4FRNT’s Matt Sterbenz on CR Johnson: His life, legacy and upcoming film
On February 24, 2010, the freeskiing community lost one of its pioneers. CR Johnson was skiing the Light Towers section at his home resort of Squaw Valley when he caught an edge and fell, hitting his head on the rocks below. In the years since his death, CR’s spirit has lived on and continues to inspire skiers, like Tanner Hall, the 4FRNT team, and so many more, from the halfpipe, to the backcountry, all around the world. To celebrate CR’s life and detail his influential career, 4FRNT will be releasing a film titled, CRJ: The Chronicle of a Freeskiing Icon. In anticipation of the film, we sought out 4FRNT founder Matt Sterbenz to talk about the film, as well as the man it commemorates.
When did the idea to produce a movie chronicling CR’s life first come about?
Last summer, we thought about the impact compiling just a banger segment would have. Then we decided that there was more to it than that, so we started to talk with some industry heads that worked with CR, and collectively felt like he made a much larger impact on the industry than just being a pro shredder. We decided that in conjunction with the final model release of his signature ski, the CRJ, that it was time to put together a chronicle of his skiing.
Were there any bumps in the road, or difficulties encountered during the production of this film?
I think the biggest bumps are probably those which are emotionally related. It’s hard to not get angry or upset over his death. To put a project of this magnitude together, we’re forced to go through a lot of footage—both childhood stuff as well as those behind the scenes shots that became his final edits, which we all watched and adored.
Was anyone hesitant about giving their insight into CR for the film?
Not all the companies he worked with wanted to contribute, but [in the end] we got what we needed.
When does the film premiere?
Squaw Valley, California, September 14 at the base of KT 22.
Watch the trailer for 4FRNT’s CRJ: The Chronicle of a Freeskiing Icon
Can you describe the first time you met CR?
I cannot recall the exact time and place. I’m sure it was up at Squaw skiing the Riviera Park. He was a high schooler when I met him and I was a rival competitor of his at big air and slope comps. Our relationship in the beginning was straight up competition based, but neither of us really ever sought out to beat each other. I think mainly because he and I both knew he was a lot better than me. Once we lived on the same street up in Prosser outside of Truckee, we started to hang out more and became friends. I think I got to know him the best when we all met up at his family lake house by Stateline. It was an annual birthday bash that everyone from the ski community would come out for.
Talk about CR as a person, both on and off the hill.
I never saw the cockiness, like some may see and think from watching his Bigger Picture segments. He was pretty grounded and I think he was the same person on-hill as he was off, but the movie screen had an impact on what those who didn’t know him thought. He was really polite. He would always thank me and my wife Lisa by name every time he came over for dinner. Just classic politeness that’s awkwardly, formally polite, but kind of cool too. It was good. He was someone always looking at the bright side of life. He was always stoked.
About two years after CR sustained a life-threatening injury at Brighton, 4FRNT picked him up as a sponsored skier and part owner. How was that decision made?
The decision started when he was recovering and losing sponsors. I sat there alongside his bed while he was in his coma just blown away by the fact he was so hurt. Thankfully, a huge part of his successful recovery was because of how strong he was going into it. Here was a friend of mine from Tahoe, the place I just moved from, now I was sitting bedside him, unconscious in Utah. I felt compelled to help him out as much as possible. When things got rolling for him and skiing started coming back, we told him that if he wasn’t happy that we could help. He tried a bunch of skis before deciding to make the move. He skied on our stuff for the better part of a year before we went public with the partnership and immediately got into designing his own signature ski, the CRJ. He lived through two of those product launches and added some loose feedback to base our third-year model off of.
Can you take us through the development of the CRJ ski, from idea, to design, to testing, to stores.
The CRJ was born off a need to create a ski for the Sierras… able to surf and cruise the pow but also engage on edge, transitioning to firm snow while having a stable enough stomping platform for bigger, high speed lines. Basically, an all-mountain ski to a Squaw Valley born and bred skier. He introduced to our collection a reverse sidecut/camber profile that we hadn’t explored as extensively in previous shapes. He also pushed the width boundary further than we had gone up to at that time. I personally built his ski on our press before a trip I was taking with Freeskier to Island Lake Lodge. I remember how light and fast it felt in the trees. From there, we got CR some samples and furthered our testing on local ground up here at Snowbird. Once we decided on the shape and flex, we sent it out for production and that fall he was rocking the production grade CRJ. CR was a passionate Rastafarian and so a lot of the artwork derived from accents or figurines that were symbolic to that culture and artwork.
Is there a single moment in his career that stands out to you more than the rest?
The year he did a bio 1260 at the US Open Big Air in Vail. Watching him that night was magical. I recall the landing of that 1260, his knee fully buckled inwards and he skied it off like no big deal. He was raging on adrenalin that night and just sessioning in front of a huge crowd.
Where were you when you heard of CR’s passing?
I was in Jackson Hole at Powder’s ski test. I called his dad immediately and he had already known. I then went over to the TGR HQ and sat and sobbed with the boys and eventually mustered up a press release to the public so there wasn’t any rumors or skepticism as to what had happened. The next day I bailed and skied a rad little ski hill in Pocatello with a great friend of mine. It was a special day and it was there I realized that life is far more precious than I thought, and if [CR] was to succumb to life skiing a run he had hundreds of times, then it could happen to any of us at anytime. Although I wasn’t skiing with him the day he passed, I can guarantee you that when he died, he was skiing at his absolute best since his head injury. As it sounded, the conditions were just ripping that day and so was he. He went out just how any of us would prefer to, except it came way too soon.
What do you think CR’s legacy is?
His style and passion for skiing. That’s the nucleus. Beyond that and all that he contributed to it with his personal achievements, I think it was his excitement for the day and the opportunities of which we are all so blessed to have each and every day we get to go skiing.
About the author:
Donny O'Neill hails from the mystical, faraway land of New Hartford, CT. When he's not in the mountains searching for Big Foot, he's the Associate Editor here at Freeskier.