On the edge: Danny MacAskill on why The Slabs is his “wildest-ever" project
© Dave Mackison
The legendary trials rider returns to the Isle of Skye for his new video, turning a remote climb into a white-knuckle descent that pushes him to his limits.
Locked down in Scotland for most of 2020, he was forced to look closer to home when it came to inspiration for his next project. Fortunately for Danny, the UK’s mountain biking capital isn’t short of possibilities.
His latest film, The Slabs, is the result. Filmed on his home island of Skye, it sees Danny descend the Dubh Slabs – a 500m drop down an exposed slab rock face usually reserved for climbers and mountaineers. A nail-biting watch, it shows rider and bike at their absolute limits, where any mistake could leave him on the slab.
Watch the film below before checking out our interview with Danny where he talks climbing inspirations, near misses and future mountain face-based plans.
Hey Danny. That looks like one of the toughest films you’ve put together. What was the inspiration behind the project?
Like all of us, 2020 threw a few curveballs in terms of travel and plans for the year. I spent the first few months of lockdown riding for myself, getting tonnes of time out on my eBike and riding my pallets in my back garden. When the lockdown eased a bit, we decided to go out and try to make a few films if we could. I thought I’d start by looking close to home.
As I’m from the Isle of Skye, I had a bunch of different ideas there. I’d heard about these mythical Dubh Slabs right in the heart of the Cuillin ridge that my climbing friends had told me about. They are in a really remote part of the island which is only accessible by boat, a four-hour hike or a two-hour ride – we went over on e-bikes to initially go and have a look.
It’s just a really amazing place to be honest. You’re in the heart of the Cuillin Ridge, it’s panoramic 270° around you and you’ve got this amazing loch at the bottom
The Dubh Slabs are a well-known scrambling route that climbers and mountaineers use to access the Cuillin ridge. It’s this long, sustained bare piece of slab rock that rises from Loch Coruisk. My plan was to go up and see if there was a line that was rideable or start from a point that was rideable to the bottom. I went and scouted it with some friends and then, a couple of weeks later, we waited for a weather window that would allow me to ride down the line that I’d called out.
Was it hard to find a route down?
Yeah. First of all, we got to the bottom of the slabs and you’re immediately faced with this huge face of rock, which sits at about 60°. It’s incredibly intimidating and it was really on the fringes of what I thought might be possible on my bike – really at the very limit.
Even from that point, I thought I might not be able to ride all the way to the bottom, but that we might as well go up and see what's going on on the slabs and see if I can find a cool route down it. Further up, it’s just a really amazing place to be honest. You’re in the heart of the Cuillin Ridge, it’s panoramic 270 degrees around you and you’ve got this amazing loch at the bottom.
As a mountain biker, you’re normally stuck to a piece of singletrack, you might have a few trails on a hill or, if you’re building, you can maybe decide where you want to go. Riding on the slabs was kind of like having the freedom of skiing or snowboarding, where you could pick out various different lines.
Riding on the slabs was kind of like having the freedom of skiing or snowboarding, where you could pick out various different lines
We tried to choose a route that was the most exciting. I wanted to find some stuff right on the cliff edge and again we picked some lines on foot where I was in two minds whether it was going to be possible to do them, and if it was going to be possible to do them in a safe manner. Of course I can’t practise with any ropes like you might do in climbing. It was kind of playing at free soloing.
Did the actual riding meet your expectations?
Once we eventually got up there with the crew, it was a really cool feeling doing the first shot. We started working on the first long racing drone shot you see in the film. From that point, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is definitely going to work’. I was getting a feel for the rock under my tyres.
It was also cool to be working with a racing drone for the first time and getting these really dynamic shots. Getting that first bit out of the way was really good, although unfortunately whilst we were working on it one of our drones had a crash. Normally, racing drones crash all the time and they’re fine. But as we were up in the mountains, it crashed and managed to fall off a 300ft [90m] cliff that was right next to it, along with the first hour-and-a-half's worth of footage.
It doesn’t look like there was a lot of margin for error. Were there any other close calls?
We ended up filming the slabs over two days rather than one. We managed to get a lot of the lines that I’d dreamed of doing on the first day, but the cloud came in towards the end and the last slab became off limits because it started raining. I did try to ride the very bottom of it, much to my friends’ horror. The bike started getting a little bit out of control and I was about 150ft [45m] from the bottom. Luckily I got it back. My heart didn’t skip much of a beat doing it, but I don’t think it was very nice for my friends watching.
I was on the limit of control. The tyres were at 99 percent of their grip limit and the brakes were also right at their very limit
We had to wait for another weather window and a couple of weeks later we managed to sort out a fishing boat to take us across again. This time I managed to get some prototype Continental tyres that the Athertons had been working on. They had a softer compound rubber which I was keen to test on the rocks in the Cuillins. We got nicer weather and with these new tyres I was able to ride all the lines that I’d dreamed of doing on my feet with much more confidence. I was even able to tackle the bottom slab, which was probably the wildest thing I’ve ever done on my bike.
It felt pretty cool to be doing it but right on the limit of control. The tyres were at 99 percent of their grip limit and the brakes were also right at their very limit. But it was an amazing feeling to get through it all.
Did you have to set the bike up any differently?
I was debating what bike to try it on. Most folk would think to ride it on a downhill or freeride bike. It was also interesting to be able to still do a few trials-y things on the way down and I’m very comfortable on the Santa Cruz 5010, which is very much a small trail bike these days, with 130mm travel on the rear. I stuck a longer fork on the front to raise the front end. I also put some Magura 220mm rotors on the front to give it really big stopping power to make sure the bike was always in control. Other than that, it was pretty standard really. It ended up being the perfect tool for the job. It was nice and light to carry up the hill and it meant I was able to still play about a bit on some of the more trials-y stuff.
Looking back, I wish I’d maybe left the ground a bit more, but you really couldn’t make any mistakes on the slabs, otherwise you’d be turned into jam. Maybe that’s why it doesn’t look like I’m playing about too much. I was just trying to keep it under control at all times and make sure I was going to make it safely down.
Is this the start of more mountains?
Like I say in the film, I’ve been really inspired by climbers and mountaineers these last few years. I watch a lot of content from girls and guys around the world dedicating themselves to trying new things.
I’ve always fancied finding some good slick rock. I like the idea of slick rock where you can almost set a route. I don’t want to inspire other people to go up there and try it themselves, but I quite like the idea of riding down a face that’s unchanging. It’s not like building a gnarly trail but it’s pretty cool. Your riding evolves over the years and I fancy maybe looking around the world for new challenges like that and make some cool films as well.