By Scott Gerdes
Don’t let that cute face and big smile fool you — Emma Patterson is a badass.
The 22-year-old Taos native is entering her rookie season on the 2020 Freeride World Tour after qualifying last year. The FWT is the worldwide circuit of freeride snowboarding and skiing featuring the best riders in the world competing on the most legendary and challenging alpine faces at renowned ski resorts around the world.
The Freeride World Tour consists of five competitions beginning in Japan in late January with the grand finale in April that takes place in Verbier, Switzerland. Her corporate sponsors are Flylow Gear and Salomon.
I conversed with Patterson in September about all things skiing.
You grew up in Taos and graduated from Taos High School, correct? Where are you living now?
I was born and raised in Taos and on the Taos mesa and graduated from Taos High School. I attended the University of Colorado, Boulder, and am now pursuing a master’s degree in biomedical engineering at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. I’ll be returning home in December to train/play at Taos Ski Valley before the Freeride World Tour begins.
At what age did you start skiing and who influenced that?
I started skiing around 2 years old. Mom and Dad are completely responsible for the younger years as my little brother, JC, and I hated leaving their sides but as we matured a bit we joined Better Shredders for a few years. We then registered for the Taos Ski Team as alpine racers. There were so many positive influences during our time on both the Taos Ski Team and the Taos Ski Academy — Sean Cassily, Andrea Krejci, Alain Veth, Peter Hunt, Jimmy Loder and, most of all, my little brother, to name a few.
Is skiing a family affair?
It has been our main family outing for as long as I can remember. From skiing 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. with Dad every single Saturday and Sunday to ditching school on Fridays just to get a little more time in. Sorry, teachers … thanks for working with me all those years! We traveled all winter across the Southwest for competitions and have now expanded those trips across the world. My family has to be one of the main reasons I continue to thrive in this sport.
Where you instantly in love with the sport?
The best part about skiing is that it’s so easy to love. Sliding down a hill at top speeds? Making early morning creamy turns off West Basin? Taking one-ski laps down Whitefeather early in the season? Yeah, I was instantly in love. Skiing has provided an outlet by becoming a sport I can and want to give my absolute best to every day, both mentally and physically.
Did you have any favorite skiers growing up that you tried to emulate?
I didn’t really follow the professional skiers growing up. My biggest role models were my coaches and peers. Especially when I came to dropping a certain cliff or beating a certain time in the race course — it was more about how I could perform compared to myself and the team. Now, as my competition horizons have expanded so have my peer groups. I love skiing with the people I compete with. They push me to be my absolute best every day and I like to think I push them, too.
What is your favorite run at Taos Ski Valley?
My favorite run at Taos Ski Valley … Al’s, man! I could lap Al’s Run all day, and am definitely guilty of doing so on solo days in Taos. Finding a skier’s right line down from the top, while incorporating lots of small airs, mogul gaps, listening to music and the lifties cheering me on each time I lap the chairlift … nothing better.
I read that your favorite Freeride World Qualifying competition in 2019 was the NorAM Champs in Kirkwood, California. What competition are you most looking forward to this season?
NorAm champs was probably my favorite, but likely because it was the last competition I did and it ended the season on a great note. I enjoy every competition pretty much equally, though maybe winning makes some comps sweeter than others, ha ha. The only overlapping competition venue I have already competed on is Kicking Horse, British Columbia, which is definitely one of my all-time favorite venues, so I’m really looking forward to that one. I’m so grateful to be able to compete on the world stage and I look forward to each of the five stops equally.
Congrats on qualifying for the FWT. How do your prepare for your rookie year?
Rookie year! Yep, I guess you could say I’m a little nervous. Nerves release the same endorphins as excitement though, right? I’m going into this competition season the same way as I always have — trail running for physical strength and trail racing for mental strength. I’ve come to realize that my mental strength going into winter is just as, if not more, important than physical strength. Being a trail runner, my endurance and strength are pretty much always ready for ski season. Mentally, though, I challenge myself on a daily basis to have no expectations but still working to be my absolute best. I’ve practiced leaving my competitor’s performance behind while only comparing myself to myself. I plan to approach this ski season the same, and could not be more excited (or nervous).
You get nervous?
I absolutely get nervous. The best part about skiing is that I’m never truly comfortable for any competition, and the point of competing is constantly pushing my limits. Nerves are part of it, and always will be.
What are you most looking forward to from the FWT experience?
I’m really looking forward to meeting more like-minded people. The friendships I’ve fostered throughout the years are some of my most cherished — people who I will always call some of my best friends. I look forward to making more of these friendships and cannot wait to have more ski buddies and couches to sleep on across the world.
Extreme/backcountry skiing certainly isn’t for the faint of heart. I would imagine you remember your first extreme run. What was that like for you, where was it and what or who compelled you to try it?
My first freeride competition was actually in Taos. It was the Salomon Extreme Freeride Championships in 2012. The junior freeride scene hadn’t blown up yet, so the competition wasn’t really the mental barrier. I had been competing in alpine racing for years prior, so it was weird for me to basically be doing a “fun run” for people to watch. It was held on West Basin for the first two days of competition and Kachina for finals day. My two runs on West Basin were extremely fun but my favorite run will, and always will, be Kachina. Having to hike to the top and having so many options at such a world-class venue is a perfect emulation of the Freeride World Tour. I must say, the few competitions I had on Kachina made me truly fall in love with the sport.
While competing, is your mind clear or racing a mile a minute?
I tend to keep a pretty good head on my shoulders during competitions. My boundaries are different than other’s and I like to remember that I can and will ski to the best of my ability independent of the abilities of my competition. I force myself to breath consciously before each competition and let go of any outstanding expectations of myself.
Do you have a “starting gate” ritual you go through?
Always! When I was 12 years old at the Junior Olympic Qualifiers in Winter Park, Colorado, I looked up from the starting gate and realized how majestic and special the mountains and ridges were that surrounded me. From that moment on, I always take a deep breath and pick a point on the nearest ridgeline and imagine I’m running across it. I like to do an entire 360 degree turn so I can see each and every ridgeline. I then get back to my starting point, look back down at the starting gate and drop into my run. My head and heart seem to always be in the right place after this mini-meditation.
What are your competition goals this season and going forward?
I know this may sound cliché, but in all honesty my goal is and always will be to have a blast despite the outcome of my competition runs. I am an extremely competitive person, but after competing for so many years I now realize that beating myself up for not being on the podium or being upset/angry with myself for crashing isn’t going to get me anywhere. I learn from my mistakes and grow from every experience. That’s not to say I will never make the same mistakes again, but I like to think those mistakes are why I can now call myself a professional skier. Making it as far as I have is already beyond my dreams as a young skier and I can’t wait to see what else skiing has in store for me.