By Karen D. Lorentz
A joyous celebration for the long and mountain-filled life of Erling Omar Omland took place Saturday, Sept. 27 at the Andrea Mead Lawrence Lodge at Pico.
It was a spectacular autumn day filled with sunshine, mountain beauty, and a gathering of family and friends who commemorated Erling Omland’s life with stories and song — appropriately so, as his 97-plus years were filled with both.
One of the major themes of his life was to enjoy each and every day, something he taught his children well and which was shown in the stories, poems, songs and comments shared by all during the memorial service.
Welcoming the crowd that gathered, son Kristian noted: “Dad was a poet. His own words touch us, embellish the narrative of his life, portray the wondering and searching character of his personality, and show his unfailing optimism.”
He read from a sonnet Erling wrote in 1945:
If you discover with each dawn a single reason
For laughter, or for hope, or promise of great joy;
And so endow the day with light none can destroy
Then you shall surely thrive in any clime or season.
Another major theme that reverberated was the role of the outdoors and particularly of climbing mountains and skiing Pico.
Ruth Fish, who became Omland’s beloved companion in their later years after their respective spouses died, read his song “The Pilgrim,” followed by Elisabeth von Trapp, the daughter of another 10th Mountain Division Veteran, singing it to Omland’s melody.
Wanderer am I
Searching for the light
Pilgrim on a journey
Where the sun and stars shine bright
Mountaineer I am, climbing far and high
Striving for the summit, reaching for the sky
So I’ll sing my song everywhere I go
On the granite cliff, in the powder snow
So I’ll sing my song till the day I die
Pilgrim and a wanderer am I.
Daughter Mari Omland captured the motivation behind Erling’s enthusiasm for the outdoors and family as she noted, “Mountains, nature and reading filled Erling’s well. He modeled caring for both physical and mental health via intentional recreation. His friendships and family bonds were made strong under the influence of snow, fresh air and high altitudes.”
The role of mountains and hiking were joyfully recalled in the group singing “The Happy Wanderer,” with guests giving a rousing rendition to the chorus, just as Erling would have enjoyed doing.
The story of climbing many mountains reverberated in son Kevin’s eulogy as he recalled many of Erling’s accomplishments and how he came to Vermont.
“In 1939 when dad was 22, he and a group of friends formed the Watchung Amateur Ski Club in New Jersey. Dad and his group friends skied, rock climbed, played tennis, sailed, sang and drank Schlitz. But mostly they skied and did anything that they could to be on the snow in the mountains. One of those friends back in New Jersey was Arnie Kirback who from then on remained dad’s closest friend.
“They all soon found Tuckerman’s Ravine… Driving back to New Jersey one year they took a detour through Vermont, among other things to learn about a new ski area that they had heard was called “PEEKO.” So they drove over Sherburne Pass, and they saw Pico and B slope, and the rest is history. Somehow the pull of this mountain was so great that eventually both Erling and Arnie moved to Vermont and built wonderful lives here.”
Kevin went on to regale the gathering with explanations of how an avowed pacifist, socialist, and bachelor would go on to fight in World War II [awarded a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star,] finally have the joy of seeing a socialist he voted for actually elected [Bernie Sanders in 1990,] and marry Carolyn “Connie” Burke. Connie and Erling met through skiing at Pico and shared a love of the outdoors, Kevin noted, adding, “The courtship was long, but eventually Mom mounted a ‘spring offensive’ and with the help of friends and family finally got a confirmed bachelor to get married in 1955 at the age of 38.”
Kevin also shared the role that Pico played in the family. “At the age of one we came down B slope on Dad’s back, at two we shuffled around on the flats of the base area, and by three we were skiing down Bonanza. Just skiing together at Pico as a family must be among the most wonderful times we five shared together.”
Among other childhood memories, Kevin recalled “Dad taking first taking me to Tuckerman’s Ravine when I was seven. Dad carried in 70 pounds and we spent two nights in a lean-two on Hermit Lake. Over the next ten years Dad introduced many of us in this room to Tuckerman’s . . . Most of us have continued to enjoy Mount Washington ever since then, often with Dad, including celebrating his 80th birthday skiing on Hillman’s Highway.”
Recalling the years of ski racing through the Pico Ski Club, which both parents actively supported, Kevin said, “Mom and Dad were proud of our successes, but they made it clear that being a good sport and having fun was the most important thing.”
Noting the loss of Connie Omland to cancer in 2002, Kevin said, “We weren’t sure what life would be like for Dad without Mom, but he continued to live his life to the fullest, every day continuing to honor the life and the love he shared with Connie. I knew he was going to be okay when that February he built a snow cave in the backyard and slept in it for two nights – just for fun. He continued to ski nearly every day, often over 100 days a year, until his last turns on Pico at the age of 94.”
Daughter Mari also illustrated Erling’s playfulness, recounting how he took a whittled three-inch ski he had received 60 years prior out to the backyard and carved some miniature turns in the snow. His “photograph of this little guy and those tiny ski tracks wound up in the Mountain Times,” she noted.
“When he moved to the Gables, he mounted a model funicular across his kitchen cabinets.” Addressing his grandchildren Mari added, “Alex, Phoebe and Aron, it is your job to play! But Erling reminds all of us that play is not for kids alone.”
“Mountains were Erling’s church; snow, songs and poetry were Erling’s prayers. Let each of us remember well Erling’s 75-year love affair with Pico and all the good times he shared here with Connie, Ruth, and all of us by singing the song he wrote to celebrate this mountain, this place and this community,”
Guests were then treated to Erling singing “I Ski Pico” via the magic of CD before joining von Trapp with choruses printed in the program.
In sharing remembrances, Karl Tommy Acker spoke of growing up at Pico (as the son of Pico’s second owners June and Karl Acker) and knowing Erling for 65 years. When his own father died prematurely, Erling made it a point to recall his dad to him.
Acker regaled guests with his memory of being the person sent up to talk Erling into taking a break from his job of race starter up on B Slope on a frigid day. One eye was frozen shut and after prying the headset off him, Acker helped him open the eye so he could see to ski down and thaw out. “With his Viking heritage and 10th Mountain training, you had to drag him off the hill,” Acker recalled, adding, “his middle name was Mr. Pico.” (The Pico Ski Club named the start ramp at the top of B slope “Omland’s Outlook” in his honor.)
With others also remembering him for his love of mountains and song, the service concluded with Elisabeth von Trapp leading the group in “Edelweiss” with a last line of “Bless Erling Omland forever.”
For more about Erling Omland’s life, photos and accomplishments as well as past columns that were published for many years in The Mountain Times, visit mountaintimes.info.