“Factory” might be a bit of an overstatement. Located a few blocks from Park City’s historic Main Street, the Soul Poles shop is more like a glorified garage that shares a wall with the local Mexican bakery. But toiling in a garage is where most great American innovators got their start, so they’re in good company.
Photos by Re Wikstrom
At Backcountry we have a soft spot for the little guys who are working to bring sustainability and homegrown craftsmanship back to the industry. So when Lexi Dowdall, our community manager, needed to score a new pair of poles to take with her on a hut skiing adventure in British Columbia, we jumped on the chance to head over to the Soul Poles shop to see firsthand how these bamboo ski poles are made. Co-founder Bryon Friedman met us at the shop and was gracious enough to share the Soul Poles story and vision with us, all while helping Lexi craft the perfect pair of poles.
When founders Bryon Friedman and Eric Schlopy started tinkering with the idea of bringing back the bamboo ski pole, they weren’t motivated by the need to make a buck, but on an environmental imperative. To skiers, the simple fact of climate change is, “no snow, no ski.” They wanted to make an immediate and positive impact on the ski industry. After realizing the difficulties inherent in creating a sustainable ski or ski boot, they started to seriously reevaluate the ski pole. As former US Ski Team members who went through multiple pairs of aluminum poles every year, they knew there was an opportunity to reduce environmental impact, and maybe even create some jobs in their hometown of Park City.
In 2010 the duo started ordering bamboo. They’d remove the grips and tips from old aluminum poles, glue them onto the bamboo shafts, and then take them up on the hill to see how they performed. On every ride up the lift, someone asked about the poles. With little more than a sketch of what they wanted to do, they walked the SIA industry trade show and pitched the idea to buyers. To their surprise, they took orders. Soul Poles was officially founded and they went to work solving problems.
While attaching a grip and a basket to a bamboo pole seems simple, getting a high level of performance out of the product is a bit more involved. And apart from sustainability, building a high-quality, high-performing product is central to the Soul Poles’ vision. The first batches of bamboo came from a distributor that sourced bamboo for gardens and home projects. Unfortunately, most of the bamboo wasn’t up to snuff, and relatively few pieces were good enough for a ski pole.
As it turns out, there are over 2000 different species of bamboo, and of those 2000, only three are suitable for making a ski pole. Friedman knew that he was going to have to go to the source to find what he was looking for. He booked a ticket to China and started to blindly scour the Web in search of a potential supplier. Just prior to departure, he received an unexpected call from a bamboo fly rod maker in the Northwest who had seen his queries online. He told him about a family in the Guangdong province in southern China that was growing and harvesting exactly what Friedman was looking for. After first meeting a number of suppliers that Friedman describes as “bamboo car salesman,” he flew south to meet the family he’d been referred to. The entire family met him at the airport, drove him four hours into the mountains, and took him in as one of their own. As they got close, Friedman noticed that the mountains were covered in bamboo, and he knew he’d found the source he needed.
Soul Poles decided to use Tonkin bamboo, the same species traditionally used to make silk-wrapped fly fishing rods. Each 3/4-inch shaft is specifically selected for its intended use and is harvested by hand before making the trip across the Pacific. As a makeshift sign hanging in the shop made clear, the Soul Poles guys believe in “quality shafts.”
The raw bamboo arrives at the shop in six-foot lengths where it goes through an initial sorting process that removes pieces with any obvious cracks or defects. To acclimate the bamboo to our dry climate, it is cut to specific lengths and then dried for an hour in a kiln. The drying process also exposes any defects or cracks not visible in the initial sorting. To rehydrate and strengthen the dry bamboo, it’s then soaked in a proprietary blend of penetrating oils.
After a curing period, the bamboo is shaped and sanded at either end to fit the grip and tip. Not only is the bamboo sustainable, the grips and straps are made from recycled plastic and the tips are locally machined from recycled aluminum. The Soul Poles logo—or a custom message of your choice (Lexi went with the Backcountry Goat logo)—is laser-etched onto the pole to complete the process.
Made in America and sustainability are great selling points, but the real question is: how do Soul Poles stack up against a modern aluminum ski poles in terms of performance? Concerning weight, a Soul Pole is lighter than most aluminum poles. In terms of strength, it looks like the bamboo has aluminum beat again—substantially. In a third party test (see video below) the Soul Pole withstood over 300 pounds, while the aluminum pole folded at just 150 pounds.
And from everything we’ve heard around the office, they ski splendidly.
Take a walk around the Soul Poles factory with videographer/photographer Mike Schrif: