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From Memphis to Montana: The climbers aiming to boost diversity in the sport

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Born to first-generation immigrants from Samoa and Ethiopia, the 26-year-old grew up on the outskirts of Los Angeles, but later moved to Bozeman, Montana, when he went to college.

It was there that he fell in love with the outdoors and the spectacular ice climbing opportunities that Montana offers.

Ainuu was taught climbing and is now an experienced professional, embarking on trips around the United States

But he says living in a predominantly white area, while participating in a sport with few other black athletes, weighs heavily on him.

While not recalling any openly racist incidents, the climber says it is more an accumulation of “microaggressions” from both the local community and the climber, such as people commenting on their dreadlocks.

“Most people are like‘ Oh, it’s a compliment, it’s kindness, ’but what happens is it’s kind of a setback,” Ainuu tells CNN Sport. “They see that you are different and you feel they have to say something about it.

“I’m pretty soft, so I ignore a lot of things. If someone says something stupid racist, I say to myself, ‘Whatever it is, I’ve heard it before.’

“But it really weighs on you. Everything builds up and if a person handles it by bottling it or ignoring it, there’s still an effect.”

With movies like “Free only” becoming the mainstream and with climbing gyms on the rise, the sport has witnessed a boom in recent years.

But the cost of clothing and safety equipment acts as a major barrier to entry for many and the lack of representation among the best professionals in the world is recognized more than ever.

Now a member of The North Face’s elite climbing team, Ainuu wants to change the narrative around outdoor adventure sports.

“I don’t really like being in the spotlight, which brings me all this attention, but what I’ve noticed is that […] there are so many people looking at me […] and all those other black and African American climbers or athletes or musicians, ”he says.

“Just seeing someone who looks like you, doing something and standing out is extremely strong.”

Manoah Ainuu is an experienced ice climber.

Black gel

That’s why Ainuu was so excited to be part of a new documentary called “Black gel“which includes a collaboration with Memphis Rox – a non-profit climbing gym in South Memphis, United States.

The center offers a safe haven for people away from the streets; a place to relax and immerse yourself in a sport that at first may seem unfamiliar. No one walks away, regardless of their ability to pay.

Thanks to its inclusion and solidarity ethic, the organization has opened up the world of climbing to the local community that suffers from poverty and lack of opportunities, especially to black communities.

Elena Delavega, an associate professor at the University of Memphis, tells CNN Sport that South Memphis is one of the poorest areas of the city that is “under-served and under-resourced.”

He also claims that the area is threatened by the gentrification that is achieved.

“This is a problem for this neighborhood because they want to eliminate traditional residents and‘ improve ’the area,” he says.

“But no improvements are being made while the poor live there.”

According to the Memphis Poverty 2020 data sheet, the city’s poverty rate is 21.7%, with a higher percentage among minority groups.

The movie “Black Ice” documents how members of the gym staff, many of whom had never climbed ice, traveled to Montana where they met Ainuu, his ice climber Fred Campbell, and climbing legend Conrad Anker. .

Learning from the experts, the Memphis Rox team spends time climbing icy waterfalls and skiing in some of the coldest temperatures they have experienced.

“It was great. I mean, just having so much melanin in Montana,” Ainuu laughs.

& quot;  Ice Black & quot;  documented an ice climbing trip to Montana, USA.

Better representation

Malik Martin, the official Memphis photographer Rox who worked as a filmmaker on “Black Ice,” is well aware of the problems young people growing up in Memphis present.

“There’s not a lot of sympathy from society for the people in my neighborhood, the people in our circumstances,” Martin tells CNN Sport. “There are a million traps to fall into between trying to live and surviving.

“But it’s a beautiful place. I love Memphis. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, because being where I’m from is how we can get up and go into a whole new environment and take it out.

“It was hard and it sucked, but they shot me, so that’s nothing.”

Without ever considering a career photographing and making films about climbing, Martin is now in love with the sport.

He says living in Memphis forces you to grow quickly, but that climbing offers you the opportunity to lower your guard.

He also understands the importance of representation in sport and says the blackest filmmakers need to tell stories.

“Every time I point my cameras to amplify and elevate them […] being a black filmmaker and connecting with blacks is important, ”he says.

“There’s a difference, we can sit here and act like there isn’t. There’s a difference when it’s based on documentaries, you know what I mean?

“When you’re sitting with people and talking to people and you can only relate.”

Martin has been on multiple trips with Ainuu since the filming of “Black Ice” and his social media channels are now full of climbing content.

He remembers a moment during a trip with Ainuu last year, when the importance of using his camera to inspire other people came home.

The couple was driving when Ainuu noticed a frozen pillar on the side of the road. Martin watched as his friend got out of the car, crossed the road, and began to climb without ropes.

“From the hood, this would be a date without dating‘ white people stuff, ’” says Martin. “And seeing a black guy with fears, with the utmost skill. […] it’s like “wow” “

Fred Campbell was one of the mentors of

Allies in sport

Since the trip to Montana, Martin has also fostered a strong relationship with Anker, who remains one of the best explorers and mountaineers in the world.

Anker was one of the driving forces behind the design of the film, having previously visited Memphis Rox and has long pushed for better diversity in outdoor activities.

Both Martin and Ainuu say it is vital to have white allies within the sport.

“There’s one thing to put a black square on Instagram,” Martin says.

“Conrad understood that my life would change and that it would have any kind of real social impact, he had to take me to his circle of influence and that, being a legend, he would automatically seal or certify me.”

Anker acknowledges that not enough has been done in the past to do inclusive climbing, but says things are changing.

While organizations and events such as “Color the rock” for years promoting diversity, Anker says George Floyd’s death in 2020 was a point of contact for the global climbing community to be able to hold a mirror against itself.

“He’s trying to change the way we look at climbing,” Anker tells CNN Sport. “Since its origins in the mid-1800s, seeing this as an athletic pursuit in itself has always been the domain of the white male.”

“Now, as the expeditions progress, great expeditions, there is more inclusion both from where it is and from a gender perspective. Recognizing it and working to improve it is the first step.”

‘Reflection of society’

Anker hopes “Black Ice” will continue to encourage people from all walks of life to adopt their love of climbing, which he says can be used as a tool to heal deep divisions and racial tensions in the United States.

“We have always worshiped the mountains of all the great religions in the world,” he says.

“There’s always some connection to the mountains. And when you go out with someone, climbing with them is special.

“It’s a healthy way for humans to get closer to other humans. And so Memphis Rox, yes, it’s a climbing gym but it’s also a community center where these people are. It’s a something really significant.

“While climbing is a sport that involves climbing mountains, it’s a transformative change in the way humans interact with other humans and encourage that. […] it is the goal of my life. “

Campbell, one of the team’s leading experts in Montana, echoes Anker’s praise for Memphis Rox, but says there’s no quick way to address the issue of diversity in climbing.

Instead, he calls on all members of the community to do what they can.

“Climbing is a kind of reflection of society,” Campbell tells CNN Sport.

“No part of society’s problems is open to climbing, so I think the solution has to be multifaceted.”

“Individual climbers need to support it and work to make the community truly inclusive, and I think that’s something we try to do on a personal level.

“Conrad, Manoah, Malik, we’re all very, very, very interested in being inclusive and making the sport accessible to everyone.”

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