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Connecting Disadvantaged Children With Nature in Greenland

Against a background of 10,000-foot peaks, icebergs, and the vast Atlantic Ocean, local Inuit kids in East Greenland are growing up stuck somewhere between traditional ways of life and the quickly encroaching modern world. Communities struggle with record suicide, alcoholism, and abuse rates. Four Icelanders and an American asked the question: Can rock climbing help?

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This feature was originally published in Climbing in 2017.

On a bluff overlooking the deep-blue Atlantic, I belay and gesture to my climber about how to lower off while two giggling 7-year-olds use me as their personal jungle gym. Gundrun, a smiling girl in pink tights and jean shorts, clings to the anchors above on the other end of my rope. It’s warm and sunny with icebergs floating nearby; a few other kids scramble up and down topropes on either side of me, while a dozen more sprawl on crashpads or run and play with the wind in their hair.

This is Kulusuk, East Greenland. I’m here with four mountain-guide friends to teach local kids how to rock climb. East Greenland is the narrow north-to-south strip of land that lies east of the Greenland ice sheet, which covers 75 percent of the world’s largest island. East Greenland is home to about 3,000 of the island nation’s 56,000 residents, and it’s one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Serrated peaks jut out of the ocean where glaciers grind jagged outcroppings into smooth, rocky shelves then calve into thousands of icebergs that float slowly past. A smattering of brightly painted houses grips the rocky shoreline in protected harbors.

In 2013, Leifur Örn Svavarsson, Ólafur Júliusson, and Jón Gauti Jónsson, all mountain guides from Iceland and employees of Icelandic Mountain Guides (IMG), came to East Greenland to tackle alpine first ascents deep amid the region’s unclimbed peaks. Bad weather trapped them in Kulusuk, home to the only airport for hundreds of miles and also IMG’s local expedition base. While they waited, Leifur, one of the owners of IMG, had a brainstorm. “The towns of Amassalik Fjord are surrounded by beautiful nature,” he observed, “but the kids here don’t really engage with it. Kids are on their own, with almost no parental oversight. They sleep until noon, stay up late, and they just don’t know any possibilities for a better life.” Leifur thought that bolting some sport climbs near town and then teaching kids to climb might give the children something to do.

Three years, 20 routes, and four sectors later, I’ve joined them along with another IMG guide, Björgvin Hilmarsson, to teach the first Kulusuk climbing courses. We have duffels stuffed with a hundred pounds of donated gear from Cypher, Mammut, Black Diamond, Fixe, and Petzl. We’re here to teach local kids the joy of tackling East Greenland’s first sport climbs.

It’s not because we have some sadistic wish to lead a summer camp in East Greenlandic, a complicated language none of us speaks. Greenland, and particularly East Greenland, is a place that’s touched each of us deeply—we’ve all been here at least a half dozen times. I’ve hiked, fat-biked, and skied on the east and west coasts. The others have summited unclimbed peaks and guided multiple adventure sports, and Leifur at one time worked in the fishing industry here.

Photo: Berne Broudy

Despite its outward beauty, East Greenland is one of the most socially troubled places on the planet. There is extreme alcoholism and a disturbing rate of domestic violence and child abuse. According to the World Health Organization, Greenland has the highest suicide rate in the world—at times as high as 25 percent. More people—teenage boys in particular—die of suicide than cancer or any other cause. Alcoholism among adults in East Greenland, according to a teacher from the nearby town of Kuummiit, is nearly 100 percent.

It wasn’t always this way. The Inuit people here have always lived a hard life, but it’s been a proud one. You were recognized as a man when you killed your first polar bear, and men earned their keep and respect in the community with their hunting acumen. When a boy hunted enough to feed a family, he was ready to marry. Kulusuk kayakers were the best in the area. Now whale and polar bear hunting are controlled by permits. Only 25 bears can be killed annually in the region, which spans 75 square miles and six towns. There are only 10 permits for minke whales. Narwhals and walrus are also permitted. Television and the internet portray hunting as uncool. It’s hard for hunters to make a living. Sealskin clothing and shoes are no longer in fashion, and skins can’t be sold internationally. Now families often feed the once-valuable pelts to their dogs.

