If the liftline at your local ski area is beginning to look like a bamboo grove, Bryon Friedman is responsible. In 2011 the Park City, Utah, native and former World Cup ski racer helped found Soul Poles, which makes ski poles from bamboo. Over the past four years, the poles have gone from a novelty item to a must-have among trendy skiers. Between R&D trips to South America and China, Friedman took some time to bare his soul
In 2004, I was skiing as fast as I had in my entire life. I was making the top 10 at World cup races and feeling like I could win. Then on January 5, 2005, in Chamonix, France, I’m on the side of the hill with a mangled leg. I’d shattered my tibia and fibula. That was the beginning of the transformation.
To rehab, I moved to Santa Barbara and fell in love with the ocean. I started writing and playing a lot of music and became much more emotionally sensitive. I took a trip to Africa in 2006. I just wanted to go and check it out. it was eye-opening in terms of how differently we live our lives. We have it good and it made me think about that.
I tried to return to racing for three years but I knew I was done. I’d had eight to 12 surgeries at that point. My first race back I suffered a hairline fracture to my fibula. In 2009, I went to the U.S. Nationals and powder skied that whole week. Then I walked away quietly.
In 2010, my ex-teammate on the U.S. Ski Team, Erik Schlopy, started talking about making bamboo ski poles. We glued our old grips and tips from our race poles to bamboo poles to see what kind of response they got. Sure enough, every lift ride somebody would ask about them.
We formed an LLC in May of 2011. We put in $100,000 as partners and raised another $150,000. One of the original investors, a Wall Street guy, said, “Good luck. The odds are against you.”
I believe we’re making an impact. The data is out there: Climate change is happening. Bamboo is a renewable resource that’s easy on the environment. Bamboo poles aren’t going to change the world but it gets the conversation going.
Initially the idea for the name came form the movie Dazed and Confused. The seniors all have paddles and one guy has a paddle called the Soul Pole. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. The Japanese call it wabi-sabi, imperfect beauty. That’s like our soul and that’s the way the poles are too.
Our first order of bamboo was junk. It kept breaking. In November Erik left the company and I started making changes. I went to China and met with lots of bamboo distributors but wasn’t having much luck finding anything that would work. Right before I was about to leave, I got this call from an American guy who had been sourcing bamboo for fly rods from this one family for 20 years. We drove far into the countryside but didn’t see any bamboo. Then all of a sudden we see bamboo everywhere. I brought pictures to show them what we were using it for and they understood and delivered. They said, “If what we pick isn’t what you want, we’ll pay for it.”
It’s funny, you hear people say, “Get a job in the ski industry and you’ll never ski.” But when the snow is really good, I’m the first one out there. And I get to go on trips for the business. I get to go ski in Alaska every year. This summer I’m going to South America. It wasn’t my intention to have a job where I could do these things. I’d skied enough. But doing all this has reinvigorated my love of skiing.