nowhere and listening to the mountains felt really good.”

That’s probably all Auclair would need to hear to mark the program’s success. AI has booked the hut for March 2020. Alex, Ace and Matt might serve as leaders for the next trip, which will include more training sessions and involvement from the students in trip planning and preparation. Principal Dudley was so happy with the program, he integrated it into the curriculum this year. Kids like Ace, Alex and Matt will be able to earn a quarter credit for every 30 hours of mountain adventures they participate in with AI’s Canary Club. 

Auclair knew how life-changing one positive experience like a hut trip could be for an individual, expressed so eloquently here: 

“Unplug; go out in the mountains, cherish the moments and appreciate. Let the soul rejuvenate. It is much needed.”