INTERVIEW: Danny MacAskill - Riding the Ridge

Danny MacAskill's talents in trials riding are well-known, thanks to his multiple viral videos featuring stunts you couldn't even dream up. One of his most popular videos released in 2014 - The Ridge - has so far received over 47 million views on YouTube, and caught the eye of many in our forums. Riding along the Cuillin Ridge (Traverse) on Danny's native Isle of Skye, the film shows Danny bunny-hopping, balancing and 'gapping' his way along some of the most iconic - and precarious - sections of the ridgeline on a mountain bike.

Danny at Garbh Bheinn  © Chris Prescott/Cut Media
Danny at Garbh Bheinn
© Chris Prescott/Cut Media

Following the release of the video, a UKC 'news' report curiously dated 1st April announced that the Cuillin Ridge's famous Inaccessible Pinnacle or 'In Pinn' had unfortunately lost its top boulder - The Bolster Stone - and consequently its Munro status. 84-year-old scrambler Maple Foule was quick to shift the blame onto Danny: 'I blame that Danny MacAskill for posing on top of the summit block with a mountain bike. The weight of his bike must have weakened it.'

Having grown up on Skye, the Cuillin mountains clearly hold great significance for Danny. Following the release of his new book 'At the Edge: Riding for My Life', we thought it was a good time to catch up. I met up with Danny in a café in Glasgow - where he is now based - to talk about Skye, riding the Ridge and climbing (which, it turns out, he's done a wee bit of!)...

'No matter where you are on Skye, the Cuillin Ridge is a pretty dominant feature. If you live in such a place, there are always certain mountains that as a kid you don't go up, but you say: 'I'll do it one day!' '


You grew up on Skye and spent a lot of time on your bike, but how much did you get up into the hills and mountains?

I grew up in the North West of Skye where there was a lot of open space and hills. I used to spend a lot of time out there with friends, but we never ventured to the Cuillins or the north end of the island because it was quite a severe place to go as kids - you needed to go with a guide or with parents who knew what they were doing. Also, it was before we could drive, so getting 20 miles down the road wasn't as easy, but yeah, we spent a lot of time in the hills chopping down trees and rolling boulders off cliffs...but there was nobody about so it was all good!

Have you climbed much before?

When I was younger, my uncle was working as an outdoor instructor, so whenever I went to Aviemore he'd take me out climbing on a crag above Kingussie which we used to climb on, so I used to do a little bit but it was the sort of stuff where I'd be climbing in trainers. I can't remember the hardest grades I climbed...E2 was probably the hardest. I've not really done anything since my teens, but it's something I'd love to do more of, especially bouldering for cross training, but I never get the time!

Danny rowing into Loch nan Leachd  © Chris Prescott/Cut Media
Danny rowing into Loch nan Leachd
© Chris Prescott/Cut Media

The stuff you do on a bike looks terrifying at times. Did you find climbing scary at all?

It's an unusual feeling if you're between gear and when you're about to fall you get a bit of a buzz, you kind of go to your limit and it's an unnerving feeling. I'm not scared of the height of it, it's more the clattering into the rock that happens when you do fall that scares me - but yeah it's good fun and something I'd like to do more of!

How did The Ridge come about - whose idea was it?

No matter where you are on Skye, the Cuillin Ridge is a pretty dominant feature. That was the case when I was growing up - it was always there and if you live in such a place, there are always certain mountains that as a kid you don't go up, but you say: 'I'll do it one day!' That was sort of it, I'd already done my biggest project of 2014 in Argentina with Red Bull and I was keen to do another smaller project on the mountain bike. I spoke to my friend Stu Thomson and we kind of put together this idea that I was going to do a riding clip along the Cuillin Ridge. We didn't plan it all too much, we got some small budgets together from different sponsors, keeping some of the bigger sponsors out of it - we just fancied doing something small ourselves, not telling anybody about it.

Danny at the Fairy Pools  © Chris Prescott/Cut Media
Danny at the Fairy Pools
© Chris Prescott/Cut Media

Mountain biking is a bit different to trials riding which you're most known for. Did you have to prepare specifically in any way for the ride?

I've ridden mountain bikes a lot since leaving Skye as I started working in a mountain bike shop. From a young age I was riding mountain bikes in my spare time, but I didn't do a lot of tricks on them. I'd never really tried to do that style of riding, partly because a good friend of mine - Chris Akrigg from Yorkshire - had already done a lot of videos that were taking trials skills to mountain biking and taking on that terrain, so I was a bit wary of getting involved. But I felt that doing the Ridge was something different, more on the 'epic' scale: it wasn't necessarily about the tricks, it was more about being up there, the views, showing Skye off and doing a few little things here and there. Although to be honest, I hadn't ridden my mountain bike for about 4 months before filming The Ridge because I'd been busy with other projects, so on the first day of filming I felt incredibly stiff and going down some of those trails you can sort of see it, I was very tentative! By the end of the week I kind of loosened up a bit, though.

'I'm not a huge risk taker and I'm very calculated - I was very confident that I could walk up and down that thing a hundred times and not have any 'moments''.

The In Pinn obviously stands out as the most memorable part of the video for us, can you tell us a bit about that? Again, was it your idea to climb it, and how did you do it?

Yeah, I mean the In Pinn...it's always been a dream of mine to take my bike up on top of it. There are actually two rocks on top that I planned to gap (edit: jump between) for a film in 2010, but in that same film I also planned to jump off the Skye Bridge, 128ft into the sea! I had big ambitions, but unfortunately those two plans never actually came off, so it was a nice chance to be able to tackle it when we started filming The Ridge. When you make films you tend to make a list of stunts and scenes, but we didn't storyboard this one exactly. The film kind of storyboarded itself! The plan was to row out, go up, along and come down again. Those were the basics of it, but we always knew the In Pinn was going to be a feature.

