86th Highland Bowl hike for an 81st birthday; Niklaus Kuhn gets after it
At the beginning of the ski season, Aspenite Niklaus Kuhn set out with the goal of hiking the Highland Bowl at least 81 times in his 81st year of life. He planned to do his 81st hike and ski lap on Sunday, his 81st birthday, but ended up doing his 86th. An overachiever by any standards.
The wind was howling on the way up as hikers trekked up to the pole covered in prayer flags, which resembles a toothpick when you are staring at it from the bottom of the hill. While many opt to take the snow cat a portion of the way up, Kuhn chooses to hike the entire way. Every time. He views the ride as cheating, basically.
Strapped to his back are bright yellow skis and a sign that reads “80+ please pass.” He’s in no rush to get to the top, he’s taking in the views with his friends and family as he makes his way up to Highland Peak this special day.
Kuhn’s advice for making it up to the peak is simple: Take your time.
“If you go slow, you’re not going to have to stop every 200 yards or so. If you want to stop, you go to the side and let the people pass. That’s OK,” said Kuhn. “But when you get to the top, you want to enjoy it.”
If anyone knows how to enjoy being at the top, it’s Kuhn. After all, he’s done it often enough.
“I was wondering how many years I had hiked more than my age, and it was nine years out of 10,” Kuhn said. “But, the past five years, I haven’t done my age. So this is the first year I’ve done more than my age.”
On Sunday afternoon, just 40 or so yards away from the peak, Kuhn and his friends and family gathered for a birthday celebration like no other. Snacks and champagne were passed around as the group toasted his birthday.
He was joined by his two sons, Andre and Roget, his grandson, Niklaus, and many others, including some members of Aspen Highlands ski patrol.
Kuhn and his late wife, Gertrude, moved to Aspen in the early 1970s. Together, they managed the Cliffhouse Restaurant on the top of Buttermilk until 1990. Kuhn was also a ski instructor for Aspen Skiing Co. Now, he only teaches one family and said he’s gotten about 24 days of skiing with them this year.
Though it may seem like he’s been doing it forever, Kuhn’s first bowl lap didn’t come until he was 65 years old. He said he was encouraged to do the hike by his son, Andre. Kuhn remembers hiking up and telling his son to slow down so they could enjoy a snack and a sip of water at the top before making their way down the mountain.
Eventually, the pair reached the top. The most prominent memory for Kuhn is a woman falling down the mountain right in front of them — skis, poles, boots, hat and goggles flailing as she tumbled.
“When we got up there, I was looking down and there was a lady doing cartwheels,” said Kuhn. “I was standing up there. My knees were shaking.”
They were determined to make the ski down, so Kuhn told his son to simply make a turn and they would be on their way down.
“I said to Andre, ‘The first turn is going to be the most important. If you make the first turn, just keep turning, turning, turning,'” Kuhn said.
On his 81st birthday, his advice for getting down the hill was similar to what he told his son on their first bowl hike.
“All the skiers are the same,” he said. “They take one turn at a time.”
Sometimes, Kuhn takes the less steep ways down the hill, though many times he chooses a steeper, more difficult way to the bottom.
In all of his times lapping the bowl, Kuhn can only remember one time he fell. He said that as he was tumbling down the mountain, he managed to stop himself in time to see and catch the one pole he lost sliding right towards him.
With no signs of slowing down, Kuhn said he continues to hike the bowl as often as he can to inspire others to do the same.
“If I can just inspire one young person to get off the couch and see what they can accomplish, then I’ve done my job,” said Kuhn.
There’s still time to hike the Highland Bowl this season. According to Kuhn, this is the best snow he’s seen this late in the season.
If you’re lucky, you may see Kuhn hiking the bowl a few more times before the season ends. If you see yellow skis and a sign strapped to someone’s back, slow down, take in the view, and take a second to chat with someone who has hiked the Highland Bowl so many times he knows it like the back of his hand.
To reach Audrey Ryan, email her at email@example.com.