East Greenland’s Generation Z is stalled at a crossroads, unsure who they are. As the Inuit population transitions away from subsistence hunting, adults are spending their government pensions on booze. Kids aren’t being educated in their native traditions nor have they integrated into the modern world. Men are no longer revered for their strength and bravery for bringing home a polar bear, and women aren’t admired for their beadwork or ability to artfully tan a seal skin. Youth have no tools with which to anticipate their future, and they lack the skills to build a successful and fulfilling life.

There are few role models for youth. And while we aren’t trying to fill that position, we hope to bridge the gap between kids and tourists, and to teach the local youth skills that might help them find a way to connect. We’re hosting three days of climbing courses in an effort to get East Greenlandic kids to interact with their stunning environment, and to give them a common language with the international community they see streaming into their towns to climb, ski, hike, kayak, and explore. In 2015, nearly 5,000 tourists visited East Greenland. Until the 1970s, foreigners needed an expedition permit. Now, cruise ships from all over Europe dock in East Greenland’s tiny towns. I witness a boatload of passengers in matching bright red Gore-Tex jackets with whistles and lights walk through town en masse. They don’t interact with the locals. It’s uncomfortable. The tourists don’t patronize the few local shops. They don’t talk to locals on the street or in the grocery store. Visiting adventurers often do interact with the community, but there aren’t many ways to leave tourist dollars behind. There are few goods to buy other than those at the government-run store. And contract services like snowmobile shuttles, boats, guides, and hostels almost don’t exist. As Kulusuk and similar communities up and down Greenland’s east coast confront the crises wrought by globalism, climate change, and pressure from the Danish government to consolidate into cities (seen as more economic for the bill-paying Danes), we’re attempting to connect these youth with the world beyond their sliver of the Artic.

Photo: Berne Broudy

East Greenland has always been isolated, and 4,000 years of human inhabitation do not change the fact that it still feels like the Dark Ages. Since the 1800s, Greenland has been under Danish rule, and Denmark still pays two-thirds of the island’s expenses. Denmark has been accused of cultural genocide by closing grocery stores and schools in smaller, rural communities to force or encourage those communities to consolidate into cities. Close the store, and a community can no longer survive. Literally—there are no roads that connect towns anywhere in Greenland. Boats, dogsleds, snowmobiles, planes, helicopters, and kayaks are the only means of transportation. In most towns, the entire road network is just a couple miles in length.

East Greenland used to be one municipality. In 2008, Denmark redistricted Greenland, drawing lines straight across the vast icecap. Now, a single municipality includes the east and west coasts, which speak different languages. West Greenlanders refer to the east as “Greenland’s ass.” Denmark has designated the East Greenlandic language as a dialect. So East Greenlandic teachers aren’t required to speak East Greenlandic, which means kids can’t always understand them. And Nuuk, Greenland’s capital city, population nearly 20,000, is in the same jurisdiction as Kulusuk, population 245, thus they’re governed by the same decisions. In East Greenland, work is scarce, but Denmark provides adults a stipend that’s enough to spend on alcohol and still survive if they hunt a few seals.

It’s early August when I land on Kulusuk’s dirt runway and wheel my suitcase from a dirt strip behind the terminal a mile into town. Walking provides a bird’s eye view of Kulusuk, which has maybe 50 blue, yellow, and red houses, a school, a grocery store, a museum, a dirt soccer field, and a harbor with a handful of motorboats. The houses are close enough to hear a drunken fight next door, but not so close you can understand the slurred exchange of profanities. Sled dogs howl down by the river. They’re chained there until winter comes. Most families have a team, though when times are hard, families sometimes kill their dogs so they don’t have to feed them.

The team is camping in a tent outside IMG’s guide house, a two-story, three-bedroom wooden cabin. It’s red with white-trimmed windows, and perched on stilts that are bolted to rock. The Icelanders and I trade tales of the past few days—they’ve put up two mountaineering first ascents in the three days it took me to travel from Salt Lake City, via San Francisco and Reykjavik, Iceland. Sitting on the ground in down jackets and hats, we sort through donated chalkbags, hangers, ropes, biners, belay devices, and shoes with anticipation, a little afraid to speculate if kids will come. We’ve banked a lot of time, energy, and money on rock climbing making a difference here. And it’s showtime.

