Street trials rider Danny MacAskill has released a new video of his ride down the 500m Dubh Slabs on the Isle of Skye, 'Danny MacAskill - The Slabs'. Natalie Berry previewed the video and spoke to MacAskill to find out more about how pro climbers such as Alex Honnold inspired this challenge, and why the crack-climbing WideBoyz appeal to him...
Danny MacAskill has a track record of riding his bike down things that most people would hesitate to walk or climb up. He'll balance and hop on his bike from one obstacle to another, engaging his brakes and 'gapping' distances on wheels that few people would jump and land on foot. In 2014, MacAskill elevated his urban trials style to new heights, when he rode the Cuillin Ridge on his native Isle of Skye, creating a viral video - The Ridge - that has garnered nearly 75 million views. Locked-down in Scotland and in need of a challenge, MacAskill sketched plans for another natural feature close to home: The Dubh Ridge, a 900 metre grade III scramble with a 500 metre section of Moderate climbing up 60-degree gabbro slabs. Gravity would pull MacAskill downwards, testing his tyres, brakes and balance. As First Bike Descents go, it's certainly a feat of derring-Dubh.
MacAskill has long had a good head for heights and a keen eye for the exploits of climbers who push the limits of the sport, naming Adam Ondra, Alex Honnold and Tommy Caldwell as influences. 'For the last few years, I've really been inspired by rock climbers, finding and developing new routes on cliffs unchanged for millennia', MacAskill narrates in The Slabs, 'which got me thinking, how can I take this approach and apply it to descending on my mountain bike?' While growing up on Skye, he had occasionally dabbled in climbing with friends.
It's the dogged determination of pioneering climbers that captures MacAskill's imagination. 'I'm really inspired by the climbing mindset and by watching these climbers setting new routes and new grades in their sport. These people are dedicating years of their life to these routes,' he says. In 2020, MacAskill and his crew had made ambitious plans for a trip to the US to film a steep line with potential for a bike descent. Along came COVID-19, and the team were forced to shift gears and change their objective. While locked-down in the Spey Valley area, MacAskill parked his street trials bike and instead racked up over 8,000 kilometres on an e-bike. He felt primed for a Scottish mountain bike challenge. Transferring his agility and control on the diminutive trials bike to a larger apparatus has been a steep learning curve, but ultimately beneficial for MacAskill. 'I think it's just like any sport - if you tackle different sides of it then it's going to make you a better rider, or climber,' he adds. Plus, mountain bikes can take you farther, and higher.
In his youth, MacAskill had visited Loch Coruisk numerous times and glanced at the Dubh—'Black'—Slabs from a distance, but he'd never been up close. Tipped-off by some friends who had climbed the route, MacAskill was inspired to scope out a descent line down the boilerplate slabs. 'The dream was to try to find a line and find a high point,' he says, 'then to piece together a route that I was able to cycle all the way down to the bottom, kind of like setting a route and climbing it.' Although the term 'First Descent' typically refers to ski descents, riding down rock slabs is a popular stunt in mountain bike Meccas such as Squamish, where the features are common on trails. Last year, a photograph of a mountain biker descending a 69 degree slab as a climber ascended was shared widely in adventure sport media.
Summer recce days on the Dubh Ridge ensued. With his bike in one hand, MacAskill padded up the slabs and analysed potential lines, working his route in sections from the top down. 'It was pretty exposed. I was there with friends who are climbers and it was interesting seeing their reaction to my plans,' he explains. 'They were building my confidence, but it was also good to have them there for perspective on how scary it was. I was maybe 150 or 200 feet above the ground on the hardest section on a 60 degree slope.' Although he's clearly not risk averse, MacAskill told UKC in a 2017 interview: 'I'm not a huge risk taker and I'm very calculated.'
In September, along with his filmmaker and photographer team, MacAskill hitched a ride from a fisherman to access the climb by boat, before walking-in to the foot of the slabs. MacAskill scrambled up the main face in biking shoes, bike on his back, as the camera crew climbed up the gully to the side, lugging kit to just below the summit of Sgurr Dubh Beag (733m). A dry-run on the crux slab inconveniently turned out to be wet, causing a scary skid to a stop. The team called it a day and vowed to return when conditions improved. Although the volcanic gabbro is known to climbers and bikers for its grippy and—sometimes excessively—rough texture, wet rock has its limits. 'Still, I couldn't imagine any rock that would be better to ride on,' MacAskill says. 'If it weren't for the gabbro I wouldn't have been able to ride the kind of lines I was attempting up there.'
