7:00pm February 24, 2010
We learned just hours ago that CR Johnson, freeskiing pioneer, son, brother and beloved friend of the skiing community tragically passed in an accident at his home mountain of Squaw Valley, CA. We are heartbroken in the Freeskier offices and this loss cannot be calculated in words, photos or moving images. But I wanted to take a moment to share some thoughts about CR. He was a lion. He was an inspiration. He was my longtime friend.
CR and I became friends in Cordova, Alaska, in the spring of 2001. We shared a heli with his dad Rusty at Points North Heli. At that time, I was no stranger to the kid’s talent as a skier. Freeskier had already run a sequence of him two years earlier when, at 15, he spun a 1440 on film and instantly broke into the scene as one of the hottest new names in the sport. But that trip was the first time he and I were able to connect as people and the beginning of our decade long friendship that, so sadly, ended today.
Up in Cordova, by night, he was a high school senior, studying for his final exams diligently at the dinner table. By day, he was the best skier in our crew, confidently airing off things no one else was even looking at with 3,000 feet of AK exposure beneath us. At 17, with little AK experience, he was our point man – always ready to “guinea” what the rest of us would only stare at with unrealistic ambitions. On one run, CR volunteered to ski the untracked fall line over the roll over. He started down and stopped and started rubber-necking trying to see down further. “I’m not sure where to go here.” The rest of us were in casual conversation barely paying attention when Kevin Quinn, Points North Heli proprietor, came over the radio, “Who ever that is, kick turn, and get out of there, you’re about to drop a 300 foot cliff.” Conversation stopped. The kid casually swung his ski around and traversed to safety – then ripped a line to the valley floor. The rest of us didn’t say a word and did the best to stop our sewing machine leg from pogo-ing us off the side of the slope.
CR was a skiing prodigy and a pioneer in the freeskiing movement. He won an X Games silver in slopestyle the year after that trip to AK. He podiumed at the US Open Slopestyle that same year. The following year, 2003, he and Candide Thovex showed the world the first glimpses of what was to come in pipe, boosting ridiculously massive air at the X Games ski pipe comp. Candide got the gold and CR would have certainly been on the podium, maybe even won, if he hadn’t of hit the lip and taken a hard fall. Simon Dumont and Tanner Hall and others weren’t far behind in the months and years to come, pushing the limits of pipe skiing even further. But CR did it first. He was ambitious, confident, brash, young and super talented. I remember partying with him in Boulder one night, probably about 2004 or so, there were girls around, shots, the whole deal. We were going for it. He was on top of his game. A professionally sponsored skier for six years already at 21 already – he was straight-up cocky. He made lots of friends. And he made some enemies too.
At this point, he had opinion about everything – from politics and religion, to his own opinion on who was the “best” in sking. No one was excluded from criticism or evaluation. In his 2003 cover profile he told me, “What Seth Morrison is doing is totally sick. I’d like to see him landing more stuff to his feet, with no body check. I think once he starts doing that, he’s going to be way ahead of everyone else. It’s crucial to land the trick, and Seth talks about that in his interviews. He lands Lincoln loops and back flips off cliffs. That on the tip of it all: incorporating park tricks with style into the backcountry lines. When someone can be really good at both, that’s who will be the best.”
I believe, in this quote, from 2003, he was outlining his own aspirations at that point. To be the best. And he was on his way.
He appeared in Scott Gaffney’s Immersion around this same time. And this is when CR started combining the big mountain skills of that kid in AK with the top X Games competitor – landing technical tricks in the backcountry. He landed himself on his second Freeskier cover floating a huge rightside 360 in the Tahoe backcountry. Just like the 17 year old at the dinner table in AK, he was diligently working toward that goal of being the best by putting those two parts of skiing together. Along with his friend Tanner Hall – he was re-shaping the face of skiing as a pioneer of our sport.
It was that same year, on December 12, 2005, early in the ski season, that CR sustained a severe head injury that changed his life path. He was hospitalized and there was some question as to how, and if, he would recover. We feared for his life. His recovery was well documented over the next several months. Hundreds and hundreds of emails came in to the email address loveforCR@freeskier.com with positive messages. Tanner was there the whole way during his recovery and in his room during some of the most significant
moments of his early triumphs. He spent 34 days in the hospital. He came to the SIA trade show just weeks after his release and I saw him for the first time. He was clearly hurt, but he had that fire underneath.
But the road had just begun for CR. His physical and emotional recovery would take years. But he did recover. And it was with that fire and diligence he came back to the sport he loved. And we all loved him more than ever for it.
It wasn’t even a year after his injury, that next summer of 2006, that he came to Boulder again. We went out to hit golf balls together at the range. Although calmed, a bit of the brashness was back. “Chris, I want to talk about my comeback profile.” We talked about it. But trying to be impartial, despite my love for him, I wasn’t so sure about a profile just yet.