IMG staff have posted flyers at the grocery store, school, and community bulletin board inviting kids of all ages to learn to rock climb. We talk late into the night, mulling over Greenland’s problems and possibilities, get a quick glimpse of the northern lights, and head to sleep.

Photo: Berne Broudy

In the morning, Oli’s eyes are puffy and Björgvin seems in a bad mood. At some point in the night, a local kid threw a large rock through the expedition tent where the guides were sleeping, tearing an 18-inch gash in the fabric. It dampens last night’s stoke. We circle up, sip coffee, and discuss whether to confront the kid—Oli and Björgvin saw him. We decide the act was stupid not malicious, a bored kid being mischievous without understanding the consequences. We don’t want to make a stink and compromise the climbing. We decide to let it go.

The courses start at 1 p.m.—that’s the soonest we can expect kids to be awake in a village with no parental oversight. We traipse into town with bouldering mats and four duffels of gear, which we unload onto a pile of building materials in front of the only school. Oli, Jón, and Björgvin jump into a pickup soccer game with a wiry group of players, grade-school kids clad in jerseys with names of pro female Icelandic football players. They’re sprinting back and forth at full tilt across a dusty lot between goals. Pickup soccer is the international icebreaker, one that transcends age and language. One of the players is the rock thrower.

An hour later, we’re delighted to learn that both soccer teams also want to climb. We unfurl the crashpads and unpack 18 pairs of Cypher climbing shoes. It’s like we opened a bag of candy. The kids grab and swap until each of the 13 children who showed up has a pair of shoes that kind of fits. We cross town in about 15 minutes, arriving at Donald Duck Crag like a group of boisterous pilgrims.

We have boys and girls from age 6 to teenaged. Some of the smaller ones are proudly carrying duffels bigger than they are, and alternating between holding our hands and scurrying off to gather fistfuls of ripe blueberries and crowberries. There’s a brief break to pet and cuddle a litter of new sled-dog puppies, then the kids grasp for our hands again. Jóhanna Björk Sveinbjörnsdóttir, a 33-year-old Icelandic IMG guide who splits her time between Reykjavik and Kulusuk, calls the kids here “plants that haven’t been watered.”

“Their parents aren’t around,” she says. “They are starved for love and attention.”

There are five routes on the knobby Donald Duck Crag, which slopes down to the ocean, making some climbs inaccessible at high tide. At the base of the wall, we corral our charges into sitting, while Jón, a natural-born teacher, captivates them by demonstrating how climbing shoes stick to rock. Using a mashup of Swedish, Danish, English, and Icelandic with a few words of Greenlandic thrown in (aka the Esperanto of Scandinavia), he also explains climbing safety. We’re making it up as we go along—none of us speak the local language. Hoping that we’ve communicated the most important do’s and don’ts, we fit kids with Mammut harnesses, Black Diamond helmets, and Cypher shoes, and tie them in.

Photo: Berne Broudy

The first three, two boys and a girl, pick their way like pros up routes named Rip, Rap, and Rup, grabbing jugs and toeing tiny bumps of granite they find intuitively in the grippy rock. When they reach the anchors, it’s clear they didn’t understand our instructions for lowering. Jón jugs up the toprope to a mischievous six-year-old tomboy named Emma who has her knee-length unicorn sweatshirt tucked into her harness. He rappels with her as she squeals with delight and fear.

It’s a send train. A tiny kid in a full-body harness, William, who says he is 11 but is more likely 7 or 8, scrambles up every climb on the wall like Chris Sharma Junior. Leifur’s mouth is open in awe, and Björgvin shakes his head in admiration as we watch William pull over a roof, his tiny hands zeroing in on holds as if he’d been doing this his whole, short life. In another world, this kid could be a sponsored rock prodigy. The kids are all tough and agile—used to rock scrambling in flip-flops, blown-out sneakers, and ballet flats—but this kid’s ability and drive are exceptional. “Unbelievable,” says Oli.

