Climbing wasn’t the obvious path for 25-year-old Manoah Ainuu. Born in Compton, California to first-generation immigrants from Samoa and Ethiopia, Manoah’s childhood was surrounded by concrete and congested freeways. Now, his everyday views include vertical blue ice, pocketed limestone crags and the high peaks of six mountain ranges in a 1.8-million-acre forest.
But before Big Sky, there was Big Bear, the ski area two hours from Los Angeles where Manoah’s dad would take him skiing once a year. “It was the first thing we did outside,” says Manoah. Manoah’s parents recognized the positive influence of the outdoors and the need for a better education, and moved a nine-year-old Manoah and his sister from Los Angeles to Spokane, Washington.
He skied at Idaho’s Schweitzer Mountain and dabbled in climbing, but it wasn’t until he moved to Bozeman to attend Montana State University, that he fell hard for the mountains. Freshman year, Manoah started spending time at the bouldering wall. Then, he got a membership at the local climbing gym. He started climbing trad and ice in 2013 and started lead climbing in 2015—usually listening to music, and often rocking a speaker off his harness. Manoah met future TNF teammate Conrad Anker at Bozeman’s Spire climbing gym. “I recognized a gentle soul, a happy person and someone dedicated to the craft of climbing,” says Conrad. The two climbed together and Conrad talked Manoah, still a die-hard skier, into trying ice climbing. “After the first time I went out, I was hooked on it,” says Manoah. He went out 40 or 50 more times that winter, which was still a couple dozen fewer days on tools than skis. Every year after that, says Manoah, the ratio switched.
“There’s a brute sense to it,” says Manoah. “I’m super mellow and gentle—that’s my personality. Swinging tools into ice and snow gives you a feeling of power and strength.” Manoah says it’s that combined with the pure aesthetics of climbing ice in Hyalite Canyon—a stunning mountain valley near Bozeman with more than 150 ice and mixed routes condensed in three-square miles.
Manoah has climbed routes like The Rostrum and Lurking Fear in Yosemite, Liberty Ridge on Mt. Rainier and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome (the first Grade VI climb in the U.S.). He wants to climb in the Wind Rivers this summer, Yosemite this fall and Alaska next spring, but what he loves most is introducing people to the sport. Manoah has led a climbing clinic with kids in Atlanta and Memphis. He’s invited urban climbers to Bozeman and connected with a 15-year-old boulderer who Manoah says is going to be a much better climber than him. “It’s the cycle of mentorship that has me most excited about being in this position,” says Manoah.
It all ties to connection—Manoah’s driving force.
“Partnerships through climbing have succeeded any other relationships,” says Manoah. “Tying in together or being in an uncomfortable spot where you have to make a lot of decisions quickly really makes you get to know your climbing partners well. It promotes a bigger sense of family.”
Manoah’s father has seven siblings, but Manoah calls any older relative “uncle” or “auntie”. In Samoa, the greeting extends to unrelated elders. It’s a nod to Samoan culture, which places kin before all else. Multigenerational households are the norm. Manoah guesses there are more than one dozen family members living in their former Los Angeles home. Manoah hopes to travel to his mother’s native Ethiopia to climb and connect with family. And someday, he hopes to open an Ethiopian restaurant in Bozeman like his mother did in Spokane.
“Through climbing, I want to make connections and foster relationships with people,” says Manoah. “Since joining The North Face, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and connect with so many different people—whether it’s fellow athletes or younger Black kids living in places without climbing. That’s where I’m most focused right now. I hope to make a difference to those communities and those kids by being one of the few people like me who are able to do this.”