Michigan native Emily O’Connor is a regular on the tow ropes of Trollhaugen. Her love of the park is two-fold, both lapping and building the features, a cyclical endeavor that lets her contribute to the process with her rake and reap its rewards on her snowboard–then tweak things further, and do it all over again, constantly evolving both as a rider and as a builder. Last season, Emily was the first female to take the reins as park supervisor at Troll, an esteemed position at one of the most beloved parks in all of snowboarding. She kicked off winter at Take the Rake, joining ten other builders and operators to make the first park built solely by women and then continued to sharpen her skills as a park builder, as a leader, and as a mover and shaker in snowboarding. Read on for an update on the season with this Wisconsin-based Never Summer rider, and learn what she’s getting into this coming winter. – Mary T. Walsh
When and how did you start snowboarding?
I started snowboarding when I was 9 on a field trip at Mt. Brighton, Michigan. I didn’t know much about snowboarding but always wanted to learn how to skateboard, so it intrigued me. The night before I gave my parents the permission slip to sign. My Dad had watched a Warren Miller movie which reminded him of how much fun he had on a ski trip once. He signed the slip and paid the fee. At the end of the lesson I could turn and stop. I was hooked.
Follow up question. What is Mulligan’s Hollow all about?
Mulligan’s Hollow is a bowl-shaped ski area that overlooks Lake Michigan. It has six runs total, which are all accessible by rope tows with a 130-foot vertical drop. We moved to Grand Haven, MI where it is located when I was a junior in high school. I honestly had no idea that terrain parks existed before I started riding there. Unlike most resorts, there’s no designated park at Mulligans. Instead, every run has some sort of jump, box, or rail set. I was obsessed with the place! I was there every day, open till close.
When did you start working in terrain parks and how did you first get into it?
Even though Mulligans is mostly park, we didn’t have a park crew. If something had a nasty rut or bomb hole—which it usually always did—you had to fix it yourself or adapt. It wasn’t until I moved to Copper Mountain that I realized how much behind-the-scenes goes into terrain parks. I dated a cat operator and would ride along. I have a hard time sitting still, so one night I decided to pick up a rake and help shape.
You spent a few seasons in Colorado, right? Were you going to school out there?
I earned my level 1 snowboard instructing certificate my senior year of high school and when I realized community college wasn’t working out, I started applying to different resorts. I ended up accepting a position at Copper Mountain’s ski and ride school. On my twentieth birthday, I packed up everything I owned and drove twenty hours to Colorado.
Did you ride mainly just at Copper when you were out there?
My engine seized on Highway 91 about a month into living in CO, so I rode Copper Mountain mostly.
When did you make the move to Trollhaugen and what catalyzed that move?
I was struggling to survive in Colorado. I missed the Midwest and its rope tow resorts. Without a car, it made it hard to get around and teaching wasn’t fulfilling anymore. I was considering moving back to Michigan and going back to school. That spring I met Sam Klein. I asked his opinion on where I should go next. That’s when he invited me to come spend the summer with him at Hood. That summer was life-changing! It reignited my love for snowboarding, and I knew If I wanted to continue to pursue it, I was going to have to move back to the Midwest so I could afford living expenses. Trollhaugen seemed like the best option for me. They have a crew that truly cares for the parks, and ropes that would help me progress as a rider.
Did you join the park crew the first season you spent in Wisconsin?
I moved to Wisconsin pretty late in the season and all the slots for park crew had been filled, so I got a job as a cashier at the local grocery store and rode Trollhaugen every day. In February, I clipped on a rail and lacerated my kidney. I got REALLY lucky and didn’t need any major surgery. However, I was still out for the rest of the season. When I could walk again, I would hike up Valhalla and film friends to get out of the house. One day while doing that, Tony Wagner, the park crew Supervisor at Troll at the time, told me that a spot had opened on the crew and was wondering if I was still looking for a job. I immediately accepted. I hiked up Valhalla every morning without my board to open rake. It was healing, being out in nature and having a way to still be a part of everything.
What is something that surprised you about working on a park crew, that you weren’t expecting, or that was just totally new?
At most resorts, cat operators do most of the work when setting a new feature, so I was super surprised at my first Valhalla build to find out that we hand-set most features in our park. Sometimes we use a skid steer to help out, but the majority of the time it’s pure Troll power moving and setting features into place.
Trollhaugen’s terrain parks have a heavy reputation for being really, really good. What has it been like working on such a celebrated park? Is it an exciting challenge building parks that are creative and will stoke out locals and visitors alike?