The next few years were hugely challenging for our friend CR. He lost sponsors. He wrestled with not being the same athlete he was before the injury. I think he might have even wrestled with not being the same person as before his injury. Skiing wasn’t the same as it had been. He wanted to come back to the same place he had left off before 2005 – and the reality was harsh. The sport moves so fast now, even a knee injury, much less a traumatic brain injury, can put an athlete behind his peers quickly.
I can say, as his friend, his injury did change his personality a bit. He and I talked openly about this though. That brash, ambitious and aggressive pro athlete had been replaced with a more quiet and gentle confidence. He was developing a calm and a positive attitude of gratitude.
Last year he told me, “Im actually grateful for my injury. It made me realize so many things. Made me grateful for the people in my life. Made me realize it’s about my friends and family.” It was an unbelievable thing to say. That he was grateful for such a huge challenge. But he meant it. And in the last couple of years, it seems he really started living by this new found perspective.
I saw CR for the last time on February 1. I ran into him, unexpectedly, at Winter Park in the cafeteria. He smiled sideways and gave me a big hug, pulled on his mittens and we went skiing for the rest of the day together. He evangelized his new 4FRNT pro model for me (great skis) and brushed the snow off his tips to show me the hidden secret words in the ski’s graphic: “bless,” “cris” and other gems of rasta wisdom he lived by. He told me about how in love with his girlfriend he was, how stoked he was on her cooking and her ability to keep him in line and respectful. He quickly advised me “to be good to your woman, man.” He was amped on a recent 3rd place finish in a big mountain comp, Red Bull Line Catcher, where he placed behind Candide and Sean Pettit and just ahead of Sage Cattabriga-Alosa.
We ducked a rope and tried to find some pow in the low-tide conditions of Colorado three weeks ago we found ourselves thrashing about in some tight trees, hitting rocks, and traversing rotten snow to try and find an exit. “Adventure skiing!” It was so fun to be out there with him, so positive, so happy with his life. Many a ski pro, who I have been with, would have complained loudly. In fact, I think a younger CR would have complained loudly to me. But he was stoked. The positive energy shimmered on the guy.
Today, after I learned of his death, I checked my Facebook page and found this message buried in my inbox from before CR and I met in Winter Park a few weeks back:
Things have been great for me. I just got home from France. I was over there doing the Red Bull Line Catcher event. It was amazing. I ended up in 3rd place, behind Candide and Sean Pettit and just ahead of Sage, so I am stoked. Things are very positive. I have been working on starting my own line of outerwear and clothing as well. Big things.
CR is coming back. I remember you saying, “Focus on coming back and once you have done that then we will worry about a comeback profile.”
Great words of wisdom. Maybe not making as much sense then as they do now but words I have come to appreciate. At that point I just wanted to be back but was unaware of the work ahead of me. Now I am trodding my path that is leading me to a most righteous and positive place in life. Things are going really well and I am on track to be well ahead of where I was in life. Much accomplished, and far more yet to be accomplished. My riding is getting back on point for real, so… when ever you are ready for a killer profile, we can put something together like no one has ever read before. You just let me know.
I hope all is well brother and I will be seeing you soon.
We were in early discussions about his true comeback profile, and it puts a lump in my throat tonight when I think about the fact that he and I will not be able to work on that together now. I was not able to make that profile happen fast enough. I’m sorry for that, my friend.
CR Johnson was a pioneer in our sport, a talent and his skiing legacy will never be forgotten. The movies, the photos, the articles will all live on and stand as proof and a testament to his abilities. But even more important, as a human being, he had come to realize that none of that really mattered. He had come back to skiing for the pure love of it. He was enjoying every minute on snow and to hell with the photographers, the film segments, the profiles. But he was skiing better than he had in years. Being lost in shitty snow and tight trees with a friend had become more important to him than a magazine cover. His woman, his friends, his loving and supportive family were his first focus. These are the things that matter. As I told him about some of the changes in my life, things that seemed like a big deal to me at the time, he advised, ever the philosopher these days, “Change is the only constant in life, Chris.” He was, of course, right. And he had been through more change than most and had come out the other side a more complete person because of it. And a true inspiration to all of the people around him.
I wish that we didn’t have to deal with this change today. Because the world without CR will not be as full and positive as it was with him. It’s hard to see anything positive in the news we are dealing with now. But I think CR would find some philosophy, find some words of wisdom, find a way to make us feel better about it. So I’m listening tonight to hear his voice, and help me feel better.
I am so sad to see you go my friend. I hope there will be another time for us in the trees. Thank you for everything you gave me in our time together.
Love and respect,