Willoughby: Skip polluting plastic poles — bamboo’s better for nostalgia | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Skip polluting plastic poles — bamboo’s better for nostalgia

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Eager to hit the slopes, Jeanne and Tim Willoughby flex their bamboo poles.
willoughby collection/courtesy p

An acquaintance briefed me on his recent trip to Cuba. He had traveled with a group who work on trade ideas, and they visited a company that builds bamboo bicycles. The flexible material reminds me of the long symbiotic relationship between bamboo and skiing.

Narrow Roch Run threw enough challenges at skiers as they raced down the steep face of Aspen Mountain. So, no gates complicated the route of Aspen’s early downhill races. However, a pine structure marked the finish gate. Organizers assumed that the gate’s width would preclude a racer from hitting the structure. A hit would have caused serious injury.

Slalom could not use thick pine poles to mark the course. Rather, bamboo offered enough strength to withstand a hit, yet it would flex enough to not injure the skier. While skiing through the young aspen groves, you may have wondered whether that wood would bend more easily than bamboo. But those aspens are not as straight for the required length. And aspen takes more time than does bamboo to grow to the needed height.

Simultaneous with resources required for races, bamboo filled another early need of the sport: ski poles. Light and flexible, bamboo poles approached perfection. On the down side, they often split. I broke a few myself. Whenever that happened, I did not have to buy a new pair. From an abundance of poles, I could find one the right length, and they all looked alike. The first, flashy metal poles weighed more than bamboo, but they broke less frequently.

In today’s litigious society bamboo would cause nightmares. When bamboo gate poles or ski poles splintered, the sharp ends posed a hazard. Falling on such a point could stab you. I don’t remember that such an injury ever took place, but my buddies and I used splintered poles as our childhood spears.

Splintered ends of broken gate poles posed the same danger. And as racers got better, they chose a line closer to the gates. If they contacted the gate, bamboo would snap back and blacken arms, elbows and shins. Closer to the ground, bamboo’s contact with skis and boots easily upended racers. The flexible gate pole bases now used in slalom racing create an entirely different sport.

Even today, bamboo marks hazards. Ski patrollers use piles of poles to mark protruding rocks, warn skiers away from precipitous cliffs, and herd them through congested areas. Mountain operations with brush, boulders, and insufficient snow to cover them could not survive without these easy-to-transport, inexpensive markers.

When the snow melted many Aspen youth — including me — hiked on Aspen Mountain, at least the lower areas. Under the chairlifts we would look for items that had fallen out of skiers’ pockets when they rode the lifts. We would find weathered trash, a few coins we could use, and keys we couldn’t. On the return trip down the mountain we gathered bamboo. Occasionally we would find a complete pole, but most were broken. We used the shorter ones as toy spears and the longer ones as vaulting poles. They also worked as a horizontal bar for high jumping and vaulting over.

Living at 8,000 feet in the Rockies, we natives had no clue about where bamboo grew. Hundreds of straight poles, all the same length and about the same diameter, arrived each ski season.

The plastic revolution took over when I was young. Its permanence and bright colors overshadowed the qualities of “green” materials. I’m pleased to see the return of bamboo, and its use for products like bicycles. For environmental practicality, but also for nostalgia, it’s hard to beat Mother Nature’s familiar gifts.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.