VAIL - The height of the season here often brings some pretty cool scenes.
Such was the case Thursday in the hours leading up to the premiere of professional skier Chris Anthony's latest movie, a tribute to the 10th Mountain Division called "Climb to Glory" from Warren Miller Films.
Anthony was hanging out with former U.S. Ski Team downhiller Bryon Friedman at Vista Bahn Ski Rentals, along with the owners of the place - Friedman's former teammate Sacha Gros and his sister Dominique.
Retired from ski racing, Friedman's now in the ski pole-entrepreneur game, where he's a master of bamboo. He said bamboo poles are stronger and a heck of a lot cooler than their aluminum counterparts, and they are much better for the environment, as well. He calls his company Soul Poles, and while he's based out of Utah, he's able to take a mobile shop on the road in the back of his Saab.
Friedman set up his mobile ski pole manufacturing laboratory at Vista Bahn Ski Rentals on Thursday, and if you happened to find yourself in the shop, then you were definitely interested in what was happening with Friedman, Anthony and the smoking bamboo over in the corner.
Ski pole laborer fantasy camp
Friedman's setup is pretty simple. First, you hand select which pieces of bamboo you want to comprise your poles. Friedman then sizes you up and cuts the bamboo to your proper size using a portable electric saw. Next, he sands down the ends with a belt sander and applies the tips. The handles and handle straps are applied using a hot glue gun, and finally the baskets are put on the ends of the tips. If you want to personalize the final product, Friedman suggests some blow-torch branding on the pole shafts.
When Friedman cuts the bamboo to size, it smokes like a cigarette after it's puffed, only with a much better aroma. It smells like the nice smoking wood you might smell billowing off the chip basket of a Ducane grill, but Friedman's quick to point out that bamboo is not wood.
"It's a wood grass," he said. "It's not considered wood, but it acts a lot like wood. It's more of a carbon fiber than anything else; it's really strong but super flexible."
Longmont-area resident Steve Laughlin and his buddy Scott Richardson, from Chicago, happened to find themselves in the shop Thursday night.
They each left with a pair of Soul Poles; Laughlin actually bought two.
"The aluminum poles I have, one of them is bent," Laughlin said. "And bamboo is really strong. I know that because they use it for scaffolding over in Asia ... They're cool, and different - kinda like having an old wooden putter in golf."
Sara Friedle, of Wheaton, Ill., debated purchasing a pair and tried to haggle Friedman on the price.
"$125? Seriously?" she asked.
Friedman replied with the trump card of his sales pitch - the fact that he'll allow you to assemble your own poles using his setup, like a ski industry-laborer fantasy camp. He then asked her if she's ever made her own equipment before, and she replied by repeating the question in a mocking manner, emphasizing the fact that it's pretty obvious she's never constructed a pair of ski poles before. Friedman didn't budge, and in the end, Friedle ended up buying a pair anyway.
"$125 is a good price point," Anthony said.
When Friedman says you actually make them yourself, he means blow torch and all. It takes a pretty understanding shopkeeper to abide such a scenario, and Friedman found just that at Vista Bahn Ski Rentals. The Gros were amazing hosts, with Dominique casually removing pieces of flaming tape from the carpeted areas of her shop as Soul Pole purchasers branded their poles with a Coleman propane torch. They used the masking tape in a similar way a painter might, with the torch flame as their brush, creating dark black lines on the poles. Once branded, Friedman used a knife to remove the tape, revealing a sharp contrast between the branded area and the natural bamboo underneath the tape.
"One guy torched a football field onto the poles with two end zones and hash marks all the way down," Friedman said.
In addition to the torching, another way Sole Pole purchasers personalize their poles is in the color grips they select. The guy who torched the football fields into his poles, a Dolphins fan, selected orange and turquoise.
Friedman has a wide selection of colors but said his favorite is the gray, because it fits in best with his whole philosophy.
"I like the idea of the gray," he said. "Because it's made from a mixture of all the other colors' material that gets left over in the mold."
'Everyone who sees them, wants them'
For Friedman, the trip to Vail was a homecoming of sorts as he actually learned to ski at Vail, taking his first turns on Vail Mountain when he was just a kindergartner.
His family later relocated to Park City, where he fine tuned his skills with and eventually made the U.S. Ski Team, racing on the World Cup circuit for a decade or so.
Once on the team, "I saw a lot of waste," Friedman said. "Not intentional waste or anything, but every year we'd get like 10 pairs of skis and poles and we wouldn't use a lot of it."
He said the equipment, meant for ski racers, wasn't very good for the average Joe to use, so a lot of it would go to waste.
"I thought, with bamboo ski poles it's a renewable resource, and if it does go to waste, it's biodegradable."
And thus, Soul Poles was born. If he sells enough of them, he's going to reinvest in a mold that will allow him to use recycled plastic for the tips, rather than aluminum.
So far in his first year, sales have been pretty good.
"Everybody who sees you with them out on the mountain will ask about them," he said.