We move from Donald Duck to Scrooge Wall, or Joakim in Icelandic—my guide friends have given the walls and routes international kid-friendly names. It’s littered with plastic trash: an old sled, discarded water bottles, trash bags, sheet plastic, and wrappers. It is unfortunately a common scene here. In our best Scandinavian, we explain to the kids that throwing trash anywhere is bad, and we ask them to pick up at least one piece each before snacktime, which consists of juice boxes and tubes of cookies we’ve laid out on the rocks. Enthusiastic kids rush off to stuff their trash bags full. William wants to keep climbing, so Björgvin puts up another toprope for him.

“Because East Greenland was essentially in the Stone Age until the 1970s, garbage didn’t exist,” explains Leifur. “It does now, and locals don’t register that it’s not good for their health or the environment.” The dump is a rocky outcropping in the middle of town. Trash heaped there gradually rolls into the ocean. Other trash is littered around town. There is no septic system. You poop in a toilet bowl into the thickest plastic bag imaginable. When the bag is full or smelly, it gets sealed with a twisted wire hanger, then chucked into the ocean or piled with other trash. Potable water comes from a couple of high-volume spigots around town—residents shower in a community bathhouse. That’s the only running water, and somehow it’s clean.

It’s 6 p.m. by the time we hike home. Kids are skipping from the crag to town with visible delight and a confidence they didn’t show that morning, like they have newly discovered superpowers. It feels victorious for all of us. We have a contact buzz from their excitement. I can tell my companions are letting themselves think this might work.

“There is something that touches you here,” muses Leifur. “I remember the first time I came here, to the white-sand beaches of Ammassalik Fjord. I sat at the edge of a steep cliff to watch the icebergs drift by. Then I realized that the stones I was sitting on were arranged in a circle. I was sitting on the grave of someone in what was likely their favorite place. It was stunningly beautiful. I had an instant connection with a human who had been living here centuries before. I found that very touching.”

Photo: Berne Broudy

Leifur, a lanky 50-year-old with kind eyes and a huge heart, is a Seven Summiter and Iceland’s most accomplished guide. He is also one of the most humble human beings I’ve met. His worldwide guiding résumé is unsurpassed in breadth: cross-country and backcountry ski touring, alpine skiing, hiking, biking, high-altitude mountaineering, polar expeditions, and guiding the Seven Summits and the North and South Poles. But Greenland holds a special place in his heart. He’s spent years here, having visited every town in the country. In 2000, he was in Greenland for more than 100 days, crossing the icecap twice and guiding in Thule.

The other Icelanders have similar stories. Oli came to Greenland with Leifur in 1995 and remembers seeing a mother skillfully cleaning a seal with her curved ulu knife, calling it a privilege to witness this. He says, “Being with the people and nature in this expansive environment changed me.” Björgvin points to East Greenland for appreciation of and perspective on his own blessed life, and Jón credits Greenland for his obsession with nature. Oli guided my ski trip to Greenland a few months earlier in April, and I’d met Leifur in Iceland on my way home. An hour before I left for the airport, Leifur came to my hotel and made a passionate pitch for the project. The guides hadn’t secured the gear they needed to finish bolting the Kulusuk climbs. That much I could do.

Jóhanna, who spends all summer in Kulusuk, has been teaching local kids to photo-journal and write about their lives. She shares an entry penned by a 12-year-old girl. The girl writes that her dad died in a sea accident two years earlier, after which her mom became an alcoholic. The girl has been bullied, her siblings have all been sent to foster care, and she’s worried because she is losing weight.

“I didn’t know how bad it is until the kids started opening up like this,” says Johanna. “Now I want to see what I can do to help. Kids here are on their own most of the time. Adults spend their time drinking. They were hunters, but their kids don’t want to be hunters … they can’t be hunters. If tourism doesn’t become the main industry here, mining will. Subsistence hunting belongs to an era past. The world has changed. Parents aren’t able to lead their kids forward, to teach them the ways of the modern world, because they don’t know that world. I am trying to figure out how you can bridge this, how you can lead the next generation of Greenlanders.”

I encounter few adults in Kulusuk. Some work at Pilersuisoq, the grocery store. I see a few by the harbor, or crossing the soccer field. A local comes to empty our toilet bag. I meet one guy who speaks broken English. Last time I was here, he was too drunk during the two days I was in town to meet with me.

