Sibleyville Was Boulder’s Camp 4. Only Ashes Remain.
Never again will there be anywhere like Sibleyville, outside Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, where for 50 years climbers came to crash—and when they crashed.
Deborah Hammock sat in her living-room chair, beside an old “seven-day clock” from the 1890s, planning a lesson for her high-school students. It was about 11:30 a.m. December 30, 2021, in Marshall, Colorado, an unincorporated community five miles south of Boulder and a few miles from Eldorado Canyon.
“Something’s burning,” she said to her husband. “Are you making toast?”
Paul Sibley, a longtime pillar of area climbing, said, “No, I turned the toaster off!”
He recalls, “I opened the door and said, ‘Oh fuck, we’re out of here.’”
That day, borne by 100-plus-mph cyclonic winds ahead of a major storm, the Marshall Fire burned over 6,000 acres and 1,000 homes in Superior, Louisville, and unincorporated Boulder County, displacing thousands and leaving two people dead. A wet spring had filled the prairie foothills with tall swaths of grass, since dried; the area had seen no major precipitation since late summer and had entered “extreme” drought conditions. A day later, the incoming storm would dump 8 inches of snow.
Says Sibley, 75 and a climber since age 13: “We got the dog and cat, and by the time we got outside the fire was coming down the road. The dog shit in my arms, and the cat pissed. That’s how frightening it was. I threw ’em in the car and said, ‘You guys leave.’”
Hammock had barely been able to stand in the wind as they hurried out: “I was holding the cat as tightly as I could, and something on fire just flew by my head. I had to turn away. I couldn’t believe how hot the air already was, and the Coop”—a former chicken coop with a second floor added to it, 30 yards away—“was on fire.”
She had a brand-new car, a Honda hybrid, but no key in hand to open it. They hurried on to their VW Passat, given to Sibley, a former 30-year climbing guide, by a friend and onetime client.
Hammock protested, but Sibley insisted she go, saying he was staying to save the house. In the black smoke, she backed out of the driveway by memory, drove less than a mile to the corner of highways 93 and 170 (the turnoff for Eldorado), and stopped.
Who does this? she thought. Who leaves their husband in a fire?
Hammock turned around, but police had already blocked the road.
Paul Sibley’s property in Marshall was five acres consisting of his home and outbuildings and … community. For over 50 years, people stopped by or stayed or lived at Sibley’s place, whether in the Coop or workshop or an outlying vehicle or tent. A constellation of factors served to make the place an institution. One was proximity to Eldo and other renowned climbing; another was the simple dearth of area camping. In a broader sense, Sibley straddled an era in which, unlike today’s, even most top practitioners lacked ways to make a living from climbing. He allowed visitors, in endless permutations and with a synthesis of historic personalities, creating a space reminiscent of other staples of the era, like Camp 4 in Yosemite or the Gordon Ranch at Joshua Tree or the Hueco Tanks Country Store and quonset hut. What is sometimes known as “Sibleyville” could also be, for many, a place to transition. Robin Johnson, who visited on and off from 1986 to 1992, living there about a year, says, “It was a haven.”
As a third-year medical student, she was absorbed into the scene after taking a climbing course from the International Alpine School, an Eldo-based guide service co-owned by Sibley and Sandy East. Johnson was on call every other night and sleep deprived. “I would drive to Paul’s place and hang out, and it was restorative and redemptive,” she says.
“You would be in the van with Paul, and he would pull over and say, ‘Just wait,’ and the geese would come, and you’d watch them land on the lake. Or we’d be skiing”—at the challenging area Arapahoe Basin—“and Paul would say, ‘Have you looked at the fence?’ There was hoar frost on it, and the sun hit it, and little rainbows were coming off it.”
“Everybody was welcome” on the property, she says. “We’d be sitting down to dinner and whoever showed up, somehow the food multiplied. It just always felt like there was a place for you.”
Sibley put on gloves, ski goggles, a ski helmet, and a wool coat to protect himself, and fought the fire alone for three hours. The wind battered him, blowing him off his feet four or five times. He stopped periodically to escape the heat and breathe. His property was rocky, with prairie grass and sparse trees: hardy cottonwoods, pine, and elm. Marshall is subject to strong winds off the Continental Divide; he has seen them higher, but as gusts. “These winds were constant at 90 mph,” he says. “It was nuts.”
