Focus Vail Valley Local Spotlight

Making their Mark

Over the years, Vail Valley students have made their marks on the world. Every year it seems there is a local high school graduate who has the urge to learn and conquer the world to make it better. Growing up in this relatively small valley, students attended local schools: Their love to learn was fostered right here. They share a passion for learning, a love to challenge the norm, turn the expected upside down and help others along their paths. Here are just a few of the ‘kids’ who turned their big dreams into their realities.

It was a simple idea, a light bulb powered by solar energy able to fit into any standard socket. But no one had dreamed up a way to turn it into reality, until Steve Katsaros did. He affected the lives of millions, by putting affordable solar power in their hands. But Katsaros had a knack for finding innovative solutions to everyday problems. From the time he was a high school student at Vail Mountain School, he was thinking out of the box.

Katsaros’ passion in school was ski racing. He lived and breathed it. He attended school in Denver and came up on weekends to train or race, until seventh grade, when his family moved to Vail so he could race full time with Ski Club Vail. He admits he “did not get straight As,” since he traveled to races so much of the time. But, explains Katsaros, “I’ve always been very driven in sports, and have a very competitive nature.”

Katsaros always liked math, and credits his math teacher, Oliver Compton, for keeping him on track academically. Compton, who taught Katsaros physics as well as calculus during the 1990-1991 school year at Vail Mountain School, says, “While he exhibited an excellent understanding for these subjects, his true passion was in the area of invention. As an alpine ski racer, he specialized in designing potential products in this area, which were showcased during school events, such as Invention Day, Science Fair and Senior Project.”

When Katsaros graduated from VMS in 1991, he went to Purdue University, earning a 4.0 GPA his freshman year. He didn’t leave the world of ski racing and secured a spot at nationals. Still, he never lost his passion for inventing. In 1995, he won the Collegiate Inventors competition for inventing a bike rack, a competition he continues to support and judge.

From there things snowballed. Katsaros came up with one great sporting idea after another, figuring out how to do things better, and his ski racing played a large part in those early years of inventing. Shortly after graduating with a mechanical engineering degree, he revamped the risers used on racing skis for recreational purposes and sold his product to Dynastar Skis. When he received a $25,000 check from the company, he used it as seed money for a machine shop. “That launched my career,” says Katsaros. He designed ski boot innovations for K2, and a light for Westinghouse. Deciding he needed to own the inventions he created, Katsaros studied for and passed the patent bar exam and began working for a law firm writing patents for the likes of Hewlett Packard and Coors, and partnered on some 50 patents. And, he patented his own inventions, including motorized wheels that basically turned bicycles into mopeds, and took the Indian market by storm.

Then, in 2010, going to sleep one night, he says, “I had this idea for a product. I woke up and sketched it out and filed a patent on it four days later.” The Nokero N200 solar light bulb was born, distributed through his new company, Nokero – or “no kerosene.” The idea was to bring solar light to some of the 1.3 million people in the world who have no access to electricity, relying on kerosene and paraffin. Soon, Katsaros’ phone lines were bombarded. Katsaros admits when he invented the light bulb, he was thinking of a new porch light, not a global solution. “I didn’t understand about energy and poverty and the problem I solved when I invented it.” Today, the N200 has now brought affordable solar light to 120 countries. “I was in Haiti, just walking around,” says Katsaros. In one area, every home he saw had purchased N200 lights. Nokero has distributed 1,200 lights to Haiti. “It’s incredible what we have at Nokero.” In October, Nokero launched a larger, higher-end version of the N200 that includes grid charging and cell phone charging capabilities. Nokero recently won the Patents for Humanity Award, and last year Purdue honored Katsaros with the outstanding mechanical engineering award. “It just resonates with people what we are doing with Nokero.”

Erik Dorf had a great philosophy in high school: “Through my schooling, I always felt that if I worked hard, and did well, I deserved the opportunity to enjoy myself,” he says. And, he did. His form of play, while at Battle Mountain High School was skiing, hockey and doing everything he could to enjoy the beautiful surroundings he grew up in. “I had a work-hard, play-hard mentality from the beginning,” he admits, “and I definitely enjoyed myself while at BMHS.”  This balance has paid off.

Then-teacher and coach John Brendza recalls Erik Dorf as unique in many ways in middle school. “He was not afraid to challenge opinions or initiate provocative discussions that made people think, especially teachers,” says Brendza. “He was an extraordinary student.” Today, Dr. Erik Dorf is a respected orthopedic surgeon, specializing in shoulders, elbows, wrists and hands at the highly regarded Vail Summit Orthopedics.

Dorf had been interested in medicine from a young age. “I went to preschool in the current Vail hospital, and Dr. Jack Eck was one of my neighbors. I remember seeing Dr. Eck on the mountain working with the ski patrol and thinking that he must have a pretty cool job.” And, his own stint with the ski patrol in Vail and Beaver Creek confirmed that interest.

