The Casual Route (5.10a) is the most iconic line up the East Face of Longs Peak in Colorado, better known as the Diamond. Technically, the climb is The Integral Route—the name given to it by Chris Revely and Duncan Ferguson after their first ascent in 1977. But in 1978, Charlie Fowler free soloed it and said it was a “casual” affair. The name stuck.
When Maury Birdwell free soloed the route yesterday, Monday, August 30, it was at a less casual pace than Fowler. In fact, it was at a less casual pace than anyone has ever done the route from car to car. Just 3 hours 26 minutes and 12 seconds after leaving the Longs Peak Trailhead, Birdwell was back, having set a new fastest known time (FKT) in the process. In between he’d logged nearly 10 miles of trail and 5,000 feet of vert (including the rock climbing).
“When I finished, I sort of collapsed across from the trailhead,” Birdwell said in a phone call yesterday. “The rangers, understandably startled, asked if I was OK. I caught my breath and said, ‘I just set the FKT on the Diamond!’”
“By what route?” one of them asked.
“The Casual, car to car,” Birdwell said.
“You climbed the Casual Route without any rope or equipment…” the ranger said, incredulous.
“Yes, sir,” Birdwell said.
“I don’t think I believe you…” the ranger said, walking away.
Birdwell got a kick out of that. Despite having set a new speed record on a legendary wall, he takes none of it too seriously. “Climbing itself is about the most arbitrary, meaningless thing you can do,” he said. Yet there’s no question he’s proud of having achieved a goal over a year in the making.
Last year, when Wade Morris asked Birdwell if he was game for a speed lap on the Diamond, Birdwell thought to himself, That sounds like a fun day out. Casual, even. He and Morris went 4 hours 57 minutes roundtrip. They were both pretty chuffed—they were only an hour off the existing speed record set by the late Dean Potter in 1999.
But when Morris asked Birdwell if he wanted to take a proper run at breaking Potter’s benchmark time of 3 hours 59 minutes, Birdwell declined. He had harder and longer routes he wanted to dedicate his energies to at the time.
Still, he had “got the bug,” and it wasn’t long before he had the Diamond on the brain again. When Morris and Stefan Griebel posted a new FKT last summer of 3 hours 53 minutes 59 seconds, Birdwell decided the time was right to challenge himself.
“I’ve always wanted to solo the Diamond,” he said. “And beyond that, part of it has to do with simplicity, and being honest with myself: If I’m simul-climbing it fast, and if I’m going to be running it out 100 feet above a piece, I’d just rather not have a rope on and not delude myself in the idea that I’m being safe. Wade and Stefan made it as safe as they could, for sure. But it really didn’t feel that much riskier for me to solo.”
At the end of last summer, Birdwell gave it his first real try. He was on pace to beat Griebel and Morris’s time. But ice on the descent route slowed him down. To add insult to injury—or vice-versa—a half mile from the car he rolled his ankle. He limped out and has been doing PT ever since.
“After that attempt last year and getting painfully close, I decided this was a big goal for me this year,” Birdwell said. “It feels really good to do a thing, and do it well, and articulate your own mastery of a craft. And that’s what it was. I kind of looked at it from two different angles. From one perspective it was just an athletic challenge. And then from a broader perspective, it’s just nice to have a goal you’re working toward.”
A climber of 20 years, the running was always going to be the hard part for Birdwell. In the months leading up to August, he focused on improving his running fitness.
At 8:15 am on Monday, he left the trailhead and cruised up to Chasm Lake and the base of the Diamond. In the North Chimney he slowed down to get his heart rate under control. He climbed the route smoothly and solidly, he said, not willing to adopt the added risk of going faster. This time, without ice on the descent and with a mostly healed ankle, he loped back to the trailhead at a comfortable 85-percent effort. And he was still able to set the FKT.
Birdwell is certain the record can go faster, particularly for someone with more of a running background.
“It’s a running objective,” says Birdwell. “Roughly 75 percent of it is either running up or down. … I’m excited to see what a real runner can do. God help us all if a guy like Kyle Richardson or Anton Krupicka rehearses the route and feels comfortable enough to solo it. They’d go under three hours. Easy.”
Though Birdwell set the record alone, the reason the whole thing appealed to him, he said, goes back to community.
“I’m not contemporaries with Charlie Fowler or Bill Briggs [the inventor of the Longs Peak Triathlon], or even Dean Potter, really. But you get to feel like a competitor and a contemporary with them doing something like this. And in the case of Wade Morris and Stefan Griebel, I get to race against friends and heroes. So that’s a big part of it for me, this communal aspect.