Young skier remembered as pioneer ‘stoked on life’
The Union News Service
Those who called C.R. Johnson a friend remember the Truckee skier not only for his contributions to the freeskiing movement, but also for his genuine kindness, his smiling face and his positive outlook on life.
“He was grateful for everything he had,” said close friend Scott Gaffney, of Tahoe City. “He definitely didn’t take life, and his way of life, for granted.”
Johnson, 26, made a name for himself as a teenager as one of the most progressive freeskiers in the industry; he was killed in a skiing accident Wednesday at Squaw Valley USA.
Witnesses reported Johnson was skiing the Light Towers area near Headwall when he caught an edge on some exposed rock as he initiated a turn, according to a Squaw press release. He fell and hit several rocks before coming to rest several hundred yards below.
Jim Rogers, a member of the Lake Tahoe-area resort’s ski patrol, told the Associated Press Johnson was skiing with a group of friends when he fell while trying to negotiate a “very, very tight, rocky area.”
Johnson tumbled face-first, then spun around and hit the back of his head on rocks, witnesses said. Johnson was wearing a helmet, which Rogers said took a serious blow.
Medical personnel arrived within minutes, but Johnson died on the slopes, said Placer County Sheriff’s Lt. Jeff Ausnow.
An autopsy Thursday morning concluded Johnson died as a result of blunt force cranial cerebral trauma, according to the Placer County Coroner’s office.
Gaffney, the co-director of Matchstick Productions, said the North Lake Tahoe community lost “an inspiration and a happy person” in Johnson.
“I’m going to remember a lot of things about C.R.; we traveled all over the world together. But I think the thing most people are going to remember is his smiling face,” Gaffney said. “He was a pretty special person, especially after his injury several years ago.
“He just had the greatest outlook on life and was happy to be doing what he was doing.”
Before a December 2005 skiing accident that left him in a coma for 10 days, Johnson was a regular halfpipe contender in Winter X Games competitions, and is credited for being the first skier to land a 1440 (four rotations) in the park, at age 15.
In that 2005 accident, Johnson suffered a severe head injury while filming at Brighton Ski Resort in Utah.
It was a freak incident: As Johnson and several other skiers were jumping off a small natural feature in succession, Johnson fell at the front of the line. A trailing Kye Petersen collided into him, opening a gash above his eyebrow and knocking him unconscious.
He was released from the hospital after a 34-day stay, then returned to Truckee to continue therapy with Ladd Williams of Bear Bones Physical Therapy.
The following winter, after steady progression in his recovery, Johnson dedicated a six-week trip with friend Tanner Hall to re-learning his tricks in the halfpipe. But he never overcame his fear returning to the discipline he helped pioneer, and soon gave up halfpipe skiing altogether.
“It didn’t really come back to me,” Johnson said in a 2006 Sierra Sun interview. “I got to a certain point that was nowhere near where I used to be in the pipe, and then I stopped progressing. So, I gave up the idea of trying to compete in halfpipe.”
Johnson instead pursued filming as he took his skiing away from the pipe and park and into the backcountry.
Having grown up skiing at Squaw, the X Games medalist was no stranger to big-mountain lines from an early age, despite his exploits in the park.
As Squaw Valley big-mountain skier and childhood friend Cody Townsend pointed out, Johnson was a pioneer of the sport in several ways in the late 1990s and into the new century.
“His contribution to skiing is almost underrepresented,” said Townsend, who became friends with Johnson at age 10. “The stuff he did in the halfpipe, he paved the way for what Simon Dumont and Tanner Hall are doing now. And the stuff he did on kickers paved the way for everyone, guys like Jon Olsson, because he was doing stuff off kickers that is still progressive today.
“And then, way before people were even really talking about bringing tricks to the backcountry, he was doing that. He’s such a pioneer in all aspects of skiing.”
This season, Johnson was reportedly skiing strongly, as he recorded a third-place finish behind Candide Thovex and Sean Pettit in the Red Bull Linecatcher competition in the French Alps in January. Gaffney described the event as a freestyle big-mountain contest, with jumps built atop cliff-drops.
He said Johnson was thrilled to perform as well as he did – a sign he was finally returning to his old form.
“He said it was so incredibly rewarding to be back in that position,” Gaffney said.
Johnson’s friends said especially after his head injury, he lived every day to the fullest, always enjoying the life skiing afforded him.
“I think since his accident – I mean, he was always a cool guy and really nice – but after that, he was one of the most genuine, loving people you could ever meet,” Townsend said. “Here’s a guy who came back from near death and had very trying times trying to get back to the top where he was, and there wasn’t a shred of bitterness. There was no guy who was more stoked on life than C.R.”
Sylas Wright is sports editor for the Sierra Sun in Truckee.
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