Danny on top of the In Pinn  © Chris Prescott/Cut Media
Danny on top of the In Pinn
© Chris Prescott/Cut Media

The initial plan was to show me climbing in certain areas and to be roped up. I'd been up there once before previously in the wet and the rain. The plan when we got there was that I would be roped up and we'd get the shots we needed. In the 'behind the scenes', it was very important to me to show people that if I did use a rope there, I'd have to put it in the behind the scenes. I wouldn't like to fool people into believing I'd done something that I'd not done. But when when we got up there on this amazingly beautiful day, I kind of trotted up with the rope on first and realised that it was sort of an easy scramble, so I dropped the rope. It wasn't too cool a thing to do with friends there, etc, but I'm not a huge risk taker and I'm very calculated - I was very confident that I could walk up and down that thing a hundred times and not have any 'moments'.

But...how did you get the bike up there?

I climbed up the bottom part to get tight foot shots, then we hoisted the bike up to the top and then I took it down the back, so I walked down, which was probably scarier even though I was roped up! There was loads of slack and if you fell off the side you'd take a big swing into god knows where! So that was probably more scary than climbing back up the way. There was this one hard move which would have been really scary to do with the bike, you'd have to do it one-handed whilst balancing the bike, so I went down to that move and picked it up from there and just trotted up. 

When the top block 'fell down' on April 1st 2014, many were quick to blame you for it. What do you have to say to that...?!

Well I mean...I suppose the extra weight of my bike up on top of there, you know it's a real shame. To be honest, I'm quite pleased I managed to stand on top of it, I might have been one of the last people to stand on top while it was still a Munro, and now it's been cut down in its prime really. What can I say? I've actually taken the rock back to my museum. I've got the piece of rock as a plinth back in Dunvegan...

Danny riding along Collie's Ledge  © Chris Prescott/Cut Media
Danny riding along Collie's Ledge
© Chris Prescott/Cut Media

Which parts of The Ridge stand out to you as the most memorable/scary? 

The In Pinn is obviously the main feature, Collie's Ledge was good fun, a lot of that sort of stuff was good, the sort of stuff I'd call 'a lot of bang for your buck' as I was comfortable doing the stuff but the shots we got on the day were outstanding, especially standing on top of the In Pinn with the bike, looking over the mist drifting along the Ridge was a magical day. Even if you had, as I said before, storyboarded it, that would be the dream scenario, so it was cool to be up there with the whole team getting those shots.

'I'd love to do more climbing, especially a bit of bouldering as cross training, but the trouble is it'd be so few and far between'.

Which stunt was the hardest to master in the film?

Stunt-wise, there was one gap just beneath Basteir's Tooth or Am Basteir between two boulders, which was a particularly heavy gap and I didn't really see the exposure because I started getting a bit blasé about heights with being up there so long, but if I did fall off the side of the boulders it'd still be a 30-40ft fall - it would be enough to do some pretty serious damage. That was quite good fun and then obviously the fence stunt down at Glen Brittle, it was a silly idea that just worked!

Would you ever consider biking the full ridge with a bit of climbing/scrambling thrown in?

I need to do it to be honest, it's pretty bad because I've walked half of the ridge with my friend, from the south end up to the In Pinn, but I had to leave to do some scouting for the film with Stu from there to Am Basteir. It would be good to do, I don't know if I'd do it with my bike though, it makes a nice piece of film with the small sections that we did, but before we went up I had this vision in my mind of this nice little path snaking nicely along the tops of the mountains and I'd just skirt along over them, but in actual fact it's a pretty severe place and I'd just be carrying the bike the whole time.

Danny below Am Basteir  © Chris Prescott/Cut Media
Danny below Am Basteir
© Chris Prescott/Cut Media

Do you have any more climbing plans in the future?

Not at the moment, as I said I'd love to do more, especially a bit of bouldering as cross training, but the trouble is it'd be so few and far between that every time I'd go back to it I'd be sore and the sort of soreness you get from climbing is a different thing, I couldn't ride the next day. My flatmate Ali is really into it and is like that all the time, he goes climbing and can't ride for like two days afterwards! My friends are getting really into climbing back on Skye, there's quite a lot of cool stuff up the north end of the island. We'll see, it'd be fun.

The big question - are mountain bikers more hardcore than climbers?!

I would definitely say no, I don't think so! Well, you'll get some hardy folk in both, I think we're both cut from the same cloth, or a lot of people do both as well, so I don't know. I don't particularly like suffering that much myself out in the cold and the wet!

What's next for you?

2015 was the busiest year I've had on record I would say, and I thought 2014 was busy before that! I kind of need to manage things a little bit better, so that I'm doing more riding and not as much travelling. I'm just trying to have it so I'm keeping my level up because there's only so many things you can do with a plateaued level! I need to at some point start learning again and do some half decent stuff, so 2017 will hopefully be that year!

Visit Danny's Facebook Athlete page

If you fancy a go at traversing the Cuillin Ridge in a more conventional manner (bike not recommended!!) check out this UKC Article for advice. Please ride responsibly and be considerate of using your mountain bike along mountain or crag paths. If you have any doubts about your planned route, check with a local contact in the area, such as a cycle shop. More advice here.
Watch The Ridge below:
 


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19 Jan, 2017
Shame you couldn't include any interviews with the guys that looked after Danny and the film crew on the ridge.