Meet The Man Who Kickstarted the Ski Industry

Ace Kvale started in front of the lens, made a living behind the lens, and has since come full circle.

words:: Ben Osborne

I had never met Ace, but not long into our phone conversation he had already invited me to his house in Southern Utah. It’s not that I was special—it’s just the way Ace is, a direct reflection of the free-spirited, eccentric, and good-time-havin’ industry that Ace help kickstart. Before social media ruled the game and Shaun White was showing up on packs of gum, there was people like Ace: the quintessential ski bum.

Deciding to forgo Graphic Design school, he moved to Utah to chase powder and not much else—but that didn’t last long. He quickly transitioned into being a photographer, and he and his group of friends set the standard for what “making it” in the ski industry is today. We sat down with Ace in the midst of teaching his 8-day Photo Residency for the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity to chat about his beginnings, what inspires him today, and why he would name a cute little Blue Heeler after one of the most brutal leaders in the history of the world. —ML


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Mountain Life: Hey Ace—thanks for sitting down with us. First things first, I just watched your Ace and The Desert Dawg Video and i’m still tearing up so I can’t help but wonder…What did that dog do to deserve a name like Genghis Khan?

Ace Kvale: Haha. He was just a tiny pup and I hadn’t named him yet, and I’ve always wanted to go to Mongolia. It’s at the top of my list of places I’ve never been. At the time I was reading a book about Mongolia. And the subtitle was “In The Empire of Genghis Khan” and my teenage son and his friend were like “Genghis Khan, Genghis Khan!”, and so it’s just happened by default. They started calling him that in a high pitched dog voice, and by the next day that was his name.

Well he looks like a good boy. I guess it kinda comes full circle because you started your career in front of the camera, but ended up making a living behind the lens—how’d that happen?

Ace: Yeah. I was always visually oriented and wanted to go to school for graphic design or art. And of course I never did. I just became a ski bum and in a very short time being a ski bum I found myself in Switzerland skiing for Marc Shapiro. He’s from Hamilton, Ontario— one of the great sports photographers ever. I found myself being a model for him and in Verbier, Switzerland in the 70’s.

He was getting pictures published of me, and in the offseason I did a big trip down to South Africa and ended up hitchhiking and travelling around Africa and just taking pictures with a little Rollei 35 I had.

When I came back Mark was like “What are you going to do, be a fucking ski model all your life? You should pick up a camera.” He encouraged me to do his his leftover jobs— his B jobs, his small ones. And that blossomed this is something that lasted for almost 20 years. I became his other photographer and then I started to get my own gigs.

Back in the 80s living in Europe and submitting to American magazines like Powder magazine and Black Diamond catalogues, Patagonia catalogues— I had a look and feel for my photographs that other people didn’t have. So I quickly carved a niche for myself in this. And then the same in the climbing industry. And we had a friendship and camaraderie that lasted for a long, long time and we’re actually launching a film about that project right now.

ML: You were brought into the world by a mentor—how has that guided your photography career?

 Ace: I’ve never looked at my co-photographers as competitors. I’ve always looked at them as colleagues and I find that the more I inspire people and spur them on and help them realize their projects the more it comes back to me.  Karma Juju—call it whatever you like but I find helping people to get their project done has helped me get my projects done and to see what their outcome is to use that metaphorically to focus on something. I really enjoy working with these students up here at Banff as well.

ML: Everyone has to be inspired by someone or something. I’m sure initially you were interested in getting out into the mountains more and continuing a lifestyle that would allow you to be outside—nowadays, what motivates you to continue to adventure? How has your inspiration changed over time?

Ace: I’m always inspired by wild places. I’ve never aspired to climb the popular peaks like Everest, Denali and so on. Even when I lived in Europe I only wanted to climb those mountains with no people on them. I’ve always been inspired by wild nature. Nature that is untouched, mountains that are untouched, routes that are untouched. Now where I live in the canyons has never been touched by mankind— very, very few people— the really wild nature has always been my inspiration.

When I came back Mark was like “What are you going to do, be a fucking ski model all your life? You should pick up a camera.”

So as you know I tried a lot of hard climbing for many years, decades of skiing and rock climbing and expedition climbing. I lost a lot of friends. I got a little bit older and I was much more inspired by the culture I came to see and find in the Himalaya or on the Indian reservations or the small towns of the West or the small villages in the Himalaya. And that’s what inspires me now—those people. I really love to get out backpacking and explore the most remote places I can find, places that are unmarked on the maps that have no names. The really hard to get to places—that’s still my inspiration and it always has been.

ML: It’s amazing to see some of the work you’ve done showcasing different cultures, and you’ve also gotten involved with helping lots of people charitably—how has your photography career woven in with that?

Ace: Yeah. Well Geoff Tabin, who has the Himalayan Cataract Project doing eye care around the world and doing cataract surgery mostly in Africa and Asia. He’s a climber. So I’ve got to know him through climbing. I knew who he was and then I landed an assignment with Outside magazine in 2004 and I worked with him in India with cataract surgery. And since then I’ve been on a dozen trips with him in sub-Saharan Africa or India and Nepal and that’s been really great really and he’s a climber too and he tries to do the trips where we go climbing or trekking before afterwards. His other technicians and nurses and helpers are often the climbers —Timmy O’Neill who we may know of— he goes with him often more than I do. So he surrounds himself by people who want to do the good work but then try to fit in a quick adventure after. And then I work with another foundation based out of Colorado called the dZi Foundation. They do earthquake-resistant schools and water projects throughout really rural eastern Nepal. And they’re climbers who much like me realize that the exorbitant amount of money that was spent to selfishly climb a mountain could be better utilized helping the local population who just need roofs on their schools, et cetera. And that is now going to be a wonderful organization doing really great work.