Mountain biking being an activity in which technical geekery is paramount, the mechanical aspects of the bike were scrutinised. MacAskill modified his Santa Cruz 5010 mountain bike by increasing the travel in the front suspension, optimising the braking power—using a longer brake lever borrowed from his street trials bike, and top-end brake pads—and improving the traction between his tyres and the gabbro by switching from harder Enduro bike tyres to a softer Downhill-specific rubber compound.
On his second filmed attempt, MacAskill found the perfect line and skilfully weaved his way down the black slabs, adding some hops and hugging an exposed edge for good measure. 'I would say the riding in The Slabs was a lot more difficult and exposed for me than what I did in The Ridge,' he explains. 'I specifically picked lines that funnelled me along a one-foot-wide ledge with cliffs dropping to the side.' Although there was limited opportunity for MacAskill's trademark hops and flips due to the gradient—and no climax like The Ridge's iconic In Pinn (left)—the spectacle is more sustained. In the film, the drone swerves to keep up with MacAskill, while his GoPro footage gives a sense of perspective on the steepness, which culminates in the final 200 metre near-vertical section. It's clear that drone technology has moved on considerably since The Ridge, with FPV systems enabling smooth follow-shots that keep up with the action.
Unsurprisingly, MacAskill was happy to be back riding and filming on home turf. Since The Ridge, his productions have primarily been heavily choreographed and storyboarded stunts with a comic touch. 'I'm always trying to keep the vibe of them different each time so they stand alone,' he explains. 'I've done a few more street trials-based ones like Gymnasium last year and some more funny slapstick ones like Danny Daycare.' His videos have amassed over 300,000,000 views across various YouTube channels, from the playful tricks in Imaginate to the jaw-dropping front-flip into the sea in Cascadia. After all the fun and games, MacAskill appreciated a return to his roots and a more organic challenge. 'It was just really cool to get back up into the Cuillins,' he says. 'For The Ridge I was cherry-picking the good parts for riding, creating this journey and a story along it, whereas on the slabs I wanted it to be more about actually riding down them, making a dynamic film and hopefully taking in the views and showing the exposure.'
Compared to his typical stunts at street-level, MacAskill admits that the thrill was amplified by the setting. 'It was quite a powerful feeling up there actually, I really quite enjoyed it,' he says. 'Normally I'm used to doing tricks, so you're maybe exposed for seconds at a time, whereas up there you're doing a run where you're exposed for a lot longer than that. It's a bit more like climbing, I suppose.' To prevent a skid or a fall, MacAskill feathered the front brakes, maintained pressure over the front wheel and avoided leaning too far forward. 'It was about trying to keep in control at really slow speeds on very steep terrain,' he explains. 'That's a fairly natural position for me to be in, on the balance point. I couldn't gather any momentum because it's very easy for the bike to end up running away from you.' With no graduated 'run-out' to bolster a fall at the bottom, MacAskill would have hit flat ground in the event of a tumble. There was no room for a Drop and Roll—the name of MacAskill's street trials peformance tour—on the Dubhs.
The project wasn't the limit of MacAskill's climbing interest or ability. Less time spent on the road travelling for filming and work commitments of late gave MacAskill the chance to turn his hand to climbing, and to one aspect of it in particular: crack climbing. 'I had some amazing days on Skye at Kilt Rock learning how to do hand and fist jams,' he explains. 'I've got really into watching the WideBoyz. It's so much fun and we did some routes at Neist Point where I was really getting into the crack technique.' Could MacAskill be the third WideBoy? 'I wouldn't say I've got the best upper-body strength-to-weight ratio for climbing and due to the way I've been eating in lockdown and given my treat cupboard raids these days, definitely not!' he laughs.
While not claiming to be a pro climber just yet, MacAskill is calling on the climbing community to suggest possible rocky descents for future projects involving scrambling and biking, which, given the cross-over over people who both bike and climb, should yield results. 'I really fancy trying to tackle new pieces of rock around the world,' he says. 'If any readers fancy sending me ideas of amazing places that they think would work, I'm totally all ears. Obviously I can't ride down cliff faces, but nice approaches or cool scrambles are right up my street!' When asked if he would team up with Alex Honnold for a synchronised ascent and descent on El Capitan, or something less ridiculous, he concludes: 'Alex is quite a keen mountain biker, so maybe we could do something!'
Overall, at a time when the world is limited to home and its environs for many, MacAskill hopes that the video will inspire people to plan for post-lockdown activities. 'It's funny how with cars and planes you think you need to go a long way to find interesting adventures, but if you're on foot the world's a pretty big place,' he says. 'I hope it does inspire folks to get out and about. I'm hopefully not going to inspire folks to take their bikes up the Dubh Slabs, but I certainly hope it inspires people to get on their bikes and into the hills when they can.'
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