From the moment he first swung an ice tool in December of 2016, Manoah Ainuu loved everything about ice climbing.
Although he was an avid downhill skier and rock climber, he hadn’t made time to try ice. But since the snowpack was thin at the local ski area, Manoah agreed to join friends in Hyalite Canyon, south of Bozeman in the Custer Gallatin National Forest. At the time, he was a sophomore at Montana State University, and that day in Hyalite changed the trajectory of his life.
Six months prior, Manoah’s father Layne had been diagnosed with kidney cancer. Manoah hadn’t wanted to leave home in Spokane, Washington, to return to school while his dad was sick, but his parents had encouraged him to continue his education. Now he could hardly focus on his geology studies.
After that day on the ice, he reduced his class load for the spring semester and began ice climbing four to five times a week. In Hyalite, as he challenged himself on the shimmering blue and green frozen waterfalls, Manoah found some relief from his worry and grief.
Four years later, Layne is free of cancer, and Manoah is now a full-time professional climber on The North Face team. The 26-year-old has alpine climbed in Alaska, established new routes in the Custer Gallatin National Forest of Montana, and done multi-day ascents of big walls in Yosemite. He’s taught inner city kids in Atlanta and Memphis the basics of climbing, and starred in Black Ice, a 2021 film documenting some of those same Memphis climbers on a transformative journey to Montana. He’s spoken out on his Instagram account, @adreadedclimber, about racism and since stepped back, choosing instead to focus on one-on one connections. “I know my role,” he said. “Real talk, and taking people climbing who couldn’t go by themselves to share what I know about life. My climbing is a vehicle for that.”
Having spent his early years in Los Angeles, Manoah is keenly aware of the young kids in his family and the Black communities he’s served that look up to him. He knows that when he’s in a film or a magazine, those kids can see themselves there, too. As the outdoor industry lurches forward along the path of diversifying its ranks, it—like the rest of America—is finding the existing systems inadequate. Manoah, at once proudly defiant and deeply kind, is at the forefront of that movement.
“I have a lot of things to say,” he said. If you’re lucky enough to go out with him, the day’s conversation may range from music and climbing to race, equity, the environment, food, and love. For Manoah, all of these things are connected, and they’re all rooted in family.
Manoah’s father Layne, the son of Samoan immigrants, was born in gang-ridden Compton, California, in LA County, and moved to neighboring Carson as a boy. Layne met Manoah’s mother Almaz, originally from Ethiopia, in a Christian missions training program in Mumbasa, Kenya. When Manoah and his sister Mahilet were young, they lived in Carson, where Almaz taught elementary school and Layne managed a medical laboratory. Nearly 200 of Layne’s relatives lived nearby, and every year, Layne took the kids and their cousins skiing at Big Bear Mountain Resort on the San Bernadino National Forest.
But the threat of violence kept them on edge. So, when Layne received a job offer in Spokane, they moved. Manoah was nine. A few years later, Almaz opened an Ethiopian restaurant, where Manoah worked during high school. He ran track and played football, skied at nearby resorts on the Colville, Idaho Panhandle, and Lolo National Forests, and tried rock climbing at a local state park. When it came time for college, he chose Montana State University because there was world class skiing nearby. During Layne’s battle with cancer, father and son spoke often. In one of those conversations, Manoah told Layne he felt torn between climbing and school. He wanted to pursue climbing, but he knew his parents valued education. Because Manoah had taken his family climbing, Layne understood how empowering it was. Reaching the top of a climb had even given him new belief that he could beat cancer. Layne encouraged Manoah to follow his passion.
After that, Manoah pursued climbing full bore, honing his raw athleticism and enthusiasm into rock solid competence and grace in the vertical world.
“Sometimes ice climbing can be really serious because it’s high risk, but with Manoah, it’s a light-hearted thing and an escape from all the heaviness he feels with the rest of the world,” said Dave Burleson, athlete manager at The North Face who’s become a dear friend. “When he’s on the wall or on a pillar of ice, he looks weightless, both physically and mentally, because he’s having a moment of pure joy.”
But it hasn’t been simple, especially when 2020’s racial reckoning brought unwanted attention.
After George Floyd’s death, dozens of photographers, writers, and companies reached out to Manoah offering sponsorship without taking the time to learn anything about who he was as a person.
“That's what tokenism is,” Manoah said. Knowing they just wanted to use him for their own advantage, he turned almost all of them away, and soon the moment faded.
“It's hard, but this is what he wants to do,” said Manoah’s wife Rachel. “Basically, his life is explaining to people why he has value. It’s emotionally exhausting, but you have to say it so you can pave the way for others. So that one day, a Black climber doesn't have to explain himself.”
With The North Face, Manoah’s job includes participating in photo shoots, instructing at ice festivals and climbing clinics, and attending events like Color the Crag, an annual festival celebrating diversity in climbing. Manoah and Rachel keep a pair of pet Nigerian dwarf goats named Fela and Chidi, named after a prominent Nigerian musician and actor, plus a flock of chickens, in their Bozeman backyard.
Manoah talks about going back to school for business and maybe opening his own Ethiopian restaurant someday. But first, he’s signed on to something significant: The first all Black and Brown expedition to attempt Mount Everest, planned for 2022. As he trains for Everest in his Montana backyard, Manoah is leading by example every day, one human connection at a time.
“I love bringing more people into the Forest and public lands,” he said. “It’s a special experience. Why wouldn't you want to share that?”
About the Author
Emily Wolfe is an independent writer and brand consultant in Bozeman, Montana. She is a contributing editor to Your National Forests. Find her at emilystiflerwolfe.com.
Header photo by Jason Thompson.