'Enjoy the Ride' — Chris Prior: 1965-2017 

Local snowboard-ski manufacturer dies at home at 51

click to flip through (6) FILE PHOTO BY CATHRYN ATKINSON - Local Legend Chris Prior of Prior Snowboards and Skis passed away unexpectedly at his home on Sunday, Oct. 15.
  • file photo by Cathryn Atkinson
  • Local Legend Chris Prior of Prior Snowboards and Skis passed away unexpectedly at his home on Sunday, Oct. 15.

Stepping into the Prior factory in Function Junction, you can feel Chris Prior everywhere.

He's in the history hanging on the walls — the first Prior splitboards released in 2001, the first Prior skis in 2005. You can see his guidance and style in the way his young crew shapes each snowboard on the factory floor, flexing and testing and perfecting; and, you can sense his heart and soul poured into the rows of custom snowboards and skis stacked along the wall, each one a story of engineering and art unto itself.

His presence is so large that long-time production manager Dominic Morin keeps expecting him to walk through the door at any minute, even though he knows he's never coming back. It is perhaps why the team at Prior hasn't stopped working since hearing the dreadful news that their boss, their mentor, their friend, unexpectedly passed away, Oct.15.

"The only thing we could do to get close to him was to keep working," said Morin of the last 10 days at Prior Manufacturing, where deadlines loom and work presses on in the lead-up to the winter season. "Personally, I didn't find anything else to do other than go outside, take a deep breath, and then keep grinding."

The loss, and what it means, is slowly sinking in.

Prior passed away suddenly in an accident at his Whistler home. He was 51 years old (the family has requested an autopsy).

He was a son, a brother, a boyfriend, a fearless creator, an adventurer, an innovative businessman, a quiet soul, a down-to-earth pioneer with his own vision, a local legend.

"Every single day started with a full-on huge, happy attitude," said girlfriend Lauren Bramley, who met Prior in 2010.

That's evident in the photos spread across her dining table — the young boy proudly holding up a fish next to his big brother, standing next to a friend in his smart, red, boarding-school uniform, on the beach with friends as windsurf boards lay nearby, in his ski gear hiking up a mountain, dressed up in style to receive his Innovative Business of the Year award from the Whistler Chamber of Commerce.

Next to the dining room table, pieces of Prior's life's work rest against the wall. On one custom pair of skis, scrawled along the bottom in Prior's hand: "Enjoy the ride."

Words he, in fact, lived by.

Prior was born in Montreal in 1965 and had one of those childhoods people dream about — sailing around the world, living for a time in Africa, Malaysia, Barbados, diving for dinner off the back of his parents' boat. It's how he learned to windsurf.

His parents settled in Vancouver and, after graduating from high school, Prior came west where he found kindred windsurfing spirits on the shores of Jericho Beach.

It wasn't long before he was making sailboards out of his parents' garage in North Vancouver.

"He had to figure out how to fix them; he was the master of breaking them!" said Bramley, referring to Prior's aggressive style on his board.

Sailboards morphed into snowboards at a time when the industry was exploding. Prior found a niche — designing and building custom racing boards. Darren Chalmers, a former racer, was late to get on a Prior board because he was sponsored by Burton at the time. But when he did..."We made some real magic boards in the late '90s," he said.

"I was able to design my own board to how I like to ride."

Chalmers is still ordering boards and making modifications all the time.

That is part of the Prior success story.

The factory moved up to Whistler in 2000, allowing Prior "unparalleled access for research and development."

The following year, the company released his first splitboard to the public, a few years later came the first pair of skis.

Along the way came the unsolicited business advice — don't make skis, they said, the market is too competitive; move the factory to China, they said, and access the cheap labour and assembly line.

That wasn't what Prior was about. That wasn't what Prior Manufacturing was about — the man and the company fused together.

"It's a snowboard-making factory before it's a business," said Bramley.

Morin, who came to Prior Manufacturing from a big-name snowboard factory in the city 10 years ago, said Prior had a way of keeping it simple.

"It was always about the boards — what can we do to make it faster, what can we do to make it better?"

Each handmade custom board would take as long as it needed to in order to be right, as Prior perfected the ride.

Yet, even in the biggest rushes, when they were slammed trying to get orders out the door and around the world, Prior would always stop and listen if someone had a question.

"He would put his mask down and his sander down and really listen," said Morin.

To Haida artist Clarence Mills, whose art graces the topsheets, including the new piece "Killer Whale," Prior was a man of few words.

"But he knew what we wanted," said Mills, with a keen attention to detail. "He was very sure of himself too."

People always asked Prior how many boards and skis came off the factory floor every year; he never answered that question.

"If I tell people how many I make, they'll either think it's too many or too few," Bramley recalled him saying.

And it didn't matter — the orders kept rolling in, the brand gaining traction, the Whistler community embracing the local manufacturer with product names like Overlord, Husume, Spearhead, Fissile.

Through the internet, the rest of the world embraced him too. It's not every company that gets to test its product every day in the biggest ski resort in North America. Prior, and its stomping ground, has cred.

"We've got so much to do; I feel like he's still with us," said Morin.

"We were part of his vision and now we all feel like we have a little bit of that in us and we just have to carry on."

And so they do, keeping Prior's passion close at heart.

"He'd be out there ripping that Khyber over and over and over again," said Bramley.

Enjoying the ride.

There will be a tribute to Chris Prior at the Prior factory on Monday Oct. 30 starting at 7 p.m.

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