You know how when you’re on a road trip with a buddy and one of you says to the other: “Wouldn’t it be cool if…”
That was U.S. Ski team racer Erik Schlopy and Bryon Friedman in a car driving across Europe a few years ago, and the “cool, if” topic was bringing back the bamboo ski pole. But here’s the difference: Friedman and Schlopy never gave up on the idea. It stuck in Friedman’s head, too, while he was racing, how the entire team wastefully would go through hundreds of poles a season. It grated on them. It made their idea not only potentially cool, but imperative: Bringing back the bamboo ski pole seemed like the right thing to do.
Fast forward to now and that right thing exists and it’s called Soul Poles, based in Park City. But it didn’t happen without serious struggle. Cool is one thing, execution is another. Friedman and Schlopy would find that out while trying to nurse Soul Poles into existence.
First, take the bamboo. Where do you get it?
Drill down and you find that bamboo is a great resource in theory because it can be sustainably harvested and cuts C02 while it grows (vs. the carbon footprint of carbon fiber or aluminum poles). But isn’t necessarily sustainably harvested. Often it’s clear-cut, which is bad for the soil and drainage.
Also, the bamboo used for something like a ski pole can’t be green, or young. It has to be aged three years. It has to dry. But Friedman would luck into a ready resource of sustainably harvested and aged bamboo in Guangzhou, China — a company run by a family that has been supplying the fishing pole industry for three decades. The family took him in, insisted he stay with them, and then taught him the A-Z of bamboo.
Still, a secure, eco-friendly source was only half the battle. Most bamboo is treated with chemicals to lock in its properties and prevent cracking. Which kinda defeats the purpose. The solution was borrowed from pottery — it’s called dry kilning, and it re-aligns the molecules of the bamboo and prevents humidity or aridness from changing the properties of the poles. (If you’re thinking bamboo is weak, think again: While not as stiff as carbon, independent testing has found that Soul Poles are comparable to aluminum and way lighter.)
Next issue: The poles are still an ecological product, meaning that no single stalk of bamboo is the same diameter. So Soul Poles sends them to a machinist in Idaho who ensures that the fixing points for grips and baskets and tips are uniform.
Ah, right, baskets and grips…and straps. You can’t make those from bamboo, and unfortunately the hemp straps Soul Poles experimented with “looked pretty bad,” says Friedman. But they didn’t give up on keeping the carbon footprint low. “It wasn’t as easy as calling up some injection molder,” Friedman explains. “We had to research what materials from post-industrial waste would have the right durometer for the grips.” They found a medical device maker in Utah with the right stuff, but it was prohibitively expensive. But a company in North Carolina had exactly what they wanted and could even make the grips and baskets without waste: Every excess bit gets reground and put through the press. The poles and webbing and baskets are made of recycled PVC plastic. And the cool part: You can customize your own color palette when you order your poles, making the potential combo options pretty limitless.
The one part that isn’t 100 percent the way Soul Poles would like is the aluminum tip — and that comes down to tooling. They’re working on a process now so that those can be made out of recycled plastic next season.
As for the painted poles you see here: that’s the icing.
Bryon racked himself up pretty badly racing for the U.S. Ski Team in 2005 and found himself renting a room in a house in Santa Barbara to rehab. There he met artist R. Nelson Parrish, a self-described “totemist.” Parrish grew up in Alaska, skiing huge backcountry, and his art grew out of the Native-American tradition and style of totem poles. A lot of his work already reflected this trend when Friedman and Nelson met, and that made the idea of ski poles as artwork an obvious fit.
Now Nelson will travel out to Park City and paint poles in batches. “I went out recently and slept in a forest of bamboo. It was really cool. I just painted poles for a week,” he said. (Soul uses ultra-low VOC paints.)
The hope is to turn customers onto Nelson’s other work, but also to keep a run of custom poles limited, so when you buy a pair ($350 vs. the $125 base price of Soul Poles) you know they’re unique and will stay that way.
One last point to make about Soul Poles: If you break a pole they’ll try to repair them or they’ll replace them for free within a year of purchase. And after a year they’ll replace them for a mere $35 and re-use the baskets and grips.
Photos courtesy Soul Poles; bamboo sourcing shot courtesy Jonas Jungblut.