So both of these are friends of mine I met through the climbing world who are now almost entirely focused on the humanitarian projects and I’m one of their members. But we combine our love of culture, trekking, and climbing into humanitarian projects. You can’t do the hard climbing that much more as you get into your 50s and 60s—well, you can try and some do— but there are other things that interest us more.

Many years spent shooting in the Himalaya eventually drove Ace to fight for a positive change in the region.

ML:  Absolutely it seems like you started off as a photographer as a self-fulfilling, pay the bills type job but it has opened up so much to you and give you the desire to give back. How have your goals with photography, and in life evolved over time?

Ace: Almost immediately at the time it was fun because I was photographing my friends doing where we lived and we were having a great time doing it and we were making money skiing. We were among the very first sponsored freeskiers—before freeskiing was a thing. We weren’t racers, we weren’t competitors, and we helped launch the career of many people who went on to become very well-known skiers in the world. Glen Plake, Mike Hattrup, Scott Schmidt, and so immediately it was fun. It was worth but it was fun work and I didn’t have to do another job. I wouldn’t have to do construction or work in a kitchen. We were getting paid to ski and produce ski photography—and with our friends. That was the dream. What could be better than that living out of a little chalet way up in the Alps and skiing all the time. And we had to sacrifice as we had to give up some powder days to go get the photos. But the other side was we got to go and do things all over the Alps and then started to go to the Himalayas and the Andes and everywhere else. So the first immediate thing was it was a wonderful way to make a living. We kind of invented a new genre before people were doing that.

ML: I know you’ve moved away in some way from that type of photography but how does it make you feel seeing you know such a huge industry grow from you guys? There are thousands of people who make a living off of kind of that sort for photography and cinematography nowadays.

Ace: It’s great. It’s a great feeling. We had a wonderfully blessed time and we’ll never forget it. We had our biggest reunion we’ve ever had this last May over in Switzerland at a big telemark festival. They brought me over to give a presentation in a ballroom with hundreds of people and we helped shape the career of many. And we just have to really realize we were in the right place at the right time with the right people. And you know I’m not bitter about the number of people doing it now. I feel we have our little place in history and it was actually Leslie Anthony who’s contacting me probably 10 years ago at a festival in Red Mountain saying “You guys should make a film”. I’m like “Oh yeah, right. How are we going to do that?” And then just this last year a young filmmaker contacted me who they wanted to make a film about our role in the ski world. And we contacted Leslie and he said I’m in. So we’re just getting launched right now. It’s kind of quietly getting launched but it’s getting to be called its Team Clambin, where we lived. Team Calmbin was what was we called ourselves: me, John Faulkner, and Mark Shapiro. We’re gonna make this film and I think it’s going to be really really important and hopefully, we’ll get a good laugh out of it.

Scot Schmidt, sending it in Verbier. While much of North America was inundated with ski model photos, Ace’s photos represented a new frontier for the ski industry.

ML: It’s good that the younger people will get to understand the effect you guys had on the industry, and how indirectly have inspired so many. Do you have any outdoor photographers or adventurers that still inspire you?

 Ace: Yeah definitely. Grant Gunderson is one. So Grant’s a buddy and you know we’ve met Grant and we will probably interview him for the movie on how we met. He is superb photographer and has a great eye. He’s making a great career raising a family of photography. He’s probably one of the people we will interview as how we help shape his career. Lots of people helped launch their careers when they first read about us and were like “Wow, people are doing this. They’re skiing and living the life and making a living off their photography”.

There’s also a young lady in Salt Lake City who I consider my protege. Her name is Mary MacIntyre. You heard of her? Yeah. Oh. Have a seat. Yeah. Her career’s exploding in a big way. But she also finds it challenging. She’s an athlete, writer, and doing videography as well. Those people inspire me because they’re inspired and they’re stoked and I’m really stoked to inspire them and help them in any way. Especially Mary since she’s a close friend and nearby neighbor. But those are two that I can think of off the top of my head.

 ML: You what you look to do other exciting projects can you tell me about the video but is there anything else on the horizon.

Ace: Well the film is going to take a couple of years and that’s a big one. Otherwise, you know I’m so amazed by this new camera gear. We’ve had a guy from the Camera store in Calgary here for two days. So we’re playing with all the new fancy gear I’ve been handling a medium format camera that is 100 megapixels the other day.

But mostly I’m focusing on the vanishing culture around where I live—the old ranchers. The pioneer rancher settler families as they’re disappearing and die and to end the cowboy culture that’s still on the West. It is being affected by all the different political issues and climate change that’s going on right where I live. You know I live on the Grand Circuit next to Bears Ears. So we have that going on. We’re at the epicentre for the public lands debate in the U.S. Well, there is no debate—we’re going to fuckin outlive those motherfuckers. There should not be any debate.

I’m also really amazed at how many issues are going on in Canada. With so much wild land and beautiful land and how much fighting there is to do against the Canadian corporations so finally photographically these young students inspire me because they make me want to get home and get back on the projects I want to do the old no older generation could sign away right where I live and photograph their way of life before it’s gone. Ranchers who live on the edge of a National Park, for instance, are clinging to their way of still moving their cows and riding in rodeos. But the national parks are just expanding and that kind of thing. Also, I continue to work in India and Nepal where I love those cultures are also under threat of vanishing cultures and portrait photography is my focus for the next decade.

ML: Thanks for chatting Ace, you’re an inspiration!

Ace: No problem, come down and visit some time—I’m building a guest house right next to my sauna.