Skier, sailor, teacher, native: Summit County’s Bert Snyder and a life well lived
September 30, 2016
Found just inside the entrance to the old Summit County courthouse at the intersection of Lincoln and French in downtown Breckenridge are three framed photos, each taken in 1997 during the tail end of High Country winter. The trio shows the famous Hale-Bopp Comet as it streaks across a pitch-black sky with Summit's most famous landmarks beneath: a vertical of Lake Dillon and Hale-Bopp on the left, a horizontal of Buffalo Mountain and the comet in the center, and a vertical of bustling Breckenridge and the comet on the right.
Beneath each photo is a small, almost unnoticeable piece of white paper with an inscription: "Hale-Bopp Comet over (blank), March 1997, by Bert Snyder." In the lower right-hand corner of each photo is an equally unnoticeable squib in gold print: "Bert Snyder, '97."
On a calm, clear morning in August, Snyder and I met for coffee in Frisco. We originally planned to talk about the Dillon Open Regatta and the art of sailing — he sent me an email about buying his San Juan 21 craft when I wrote an article about both — but the conversation quickly turned to all of the wild, unpredictable interests he picked up after moving from tiny Eads, Colorado, to the heart of soon-to-be-ski-country in 1950.
"Hale-Bopp was my photo opp. of a lifetime in spring 1997," Snyder said as he sipped a black coffee. "They had predicted it long before — they spotted it when it was a speck — and by the time it was almost visible for the naked eye I started getting pictures in my driveway."
“It’s sad that all of these things come to an end, but I look back on it (sailing) with very fond memories, like living on a boat at Lake Powell, where we could sail up the San Juan River. It’s just an interesting place.”Bert Snyder
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For a week or two in March 1997, Snyder would rise before the sun to set up his camera for a glimpse of the once-in-a-lifetime comet. He traveled everywhere with his now-vintage Pentax K2 looking for the best location: first his driveway, then the Frisco Nordic Center for the Buffalo Mountain shot, then Boreas Pass for the Breckenridge shot, and finally the Frisco Bay Marina for his personal favorite of Lake Dillon with the comet tail pointing straight into the sky, bright enough that it nearly drowns out the Andromeda galaxy in the background. It's the left-most photo in the old courthouse, with a single pink cloud hanging over Grays and Torreys peaks.
"It's not the best comet picture," he said with a chuckle. "But it's the prettiest one for the wall."
Living the ski life
Everything and nothing has changed since Snyder first moved from Eads to Iowa to Aspen and finally to Summit County as a young, wide-eyed schoolteacher during the baby boom.
Take, for example, his left eye. A few years back he had a corneal transplant to remedy roughness on the edge of the cornea. His body rejected the transplant after about four months and so the doctors tried once more. This one also failed and he now has a plastic cornea.
"Fortunately I'm blessed with one good eye," he said, only to admit he's lost most of the depth perception that made sailing (and photography) such a joy in the past.
Snyder was born in Eads in 1928 — "The thick of the Dust Bowl," he remembers — when the town had a population of about 400 people. (It's not much larger these days.) At age 9, his father — also a teacher — moved the family to Des Moines, Iowa, to escape the bleakness of life on the plains in the '30s. They stayed there until Snyder was in ninth grade, when his dad returned to Colorado for a teaching gig in Aspen.
"That's why I became a skier," Snyder said of being a teenager in Aspen. "On a teacher's salary we couldn't afford to go from Des Moines to Summit for skiing, but when I was in Aspen I could walk to the base of the ski area. I was a couple years too young for World War II — it ended when I was a junior in high school — and I got into skiing."
Snyder graduated as one of 13 from Pitkin County High School in 1946 and enrolled as a pre-forestry major at Western State University. He had dreams of becoming a forest ranger — "I said, 'I'm not going to be a teacher like my dad,'" and another chuckle — but until then joined the ski team. At the time, athletes competed in everything, from downhill and slalom to cross-country and ski jumping, and XC soon became his favorite. There, he met and competed with Crosby Perry-Smith, an Olympic ski jumper and 10th Mountain Division veteran who put the "little Western State on the map," Snyder said.
"You could say I was a good team skier," Snyder said. "Buddy Werner was in high school when I was teaching, but he was a good example of someone who went all out to win, or nothing. He'd straddle a gate and get disqualified half the time, but I was just the opposite. I'd hold back — partly out of fear, at least in the downhill — but I was always placing in the top-30 (percent)."
Faculty at Climax
After graduating from Western State, Snyder did the one thing he promised he'd never do and became a teacher — just like his father. He taught physics and chemistry at the Climax Mine School for two years before the Army drafted him in 1952. By 1953, he transferred from Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, to the Mountain and Cold Weather Training Command base at Camp Hale outside of Vail. His ski-team training soon came in handy during cold-weather formations, back when carabiners were called "snap links" and U.S. Army-issue skis were solid wood.
Snyder finished his service in 1954 and returned to the Climax Mine School, where he again taught physics and chemistry between coaching the ski team, including star pupil Dave Gorsuch of Gorsuch Ltd. fame.
"Dave was our star skier, making the Olympics in the 1960s," Snyder remembered. "Now, of course, you know he has all the ski shops. I coached the ski team there for six years, but I definitely don't claim that's why he went to the Olympics."
During his tenure at Climax, Snyder met his wife, Shirley, even though the odds of finding a girlfriend — let a alone a spouse — were slim at a mining school.
"Climax was probably the worst place for a single man to find a wife," Snyder said. "Other than the high school girls there were just three or four single girls, so when Shirley came as a kindergarten teacher I went after her right away. I went out of my way to find her in the cafeteria at lunchtime."
Sailing Lake Dillon
By the '70s, after driving between Climax and Frisco since the late ’50s, Snyder and his wife moved full time to Summit and settled first in Frisco. This is when he fell in love with the life of a high-alpine sailor, starting on the crew of a Santana 22 before buying his first craft, a 4-year-old San Juan 21 with a retractable keel he found for $4,500.
"I told them, 'I don't know a thing about it,'" Snyder said of his first invite to crew on a ship. "And that was the thing that got me interested."
Over time, Snyder became something of a genius on Lake Dillon. He won the Dillon Open Regatta in 1973 and again in 1974 with a used Cal 20, followed by a string of four-straight wins and a few more over the following decade in his favorite boat, a San Juan 21. His strategy: out-think the rest of the field.
"Being a physics teacher, I had a good understanding of what made a boat move," Snyder said before pulling out a piece of paper to show the geometry of sailing, teacher-style. "Think of the sail like an airplane wing: If you're too far off the wind, it curls around the back of the sail like an eddy. If you take too steep of an angle, it will stall. I've been with guys who just thought they have to keep the sails as taut as they can."
These days, at 88 years old, Snyder admitted he's too old for sailing — hence, why he's selling his San Juan of 30-plus years. His four grown children still visit often, including two who still live in the area. Sailing, like photography and teaching and life at large, will always be in his blood.
"I've loved sailing from the very beginning," Snyder said. "It's sad that all of these things come to an end, but I look back on it with very fond memories, like living on a boat at Lake Powell, where we could sail up the San Juan River. It's just an interesting place."
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