In school, he excelled in math and science. He says some of the most influential people in his young life were teacher and coaches, such as Brendza, Mr. McCarthy, and his own father, who was one of his high school hockey coaches at Battle Mountain, and another hockey coach, Dr. Peter Janes. “His influence on me could not be overstated,” Dorf says of Janes.

After graduating from BMHS in 1988, Dorf attended Middlbebury College in Vermont. During his last two years at Middlebury, he helped found a nonprofit organization, now called, “Build On.” After graduation, he traveled to Brazil, Malawi and Nepal constructing schoolhouses through Build On. “The three schoolhouses we originally built are still going strong today,” he says, and Build On has now built over 500 schools. It was this life-changing experience that helped Dorf realize the importance of community service. “The construction aspect of this experience helped me to realize just how important it was for me to work with my hands,” Dorf says.

With a little encouragement from Dr. Janes, Dorf decided his penchant for working with his hands and interest in medicine were a set match. He attended medical school at the University of Colorado, and then completed his orthopedic surgery training at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. From there he was accepted into a Hand and Upper Extremity Fellowship under the renowned President of the American Society of Surgery for the Hand at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. Yet, it was his mentor, Dr. Janes, who helped Dorf launch his medical career locally. “I requested that Vail Summit Orthopaedics bend a bit in order to accommodate his subspecialty training in order to gain such an individual into our practice,” explains Janes. Today, the two orthopedic surgeons often work side by side.

Now Dorf is again entrenched in Eagle County. “I feel orthopedic surgery gives me the opportunity to help people, serve the community and work with my hands in a unique and special way,” Dorf says. “Additionally, orthopedics offers opportunities to work with a variety of athletes, ranging from up-and-coming superstars to leading professionals – and everyone in-between.” He serves as a team physician for Summit High School and Team Summit, and is an active member of the U.S. Ski & Snowboard physician pool.

Dr. Dorf still works hard and plays hard, playing hockey twice a week in the winter, ski racing in the Vail Summit Orthopaedic Vail Town Race Series, and bike racing in the Vail Rec District’s town series.

Dr. Jon Kedrowski is an author of books, journals and articles; a sought-after speaker, a ski-mountaineer and a mountain geographer and researcher. He is perhaps best known today for his awe-inspiring and harrowing climb up Mount Everest on that fateful day in 2012, when seven climbers lost their lives in the worst tragedy the mountain has seen. A “traffic jam” stalled the progress of 150 climbers near the summit when Everest’s deadly weather moved in.  Kedrowski was initially turned back – probably saving his life – but hours later he successfully summitted Mt. Everest. A documentary of his experience recently aired on NBC.

But Jon Kedrowski’s life-long passion for conquering summits, sports and academia began here in Eagle County, where he was both a stellar athlete and scholar at Eagle Valley High School. Growing up in Eagle County, there was a wide array of sports available, but he was astute enough to realize that having good grades would help him pursue his passion for sports later in college. So he buckled down and studied hard. So hard, he graduated class Co-Valedictorian in 1998.

Geography was his favorite class, although he liked science and math as well. He loved studying maps, and high school found Kedrowski climbing mountains. He climbed all of Colorado’s fourteeners before he turned 18. “I climbed all those mountains for training in the summer, so I could come back to school and be in shape for sports,” explains Kedrowski. He played tight end and defensive back for the Devils’ football team, was on the basketball team and played baseball one year as well.

“John was a great student and a very hard-working athlete at Eagle Valley High school in the 90s,” remembers Coach John Ramunno.

After graduating, Kedrowski interned for two summers with the then Steadman Hawkins Clinic in Vail, having decided sports medicine would be a perfect fit. He fulfilled premed courses while obtaining a bachelor degree in geography and chemistry at Valparaiso University. He obtained a Master of Science in Environmental Geography and Social Sciences from the University of South Florida and then a Ph.D. from Texas State University in Environmental Geography. For his doctorate, he spent time on Mounts Rainer and McKinley performing research. He accepted a teaching job as an assistant professor at Central Washington University, where the Geography Department was funded by National Geographic, and he forged a relationship with National Geographic, and was hired as a consultant for the movie, The Wildest Dream.

Meantime, Kedrowski climbed all of Colorado’s fourteeners in 40 days, skiing off many of them. In 2005, Kedrowski began climbing internationally and summited some of the world’s highest mountains, including Mt. Elbus in Russia, Acongua in Argentina and Denali in Alaska. On most of the mountains he climbed, Kedrowski furthered his research, including testing water samples for giardia at the base camp on Mt. Everest. His research has contributed to numerous articles, journal publications and books, including Sleeping on the Summits in 2012, which chronicles his Everest experience. This year, Kedrowski tackled, climbed and skied six of California’s fourteeners in seven days.

His early medical training has not gone to waste, either. Kedrowski has been called on to help on an expedition, including on Everest. Today, he lives in Avon, where he writes, teaches and does speaking engagements, and travels to Denver for TV. He continues to guide climbs and is affiliated with Apex Mountain School, which has hired Kedrowski to lead an international trip to Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2014 and to the base camp at Everest. And, he shares his Everest story to schoolchildren. “I enjoy doing those talks for the students.”