Opinion » Range Rover

The Greenland Giant


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In Greenland last week, a 67-year-old man shovelling snow from a roof fell, broke his neck, and died.

Though it's the kind of accident one might associate with a remote northern outpost, it remains an uncommon tragedy. In this case, doubly so—Lasseraq Skifte was known internationally for his enormous impact on Greenland's ski and tourism aspirations, and the Inuit youth groups he mentored. 

Of mixed Norwegian-Inuit ancestry, Lasseraq grew up Inuit, and, as a kid, couldn't understand why Danish kids laughed at him when he tried to speak their language. Like most occupiers, the Danes had an uncharitable view of the Inuit, causing Lasseraq to grow up resenting them and vowing to be better. He threw himself into education, eventually skipping two grades. At age 15, he went to study in Fairbanks, Alaska, for two years. Afterward, he attended New Hampshire's famed Dartmouth College, where he ski-raced and joined the swim team.

After college, Lasseraq peddled dictionaries and encyclopedias door-to-door in Champagne-Urbana, Ill., racking up sales by enchanting people with his intriguing Greenlandic heritage. The diversity of cultures he experienced in America made him reflect on the discrimination of his youth, and he returned to Greenland preaching a newfound love-thy-neighbour philosophy. There were many sympathetic ears because things had shifted during his absence; Danish and Inuit integration was more widespread, and Greenlandic (a close relative of the Canadian Inuit language, Inuktitut) was once again being taught in schools—to all Greenlanders.

Given his involvement at Dartmouth, Lasseraq saw sport as the perfect vehicle to deliver the "we're-all-in-it-together" message, and threw himself into outdoor recreation projects. Among other achievements, he was single-handedly responsible for returning the lost art of kayaking to Greenland one village at a time, but was particularly passionate about projects related to skiing—which was how we met in 2002, while I was on a filming trip to Greenland.

Lasseraq was an easygoing man with dark, weathered skin and twinkling eyes who moved with economy and authority. Like most Inuit, he was full of stories and could point to any passing chunk of land or sea and recall something that happened there to himself or another person.

In this way, he assembled the vastness and unbelievability of the landscape as a bit-map of human experience. On several occasions we joined Lasseraq and his wife Ane-Sofie for dinner, and I'll always remember her traditional carved jewelry, seal skin vest and boots. But back to skiing.

Though Greenland is 80 per cent icecap, mountains abound. Lasseraq understood its vast potential as an alpine destination and set out to promote modern area-based skiing. In the southerly fishing town of Maniitsoq—where skiing had been popular since the 1970s largely due to Lasseraq's efforts to bring Europeans in for off-season race training—he took us on a 25-kilometre boat ride to Apussuit Ski Centre, situated atop a small icecap. Nearby, the stunning mountains of Hamborgerland offered one of the most spectacular sights along the west coast and a staging area for heli-skiing. (When heli-skiing first arrived, it was essentially vetted by Lasseraq, who dictated where they could fly while he worked to keep some large ski-touring areas heli-free.)

In the surrounding archipelago, Lasseraq steered us to the haunting burial grounds of Ikamiut, a village destroyed by a tidal wave where there was also a memorial to Whistler ski legend Trevor Petersen, for whom this part of Greenland held special meaning.

Though he worked tirelessly up and down the coast, Lasseraq's greatest efforts were saved for his home of Sisimiut. Despite the bright, colourful fishing harbour, Sisimiut's spectacular mountain backdrop gives the town an almost alpine feel. Lasseraq was happy the day he died, having heard that the government had just approved one of his pet projects—a year-round ski area at a nearby glacier; the project name, Sikumiut, means "living at the ice."

Sisimiut is also the site of Lasseraq's wildly successful Arctic Circle Race. Founded in 1998, this challenging three-day, 160-km international cross-country ski loppet draws hundreds of participants from Europe and North America. A community rallying point, with dog-sledders and snowmobilers serving as support teams, it's also a reason for kids to take up cross-country skiing and other sports—activities Lasseraq saw as ultimately benefitting the country's social fabric.

The race route is also part of the 200-km trek between Sisimiut and the town of Kangerlussuaq. The hike takes 10 to 12 days but provides a fantastic cross-section of Greenlandic landscapes from coastal mountains, through tundra, tarns and riverbeds, to the face of the icecap. Mountain bikers also use it as you can camp anywhere and there are even a few huts along the way.

Lasseraq's status was such that he hosted the Queen of Denmark on visits. But he also had unflinching honour; having toured extensively as a coach on the World Cup and skied all over the world, he was honoured to be asked to coach the Danish National Ski Team for the 2002 Olympics, but resigned when the country refused to allow him to include skiers from Greenland.

Much loved, much invested, much accomplished, Lasseraq was a giant of the Greenlandic community who will be sorely missed.

Leslie Anthony is a Whistler-based author, editor, biologist and bon vivant who has never met a mountain he didn't like.