A complex investigation continues. On January 31, the sheriff’s office stated, “We are investigating any and all potential causes of the fire including coal mines in the area, power lines, human activity, etc.” On March 8, two ignition points were identified, one at a property at the intersection of Colorado 93 and Marshall Road/Highway 170, about a quarter mile from the house, and one about a third of a mile from that, over an underground coal fire (the state monitors 38 of them).
The power went out, and with it the well pump, so Sibley used buckets of water from the toilet cistern, dashing them at a burning bedroom-window frame. The nearby Coop blasted heat and embers, “like a Roman candle blowing sideways,” he says. He grabbed a fire extinguisher, ran outside, and worked on the window frame; when the extinguisher emptied, he went in and smothered flames in the bedroom with a blanket. He began pulling water out of the well beside the house, cutting up a hose to haul the buckets. The window blew up, and a bedroom chair caught. Sibley ran in and snuffed the flames with another blanket. Now the porch was on fire. The courtyard gate had already burned.
“I kept trying to put the window fire out, and just couldn’t get ahead of it,” he says, “and finally I gave up and jumped down and was going to leave .… I was resigned to letting it burn. And a fire truck pulls up, and two young guys jump out and pull out two hoses!
“They took one hose up to the window, and I took the other one and put the fire out on the porch and in the courtyard. They were on the roof, and I threw my hose up and got up there with them.”
Pre-dawn on July 16, 1972, Sibley and Mike Weis embarked on the Aiguille de Triolet, Chamonix, France. They soloed 700 to 900 feet up the north face by headlamp, roped up and simul-climbed, then began swapping leads. A German pair caught up and passed them, 20 feet to the right. Then the Americans watched aghast as the leader fell a full ropelength, yanking the belayer off, both plummeting some 1,500 feet to the glacier. One man miraculously survived and could be heard shouting and crying; other people on the glacier hastened over.
Weis and Sibley continued, but half an hour later as they stood at a belay, rockfall released from above. The climbers flattened themselves, but a rock hit Weis on the leg. “It tore his calf off and jammed it into his lower leg,” Sibley says. “There was no external wound.” Weis sustained compartment syndrome, which is both limb- and life-threatening.
Over the next three hours, Sibley helped Weis 500 feet up to a ledge he thought would allow a helicopter extraction. Weis says, “He had a lot of work to do. I was passing out and coming to and passing out.” Sibley then soloed another handful of pitches to the top, and descended complex terrain for hours, thousands of feet into Italy, where he hailed a passing runner and handed him a topo showing Weis’s location.
In another great effort, a helicopter choppered Weis off minutes before dark. He underwent surgery in Chamonix, and stayed three weeks before returning to a hospital in Boulder. Two weeks later, he moved into Paul’s place. “There was no doubt,” says Sibley. He doesn’t think they even discussed it. “We put a tarp over the patio, and we rented a hospital bed and put him out there,” he says. “It was summer.”
Weis says, “He took me and put me up and wiped my ass for three months. That’s pretty hard to beat.”
Weis was also to live in the Coop on and off throughout the 1970s. He was a main climbing partner of the leading ice climber Jeff Lowe, and an early climbing-documentary rigger and systems developer who moved on to feature films and brought many other climbers into that world.
In early 1977, Jeff Long was busted for attempting to climb the TransAmerica building in San Francisco with Ed Drummond (UK); weeks later Long led an international expedition to Makalu that, he says, “barely made a dent on the first West Face attempt.” A few weeks after that, he was arrested in Kathmandu when an expedition member tried to smuggle out watch parts. Long spent two months in prison in Nepal.
He returned traumatized, “a mess,” as he writes in an email. “First Mike Lowe [brother of Jeff] and then Paul Sibley gave me sanctuary. Thank god for the Coop.” He paints a peaceful scene, with solitude and a potbelly stove for $25 a month. Thus ensconced, Long wrote his first big novel, Angels of Light (published in 1987), loosely based on the events of winter 1976-77, when a drug-running airplane crashed in Lower Merced Pass Lake, Yosemite, and climbers dredged up its cargo of marijuana. Long has since published eight more novels and two nonfiction books; twice won Best Magazine Article at the Banff Mountain Film and Book Festival; and received the Boardman Tasker and American Alpine Club literary awards.
The interlude, he feels, allowed him to proceed into a writing life. “Fundamentally,” Long says, “the Coop gave me an opportunity to come to terms with my fall from grace and climb into a new skin.”