The East Greenland schools are trying to show kids a future by telling them about the world that lies beyond the rocky edges of their towns. But even the teachers can’t necessarily imagine what the future will look like for these kids, for this community. Half the teachers are local, without a lot of knowledge of the outside world. The other half are from Denmark, and they don’t speak Greenlandic.

Photo: Berne Broudy

For the second day of Kulusuk courses, there are 25 kids waiting at the soccer field. As we walk to town to the staging area, kids stream out of side streets squealing and shouting with delight as they run to join us. Today we go to The Bandits sector, a stunning oceanside slab that angles gently from a broad rock plateau. The kids scramble to be the first to tie in, which involves wrestling helmets, harnesses, and shoes away from other kids. One girl passes her three-year-old sister to a seven-year-old friend so she can try climbing. Again, kids get stuck at the anchors. Jón demonstrates lowering again, and the kids giggle and bounce on the wall, imitating his descent. A couple of hours into the fun, we hear gunshots. The giggling silences, and any kid who isn’t roped up runs to the edge of the plateau to see the action. Half a dozen boats filled with men from town are chasing a whale and shooting at it repeatedly. The kids are palpably excited; I am slightly traumatized by the gunfire. Rifles and motorboats versus whales doesn’t seem very fair.

Greenlandic people are allowed to hunt whales, but “seal is everything” an English-speaking man tells me on a tour of the three-room Kulusuk museum. Clothing, food, fat for the fire, heat, light, refrigeration. East Greenlanders eat seals, whales, and polar bear. It’s what they’ve always eaten, and the most sustainable food source available along with fish. A Greenpeace campaign opposing seal hunting effectively ruined East Greenlanders’ ability to make money selling seal pelts—income this subsistence community depended on. “We weren’t clubbing baby seals,” the man says. “It’s not true—we were hunting seals as we always have. Our lives depend on it.”

Locals aren’t supposed to hunt humpback whales, and they’re not supposed to fish cod commercially because Greenland sold its fishing rights, although I can’t confirm to whom. I’m told Greenlanders have a whale quota for the region, and the whales usually migrate into the waters off Kulusuk in mid- to late September, when the days are short and cold, which makes the hunt challenging. This year it’s early August, and the whales have already arrived, making the hunt significantly easier. Most fisheries in the area have closed down, but freighters turned into mobile cod-processing plants now stream into the area to buy the local catch.

“Can you make an arrangement like selling fishing rights and quotas when you have a primitive society?” asks Jón. “Can you tell people not to earn money when they can? Or not to hunt the whales that swim through. If there is a good catch, why wouldn’t a hunter take advantage?”

Once the shooting dies down—despite dozens of rounds of shots, they didn’t get the whale­—the kids focus again on climbing. Then we trek back to town, Emma in the unicorn sweatshirt, Gundrun in her pink tights and headphones, and Enos, a bucktoothed boy in a track jacket who is constantly giggling. They present us with dirty fistfuls of blueberries and huge smiles before they take our hands to walk back. If you didn’t know about Kulusuk’s troubles, you’d think this town was just full of active, healthy kids.

We pass a freshly shot orca floating in the bay. Later, on a walk through town, I come upon its decapitated, fileted carcass. Double-bagged sacks of matak, or prized, vitamin C–rich whale skin and blubber considered the bacon of Greenland, are stacked in front of the grocery store. A sled-dog puppy has torn open one bag and is slurping it down. That night we’re served minke whale steaks that are purple and bloody.

Back at the guide house, we debrief from the day. We’re exhausted and in awe of the kids’ enthusiasm and natural talent. We eventually reflect on the whale hunt, which was a poignant example of cultures colliding. In this remote and frigidly exotic place, I know I must suspend judgment and reframe my thinking. Leifur points out that although we’re trying to show the kids modern activities, we must also respect and appreciate Kulusuk’s traditional ways.

