Know what the most sustainable product in the snow sports industry is right now? It's Soul Poles, a set of sustainably-sourced, handmade in the USA, bamboo ski poles. Since it's snowing practically everywhere now and dreams of skiing weigh heavily on our minds, we decided to take this opportunity to get a tour of the Soul Poles facility in Park City, UT and build our very own set of ski poles. Started by former ski racer Bryon Friedman, Soul Poles set out to create a handmade product that minimizes its impact on climate change, thus helping our snowpack. Because without snow, there's no skiing, and what kind of world would that be?
Friedman was one of the top US World Cup Downhillers and a member of the U.S. Ski Team for 10 years before an injury forced him into retirement in 2009. Every year, Friedman was handed a load of new gear specifically sized for him that by the end of the year would be go to waste. “They’d hand me a stack of brand new poles at the beginning of the season,” Friedman explained. “By the end of the year I would have bent or broken most of them and what was left wasn’t of much use to anyone else because they were perfectly sized for me.” So when he retired, Friedman, along with his friend and former racer Erik Schlopy, decided to create a more sustainable and less wasteful product – one that would hopefully reduce climate change rather than add to it.
Soul Poles began in 2010, with Friedman at the helm and and Park City engineer, Mike Wong, in charge of designing the poles. After a long search, he found a family of bamboo growers in Guangzhou, China that took him under their wing and taught him all about the rapidly renewable material. The bamboo grows straight and tall and is cut after three years of growth when it’s the right size for the pole’s shaft. After one big shipment of poles, the company has enough material to last a couple years. Once in the US, at the Soul Poles factory in Park City, UT, the bamboo is dried in a kiln and soaked in a special veggie oil mixture to help seal and protect them.
As for the other materials, like grips, straps, baskets and tips, all are made in the US and mostly from recycled materials. An injection molder in North Carolina uses 100 percent recycled PET plastic to make the grips and straps. The tips are made in Ogden, UT from 80 percent recycled aluminum. The baskets are not yet recycled, but the team is working to come up with a new design that can handle stronger loads and use recycled plastics. The parts arrive in the Park City facility and a team of dedicated builders work on putting them together. Bamboo poles are cut to size, grinded down, and grips and tips are stuck on with a re-heatable, non-toxic glue.
I toured the factory and made my very own poles while Friedman and his crew explained the process, the materials, and their mission, “No snow. No Ski”. I selected a set of pink and purple zero waste, regrind grips and baskets made from the excess plastics left behind after the main injection molding. That way no plastic is wasted and Soul Poles gets more grips and baskets to use. I also got to choose my own set of shafts, which had a unique marking on the bamboo, a signature from the person who cut the poles. After the poles were all assembled, we taped up the shafts and turned on the torch to add a custom touch – charred stripes. Finally, the last step was to laser engrave the shafts with Soul Poles logo and a name – lilbridge. That way everyone knows they’re my poles.
Soul Poles isn’t just about producing the most sustainable ski poles in the industry. They’re also out to lead the charge, encourage other companies to reduce their impact and hopefully set a new standard for snow sports and the outdoor industry. You can see this in their minimized packaging materials, their zero waste practices inside the factory and how they give back to non-profits and support artists, like R. Nelson Parish, who paints a limited edition of signature poles every year.
This year they also started a neat, new program for kids, the Bambino, where as your kid grows, Soul Poles will replace the bamboo for a longer shaft for just $30. No need to buy a whole new set of poles if you can just make it larger. Every pole is also under a five year warranty, and Soul Poles will replace the bamboo, grip or basket for free if anything happens to it. If you’re at all worried about the strength of the bamboo compared to an aluminum one – don’t be. The bamboo is stronger than most ski poles out there and looks way cooler to boot.
Want to build your very own bamboo ski poles? You’re in luck, Soul Poles has a Mobile Building Tour going on through April. They’ll be driving to select cities in the West through April and you can be part of the hand building process. Otherwise, if you’re in Park City, you can set up an appointment for you or your crew to build poles in the factory. Prices start at $99 for a basic set of poles and can be upgraded with custom additions like torching, engraving or limited edition hand painted ones.
Images ©Bridgette Meinhold for Inhabitat and Soul Poles