I hope you’re sitting comfortably, because in today’s post I’m going to show you the most terrifying thing you have ever seen (at least on this blog) – more frightening than a Reinhold Messner Barbie doll, or Bill Bailey dancing in a sequinned leotard. You’re about to see something more dangerous than a Van Morrison-Eric Clapton protest concert or a supreme court nomination ceremony in the White House garden.
When I first visited the Isle of Skye in 2005, my hiking companion Tony was intrigued to read about the Giant MacAskill Museum in the village of Dunvegan at the north end of the island, a shrine to 7’9” Hebridean islander Angus MacAskill, a man so strong that he was said to be able to carry barrels of pork weighing 300lb under each arm and lift a fully grown horse over a fence. The museum features a life-size model of the man, and replicas of his bed, table and chair.
Actually ‘intrigued’ is probably the wrong word. For some reason Tony found the whole thing hilariously funny, and he was constantly badgering me to visit the museum with him on a rainy day when it was too miserable to go hiking. We never did visit, but I’m told the museum is no longer such a subject of amusement. The museum’s curator, Peter MacAskill, is father of extreme cyclist Danny MacAskill. There is now a corner of the museum celebrating Danny’s exploits too – and he’s not someone you can joke about, as we’re about to see.
If you’ve been following my series of posts about my recent visit to Skye, it should be pretty clear by now that the Cuillin Ridge is not a place for the faint-hearted, with knife-edge scrambling that gives me vertigo just thinking about.
It’s not a place to venture without a rope – or with a bike. But in 2014 Danny MacAskill did both those things, and the result is The Ridge, 7 minutes of sheer dizziness. So strap yourself in or, better still, make sure you’re sitting on the floor. The film starts tranquilly enough, but don’t be deceived.
The photography is dizzying enough, but if you’re familiar with the geography of the Black Cuillin, then the sequencing may also send your head spinning. Danny rows to the southern end of the ridge across Loch Scavaig. After playing around on slabs beside Loch Coruisk, we appear to see him cycling along the top of Sgurr nan Eag, then down the ridge of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich with Sgurr Alasdair behind before climbing the In Pinn.
So far everything seems to be in order, but then he cycles along Collie’s Ledge, a feature which you’ll know from a previous post runs underneath the summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich. He jumps theatrically off Collie’s Ledge and lands underneath Am Basteir, a mountain 7km further along the ridge. Then we see him cycling south again (the wrong way) along a knife-edge ridge with the peaks of the Red Cuillin behind him. Finally he ends up in Glen Brittle, south-west of the Black Cuillin, where he cycles into a fence.
In fact, you may be relieved to learn that Danny didn’t actually complete the Cuillin Ridge in a single continuous journey. As anyone who’s climbed it will know, there are many sections that simply aren’t cycleable (or even climbable), even by Danny MacAskill.
Instead, he and the film crew performed a series of day hikes up to the ridge where he completed his tricks. These were stitched together to make it look like a single pedal along the ridge.
The production company, Cut Media, made some sequences about the making of The Ridge which are almost as entertaining as the film itself.
Arguably the film’s most iconic moment is the bit where Danny carries his bike up the Inaccessible Pinnacle, and stands on top of the Bolster Stone, a notorious boulder perching on the summit that has been subject of much debate regarding its safety, and which will surely topple off one day.
Danny calls this the Braveheart shot (after the Mel Gibson film of the same name). The crew had rigged a fixed rope up the In Pinn for Danny to clip into, but halfway up he decided that he didn’t need it.
‘Dude, keep the rope on,’ we see the producer saying in the following clip.
‘This bit’s fine,’ Danny shouts back.
Having climbed it myself, I can assure you that it most certainly isn’t fine, but luckily Danny gets up safely.
‘Terrifying and incredible at the same time,’ we see the producer muttering.
Another section I’m well familiar with is Collie’s Ledge, a narrow trail 1 or 2 feet wide that winds underneath the summit of Sgurr Mhic Choinnich, with a 150m drop into Coire Lagan far below.
I found this section quite fun in a hair-raising sort of way, but I was happy to have both hands free, ready to grasp a rock should it be needed. Danny didn’t have this option: both of his hands were glued firmly to his handlebars.
Even so, ‘he reckons he could have done it when he was five years old,’ mutters someone in the following clip. ‘He’s not doing a trick – he’s literally just riding along a trail,’ they witter on.
Clearly their and my definition of the word ‘trail’ is at variance. Danny goes on to explain that all he has to do is pretend he’s riding along the pavement and trying not to fall off the kerb. The twist is the 500-foot drop beneath the kerb, he says.
Well, yes, and the fact that the pavement is hideously rutted, sloping down towards the road in places, disappears from time to time, has random jagged rocks jutting across it, and little gaps you have to leap over. Apart from that, Danny’s right.
Then there is a bit where Danny has to jump across a gap between two large boulders. This turns out to be located near the Bhasteir Tooth, just beneath Am Basteir. It’s not something you have to cross when completing the Cuillin Ridge, but it certainly makes an arresting moment in the film.
Danny has two main concerns, we learn. One is being able to stop abruptly when landing on the second boulder, but the second is more worrying. There is quite a vertical drop between the two boulders, and Danny is worried about ‘the bike snapping’, an event that would almost certainly catapult him over the edge and down into Coire a Bhasteir.
He appears to execute the move perfectly 4 or 5 times, but he’s not happy. On the last occasion, he slams the bike to the ground and says ‘I’m done with it’. He has a headache from the force of the landings, some of the heaviest landings he’s ever had on a bike.
The final video covers Danny’s last trick, where he cycles into a barb-wire fence at Glen Brittle campsite, bounces off and executes a front flip to land the other side of it, before cycling casually down the beach to the sea shore, where he gets off, sits down and gazes out across the Atlantic.
It’s a trick that he’s never done before. He says it’s the highest risk one in terms of injury because he’s going over his head, a claim that is disputable given there are many other moments that could have seen him falling hundreds of metres and splattering against jagged rocks.
‘There’s no 300 foot drop… but for some reason this stuff is way more scary,’ he says.
He practices the landing several times onto crash mats before he summons up the courage to do it without them. It’s a cool ending to a great film with some fantastic photography in this fabulous landscape. If only the weather were like that all the time.