On December 12, 1981, Jamie Duffy, 24, and Michael O’Donnell, 25, climbed Stettner’s Ledges to the Window Route, Longs Peak (14,259 feet), Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP), for a day of some 1,500 feet and a dozen pitches. O’Donnell and his wife, Colleen, lived in Boulder; Duffy lodged in the Coop. O’Donnell had been a serious theater student in high school in Ohio, doing summer stock in New York and Ontario. Theater and climbing had been a conflict, though, and after graduation he’d bolted to Europe to take a guides’ course in Leysin, Switzerland.
O’Donnell was 18, a strapping 6’1”, and one day as he walked into the Club Vagabond, a climbers’ hang in Leysin, the Scottish climber Gordon Smith said, “Hey, ya big fuck, want to make some money?”—leading to load-carrying work on the Eiger for The Eiger Sanction. O’Donnell then took three semesters of college in Denver—and ramped up his climbing.
Duffy, tall and slim and innocent-looking, with a long pageboy haircut, was training on the oboe in hopes of making the Denver Symphony. He and O’Donnell had been climbing together consistently for nearly two years, since meeting in Camp 4. Colleen loved Duffy, too. He’d sit at their table and make his own reeds for the oboe.
The weather was supposed to be stable, yet as Duffy and O’Donnell reached the mixed ground above the Window Route, the temperature dropped, and thick, heavy snow began falling. Approaching the summit ridge, O’Donnell heard wind “like a freight train, like sheets ripping—just shearing wind.” The two popped over the ridge and looked west into a “giant setting-sun maelstrom” of swirling, racing orange clouds.
They had to traverse the summit to reach the Keyhole Route descent, but struggled in hurricane blasts. When they fell, they slid backwards. O’Donnell hung onto rocks with his feet lifting—“flapping,” he says. Still on the summit plateau, the two reached a footlocker-sized box housing weather instruments, and O’Donnell broke the end off with his axe and crawled in. Duffy wormed in next, the two packed so closely their noses and mouths touched. Their lower legs were outside. All night the gale lifted and rolled the box, which was chained to the rock.
Morning brought a whiteout, their clothes were frozen, and the rope was a tangle as the two started down the Keyhole Route. In continuing wind, O’Donnell turned his balaclava around and peered through the weave, but Duffy had only a hat, and his face grew patchy with white. .
A couple hundred feet below the summit, atop the Homestretch, lay a blocky corner of slick feldspar. “I told [Duffy] this is the bad part, to go first so I could keep an eye on him,” O’Donnell says. Of the two, he had more energy. Duffy shook his head.
O’Donnell then downclimbed the 20-foot exposed section to a ledge. “I waited and waited, and nothing.” He called many times. No reply. “I climbed back up—it was a huge effort—and where I had left him, he was gone.” O’Donnell thinks Duffy probably tried to downclimb and fell, perhaps blown off balance. He didn’t know where or how far Duffy could have gone. By then O’Donnell, too, was profoundly cold and struggling for survival. “I just realized I couldn’t see, I couldn’t hear … ‘I just have to go,’” he recalls. “It was a painful decision .… You click off and you survive.”
O’Donnell reached the Agnes Vaille Shelter, at the Keyhole feature (13,200 feet), and rested. When he started moving again, he began falling. He stumbled and crab-crawled a mile or two, then, following a power line, crawled another four miles to his car. With frozen fingers, he turned the vehicle on with his palms, and as it heated, irrationally waited for Duffy. After an hour, he drove to Estes Park, walked into a police station, and collapsed, waking long enough as he was put into an ambulance to say his friend was still out there. The Wednesday after the weekend ordeal, searchers located Duffy’s body hundreds of feet down the Trough, a gully west of where O’Donnell had last seen him.
O’Donnell spent nearly four months in hospitals, with concern at first that he might lose his feet and fingers to frostbite. In the end, he lost only three toes. Duncan Ferguson, who’d been on the search for Duffy, visited, bringing Paul Sibley, another searcher, and owner of the place where Duffy lived; O’Donnell had only met Sibley once. Sibley began visiting often, solid and nonjudgmental; he would simply ask how O’Donnell was doing. After the amputations, in April of 1982, he was there the day O’Donnell was told to stand up. “OK, buddy, come on,” Sibley said.
“Paul held me and I screamed,” O’Donnell recalls. “The pain was so bad I threw up, and I’m pretty sure I puked all over Paul. He didn’t let me fall. He supported me. And I moved into the Coop. I asked him if I could, and he said, ‘Absolutely, buddy.’” O’Donnell, Colleen, and their cat arrived in Marshall. Rent was $90 a month.