Extremely fun! It’s been such a wonderful experience for me. I’ve met some incredibly talented people and have learned so much from everyone out here.
What is unique about building the Trollhaugen park?
People of various riding levels visit our parks, so we try to build it with that in mind. We just want everyone to have fun and to enjoy our parks, no matter “how good” you are.
Follow up question, what is unique about building a park that has a rope tow?
With rope tows, you get way more reps in, so there’s definitely some advantages to riding a park with a rope. My favorite is that you can pick a feature and lap that one feature. It’s honestly a great way to learn a new trick. We also like to set things up so that it flows nicely. No matter what you decide to hit, once you land, no matter which direction, there is always another exciting option in front of you.
What inspires you in terms of building the park, creative features and lines, etc.?
I’ll never forget the first time I rode Valhalla, people weren’t just hitting features in one straight line but they were approaching things from the sides and zig-zagging all the way down the run. It reminded me of riding through a bowl or snakerun at a skatepark and opened up a new way for me to look at features.
What kind of features are you stoked to ride, yourself?
Tree logs, snow features, jumps, or rails. Anything that scares me and prompts a voice saying, “You got this!” Anything that opens up a world of possibilities while riding.
What has been something you have learned from working on park crew?
How to work as a team and stay organized.
Within the industry, the number of women working in terrain parks is fairly small (though this is changing). This past December, you were on the Take the Rake crew, a first-of-its-kind event that brought together and all-women’s crew to build the Valhalla park. What was that experience like overall?
Take the Rake was such an incredible event to be a part of! To round up eleven strangers and cross your fingers that things would go smoothly is pretty wild. I think we all were super nervous leading up to the event. It was awesome how on the day of the build everyone worked so well with each other. We all just wanted to see the project succeed.
There were many moving parks of Take the Rake, one being that the event was the crew’s first time working together, as you mentioned, and also you only had three days to build the park. The results speak for themselves, of course, but watching the event unfold, the collaboration between everyone and the drive to build the best park possible was really exciting. What do you think is important when it comes to balancing creativity, collaboration, and the logistics of building a park, both at Take the Rake and in general?
Features break and placement doesn’t always work out with the flow of the park, so having an open-minded crew that is willing to make decisions on the fly when things don’t go as planned is super important.
What do you hope people take away from seeing Take the Rake and the park that the crew built?
That building parks is another fun way to express your creativity!
Take the Rake also coincided with you taking over the reins as Trollhaugen terrain park supervisor. As not only a woman working in the terrain park, but as an individual in a leadership role, what did you take away from TTR to your everyday role supervising the crew?
I watched how the other women handle certain situations during the build. They exhibited awesome leadership skills which I used daily as a supervisor.
What was it like during your first season as the supervisor?
It was an exciting new challenge. I was a ball of nerves opening week, haha! Thankfully, I was surrounded by a team that believed in me and was super patient. With this being my first leadership position, I was extremely grateful to be surrounded by such a team.
You’re also a team rider for Never Summer. When did you start riding for them and what makes you stoked about being being a part of the NS team?
I started riding for Never Summer my first season at Trollhaugen. I’m stoked to be riding for NS for a number of reasons. They’ve supported me through injuries and have pushed me to become a better rider. They’ve believed in me since day one and I can’t thank them enough.
What is your favorite thing about riding at Trollhaugen?
It’s a small community, everyone knows everyone out here, and you’re greeted with a smile the moment you fling yourself off the rope.
Any advice for anyone wanting to work in the terrain park?
Observe, ask questions, be open-minded and willing to learn from constructive criticism, and remember that practice makes improvement. Show that you’re willing to put in the hard work it takes to build and maintain a park–even if you have NO idea what you’re doing, trust me, we’ve all been there.
You headed to Hood for the summer after the season ended, right? What have you been up to?
Yeah! My boyfriend Sam [Klein] and I packed up our van once Troll closed and headed to Hood. There was still so much snow compared to years before. When the resort was shut down due to poor visibility [editor’s note: common at the beginning of summer when wintery weather is happening because much of Timberline is above treeline], we wandered around the woods to find tree logs to jib, which is my favorite way to spend a rainy day. I was also invited to participate and help build IT’S TITS! at the beginning of the season which has always been something I’ve wanted to take part in. That event was such a great way to kick off one of my most memorable summers here at Hood.
Summer’s almost winding down now, as well. What are your plans heading into the season?
Next winter I’ve decided to join the Cheddar tour, which is a Never Summer event where we host rail jams at ski resorts for all ages. During this time, my goal is to film a street part. I’m really excited for this opportunity and I know that my experience digging these last three years will help me look at spots in a creative way.