Remembering the Legend: C.R. Johnson

CRJ 360. Photo: Freedle Coty

How do we honor someone who has had a profound influence on the life and personal direction of others?   Paint a picture, write a book, build a monument?  Let’s go skiing instead!  This February 24 marks the day one year ago when the ski world lost one of its most cherished members, C.R. Johnson.  Known as CRJ throughout the industry, his charismatic personality and upbeat attitude were contagious to all those who had the privilege of spending time with him. To commemorate his life and spirit, Alta and 4FRNT will host a memorial afternoon of riding for all those who wish to attend.

A Truckee, California native, C.R. spent the early days of his childhood chasing his Ski Patrol father around the slopes of Squaw Valley.  His love of skiing eventually turned into a paycheck as Johnson gained sponsorship at the age of 12.  Entering competitions and placing well earned C.R. respect from a multitude of followers.  As he continued to push his abilities, and the limits of freeskiing at the time, he began to attract the attention of big companies and fellow skiers alike.  C.R. was notorious for his progressive style, both in the park and in the backcountry.  His 2002 victories at the Winter X-Games bolstered his status from awesome to epic, and soon his name was synonymous with the future of skiing.  Producing innovative tricks and shredding big lines placed C.R. in the limelight and he had awe-inspiring segments in a variety of different ski films over the next few years.  Yet, despite his success, Johnson never lost touch with the community that raised him.  Returning to Squaw every year to ride with his friends was one of the most important things in his life.  He also spent a good deal of time skiing with the enclave of professional riders that live in Utah.  Skiers like Tanner Hall and Pep Fujas call the Salt Lake City/Park City area their homes, and C.R. would visit them to ski some of the deepest pow on Earth. 

During a filming session at Brighton in December of 2005, C.R.’s success was cut short when he suffered a traumatic brain injury after a collision with one of his skier buddies.  Left in a medically induced coma for over a week, Johnson spent the next month in the University of Utah Hospital.  At this point it seemed that the young skier’s dreams were snuffed out like a candle.  However, being of strong body and mind, he began his checkered path to recovery.  “It was really difficult to see one of my closest friends in that condition,” said Matt Sterbenz of 4FRNT skis.  Since the late ‘90s, Sterbenz and Johnson had been like brothers.  “Even though I was older, his level of skiing was intimidating,” said Sterbenz.  Over the coming years, the two formed stronger bonds as they traveled the world competing.  “It was always nice to see a familiar face from town when you are in a crowd of new people overseas,” added Sterbenz. 

After nearly two seasons of intense physical therapy and conditioning, C.R. was back on skis with a renewed outlook and gratitude for being alive. Learning to ski again from scratch gave Johnson a fresh take on the sport and he wanted to make every day count towards something he cared deeply about.  Devoting his entire being to picking up where he left off, C.R. trained religiously in all disciplines of skiing.  His overpowering spirit and friendly demeanor permeated through the industry once again and by late 2007, his prospects were looking great.  Understanding Johnson’s riding style and desire to have more control over the type of equipment he used, 4FRNT’s Sterbenz decided it was time to build a ski that fit C.R.  Over the course of the season, the two spent a great deal of time coming up with an inventive design for the new ski.  “C.R. would send me napkins with red drawings on them depicting his ideas.  I would look at them and be like, ‘Do you even know what you’re doing?’” said Sterbenz.  Turns out he did, and in short order, the first prototypes rolled off the press.  “We weren’t sure if the shape would work out, but it ended up being a really fun ski and our testing up at Snowbird proved useful,” said Sterbenz.  The final blueprint was decided on, and the CRJ pro model was born.  In production for over two years now, the CRJ has been a great seller for 4FRNT.  The inspiration for the graphic came straight from C.R. and his commissioned artist, Greg Lipp.  The lion and surrounding color scheme were pulled from C.R.’s interest in the Rastafarian culture—a truly artful work that captured his style and set of ideals.

At the peak of C.R.’s comeback, he was struck down in a tragic accident while skiing at Squaw.  This time, there would be no second chance.  Johnson suffered a fatal fall in an area that he had skied countless times at his home mountain.  His friends and family didn’t want to believe the news, but in their hearts they knew he passed away in the very place he loved most.  “It is hard to lose someone like C.R.  He cared deeply about his friends and wanted everybody to be as stoked as he was.  I miss him everyday,” said Sterbenz. 

As the one year anniversary of his death approached, Sterbenz wanted a way for those that knew C.R. and those that wanted to know him to have an opportunity to participate in a celebration of his life.  It was decided that a day of riding would be held up at Alta due to its ski-community vibe and since it was one of C.R.’s favorite places to shred.  The event will take place Thursday, Feb. 24 and will begin in the early afternoon.  Following the event, a memorial and montage of his ski career will be held at The Goldminer’s Daughter near the Wildcat Base.  It will feature highlights from his life and raise awareness towards his charity.  Check out and for more information as the event approaches. 

CRJ 360. Photo: Freedle Coty