Tasiilaq is a 24-kilometer boat ride away and home to about half of East Greenland’s residents. We arrange to bring kids from Tasiilaq to Kulusuk for a day on real rock. In Tasiilaq, I meet Volker Nitschmann, a German expat working at Tasiilaq’s commemorative stamp factory, who for the past year has contracted with the municipality to teach kids climbing at the town rec center 2.5 hours each week. The climbing wall is at one end of the gymnasium, where kids play soccer, basketball, and volleyball from August through June. The wall is only a single sheet of plywood wide, but 30 feet high, with two worn topropes suspended from the top. The holds are shiny from 15 years of use. I also hear that sometimes the ropes and harnesses are used to clear snow off the building’s roof. According to Volker, 15 to 35 kids come to climb each week, but most never get to tie in—only two kids can be on the wall at a time, and each session is only 2.5 hours long.

“When the kids climb, when they make it up a route, you can see the impact of that success,” says Volker. “It boosts their confidence and gives them a kind of hope. I think it helps them understand what’s possible, and see an alternative to their parents’ life.”

When we arrive, we find out that the town of Tasiilaq has cut the funding for the project because we haven’t filed the correct paperwork. It’s clearly small-town politics. That evening, Margit Anker Moeller, Tasiilaq’s health consultant, calls out the town administration, and tells me not to worry. Her husband, Lars, owns the boat that’s been hired for the project, and she and Lars will support the trip regardless. Margit—a Danish expat—is raising money to expand the town climbing wall. She sees the value of giving kids a non-ball-sport activity that can also connect them to the world beyond. “People here have no work,” says Margit. “They live in bad houses with three generations under one roof. They have the same health issues, like tuberculosis, as in the poorest African countries.”

When they turn 13, kids from smaller towns are sent to Tasiilaq to finish school. They go without their parents and live with relatives, in foster homes, or with family friends. Most never return to their villages. Out of 1,000 kids in Tasiilaq, half are in foster care. Some have been removed from abusive families or adopted from families that couldn’t care for them. “Teen pregnancy is rampant,” Jóhanna says.

In the morning, I am at the dock an hour before we’re supposed to motor to Kulusuk, and I am nervous with anticipation. The wife of the town’s Swedish prison warden drops off her son. A couple of Greenlandic dads leave their daughters. Five minutes before we’re supposed to sail, Volker arrives with one of the two kids he promised would come. Åge and his buddy Louis are Volker’s star students, two kids who have developed a passion for climbing and belaying. We wait an extra fifteen minutes for Louis. He doesn’t show. Half the kids run up the hill to Louis’ house and pull him out of bed. He arrives groggy and unfed. Åge shares his lunch so Louis has breakfast. Finally, six kids plus Volker and I load into Lars’ boat, and we cast off.

They’ve climbed before and it shows. We take them to Birthday Wall, and Louis and Åge onsight 5.10d routes.

On the last night, we’re almost giddy with excitement and relief. Kids showed up, climbed, and couldn’t get enough. We’re all talking about how to continue the project, how to impact more kids, how to keep the momentum going. “Climbing is never going to be a total solution, but it’s one link,” Leifur says. “And maybe it will inspire other efforts. If Icelanders come here to teach kids to play chess, it’s awesome. If more is done to help this poorest part of Europe—to make the lives of young people better—the benefits of that will spread beyond just East Greenland.”

One of our goals during the week of courses was to find someone to continue climbing with the kids on the gear we brought. In the end, we packed the gear away in IMG’s guide house until next season, when we’ll try again. We hope to continue this project next summer, bolting more routes, teaching more kids to climb, and helping others refine their skills and technique, as well as training at least two locals to manage gear and keep kids climbing year-round.

The work with the kids has been a resounding success. More than 10 percent of Kulusuk’s population—25 kids—came out to climb. The city of Tasiilaq asked us to bolt routes and run courses there next summer. And the kids we climbed with in Kulusuk are asking when we’ll be back. “We planted some seeds here,” says Björgvin as we look out from the top of a four-pitch first ascent we bolted the day after the courses ended. We hope to be able to see them grow.

Berne Broudy is a Vermont-based writer and photographer. Heartfelt thanks go to Icelandic Mountain Guides, Cypher, Liberty Mountain, Mammut, Black Diamond, Fixe, Petzl, and Visit Greenland for making this project possible.