The Underground Athletes of Vail Valley

"You have got to get it while you can. Life is short, and these experiences that we can have in the mountains can be so amazing."

The rolling, mellow hum of nearby I-70 cuts through the cold morning air — a familiar soundtrack for an early morning alpine start at one of the many East Vail trailheads. Before heading out, a small crew of skiers go over the avalanche forecast and check their beacons.

At the front is Calen Orlowski, known by friends and followers as Ranger Cal.” Seeking out big ski lines in the Gore Range is how he spends his free time. Skiing over 7,000 human-powered vertical feet in a day is an ambitious goal. But, as Orlowski suggests, We don’t go super fast; we just don’t stop”.

Admission to this terrain is not something that comes cheap. Orlowski has been skiing since he was 3-years-old. He has been searching out big mountain lines around the Vail Valley for over a decade.

In 2008, Orlowski left home in Oregon after he landed a position with the Walking Mountains Science Center. “I made a lot of connections through my position and was able to ski a lot,” he recalls. “I was enamored with access to beautiful mountains and the lively ski scene. Access to these remote mountains is why Orlowski decided to call Vail home.

Now, he is a Mountain Sports Ranger for the U.S Forest Service. The focus of his role is to manage ski areas operating on public land in Eagle County. “I help resorts stay in compliance with their permits,” Orlowski explains. “I also work as a natural resource specialist and help track winter wildlife like the Canadian Lynx. He has made a career of protecting the mountains that he plays in.

Calen Orlowski. Photo courtesy of Calen Orlowski.

Work or play, he spends most of his time in the mountains around Vail. He is admired and respected by the backcountry community. Orlowski finds motivation in the Vail Valley athletes he feels are “humble and under the radar. His philosophy is simple:You have got to get it while you can. Life is short, and these experiences that we can have in the mountains can be so amazing. They do not last forever, and that’s what makes them so special”.

Back in Vail Village, Heather Morgan is hard at work feeding hungry tourists at Sweet Basil. Morgan is the general manager of the popular Vail restaurant, which has been a staple for visitors since 1977. Heather is also a decorated marathon runner — a fact she is too humble to share often. It is not uncommon for her to knock out a half marathon (or more) before opening the doors of Sweet Basil at noon.

Morgan moved to Eagle-Vail three years ago. She was feeling burnt out from the New York City lifestyle and needed a change. Since I work in hospitality, I knew I could live in any destination that has great hotels and restaurants,” she says.So, Vail seemed like a great fit.” Now, she finds that the high altitude and unique terrain offer an advantage in her marathon training.

Heather Morgan. Photo courtesy of Heather Morgan.

"YOU HAVE GOT TO GET IT WHILE YOU CAN. LIFE IS SHORT, AND THESE EXPERIENCES THAT WE CAN HAVE IN THE MOUNTAINS CAN BE SO AMAZING." Calen Orlowski

Morgan signed up for the New York City Marathon on a whim years ago and has been training to compete ever since. In 2018, she finished the race in three hours and nine minutes, a pace of seven minutes and 21 seconds per mile. Her goal for her future is to set a personal record by finishing in under three hours.

For Morgan, running began as a way to recharge her batteries after long nights in the restaurant. Having run over 40 marathons and several other races, she says Vail is a perfect community for pushing her limits. The scene is lively and active,” she points out.There is always a Vail Recreation District race to sign up for. The key is you have to keep showing up.”

Further down valley, in Edwards, Forrest Knapp is gearing up for a busy summer. Knapp became the owner of Alpine Kayak School four years ago. He also manages the safety team during the Vail Whitewater Series. But, Knapp has been guiding young rippers through local white water for two decades.

He grew up in the Smoky Mountains of Northern Alabama. His grandfather introduced him to skiing and a love for the outdoors at an early age. Knapp says he belongs in the mountains. He decided to move to Vail in the early 1990s after graduating from The University of Montana in Bozeman.

Forrest Knapp. Photo by Townsend Bessent.

One of his first jobs was running the lunch program at Vail Mountain School. It was here that he earned the nickname the lunch lady.” He was very popular among students and taught many of them how to kayak. Knapp will tell you, It is easy to become well-loved when you’re handing out homemade chicken fingers instead of math homework.” He is very modest. His constant excitement and open-hearted attitude are important pillars of the Vail community.

Knapp is always eager to talk about river access. As class five kayakers, we are so lucky to have Gore Canyon only 30 minutes away,” he says. He continues with an excited smile, We are the best sneaky paddling spot in Colorado! When we bring friends to Dowd Chute or Gilman Gorge, it blows their minds that Eagle County isn’t on every paddler’s radar.” Knapp is very grateful to call Vail home.

To some, Vail is just a shiny ski village at the bottom of a valley dissected by a major interstate. Heated sidewalks and expensive hotel rooms make it easy to paint Vail as a tourist destination with no soul. But, at Vail’s core is an underground community of local badasses that span across the valley. They are caring for the mountains, running local businesses and sharing their enthusiasm with future generations — all working hard to keep our community vibrant and inspire others to push it just a little bit further.

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