Earl Wiggins’s 1979 free solo of the 13-pitch Scenic Cruise (5.10+) in the Black Canyon of the Gunnison shocked a generation, and he, with Jimmie Dunn, pioneered hard free climbing in the Black and the Utah desert. One day he walked up the driveway at Sibley’s place and, with his thick glasses and huge smile, asked O’Donnell to come do two routes in a day in the Black (which would be a first, and they did). Wiggins stayed for a while in his big dome tent outside the Coop.
When he broke both ankles ice climbing with Mugs Stump in Provo, Utah, in December 1984, Wiggins called saying, as Sibley recalls, “I’m all messed up—can I come park the bus at your place?”
In spring of 1985, he and Katy Cassidy, with whom he later co-authored the classic Canyon Country Climbs (1989), arrived in Buster the school bus, bought for their traveling work on power-line jobs, and stayed two years. Cassidy brought in a cat, Valerie, and then other cats.
Paul was born in summer of 1946 in Denver, the youngest of three siblings, with a brother, Jerry, and sister, Sue. Their father, a hospital administrator, died of a heart attack at only 43, when Paul was 14. Thurston Sibley had been an outstanding athlete, gaining a full wrestling scholarship at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Their mother, Thelma, an artist, raised the children.
Paul was strong, winning an all-city rope-climbing competition in seventh grade. He started skiing at 11 or 12, and at 13 began working on a ranch in the South Platte, cutting Christmas trees to earn ski money. At 12, he climbed Longs Peak with his Scout group and church minister. After Longs, Paul and a friend got army-surplus ropes, carabiners, and pitons, and at 16 or 17 he did the 5.8 Bastille Crack in Eldorado.
In 1969, Sibley bought the Marshall house, then a junkie hangout with holes in the roof and no doors or windows, the plumbing stripped out. Jimmie Dunn, like Wiggins from the hardcore Colorado Springs crew, helped with the initial cleaning: sweeping and shoveling garbage, feces, and hypodermic needles into an old rug. Dunn says, “I don’t think I saw the potential for [what became] an iconic climbers’ house.”
The place had been built in 1864 and was by legend a stagecoach stop. “It was a beautiful old stone structure” with walls two feet thick, Sibley says. The main house was quarried out of a sandstone slab, which comprises the north wall. In 1971, Matt Wells, who had met Paul skiing when both were 17, put the second story on the Coop, with the help of Billy Roos. Wells stayed in the Coop for several years, storing his belongings between ski, climbing, and guiding trips to South America and the Himalaya.
In 1970, Sibley built a 1,000-foot workshop 50 yards up the hill. In 1976 he was pouring the concrete, with Roos and Kevin Donald, for an addition on the day his and his then wife, Lynn’s, son, Gabe, was born. A few discs used as features on the wall at the Berkeley World Cup climbing comp in 1990 eventually decorated the side of the shop. A panel from the speed wall at the first World Cup at Snowbird, in 1988, was cut up to make the walls for the Coop outhouse. Gabe, now 44, as a ninth grader built a 10- by 14-foot stone cabin on the highest point of the land. Hammock and Sibley also have a son, Clayton, 30, together.
Early on, the place was dubbed “Macho Acres” for being full of young males; Sibley even received mail marked “Macho Acres, Boulder, Colo.” Later, that name ceded to the friendlier Sibleyville. International as well as American climbers logged time. Patrick Edlinger of France, then one of the world’s best free climbers, stayed on his first climbing visit to the States, in 1985, and many other times. The great alpinist Doug Scott (UK) dossed there on half a dozen trips. Scott had been made a near knight, having received a CBE honor from the Queen. “We always gave him rashes of shit about it,” says Sibley. “It was fun.”
Not everyone could countenance continual visitors and tenants; Sibley, though, shrugs off any commendation. “I had five acres,” he says. “They could live in a tent. When people stayed for a long time, they lived their life, I lived mine. Everybody was pretty respectful of our space. It’s more about the time we were all young, and we had a big common bond—and at the time climbers were kind of weird.”
David Breashears—nicknamed the “Kloeberdanz Kid” aka the Kid for his fast ascent of the 5.11 Kloeberdanz in Eldorado at age 18—was 19 when brought in. “We had such a close community,” says Breashears, who pioneered mind-control routes in Eldo, became a leader in mountain filmmaking, and founded Glacierworks, a nonprofit that shows the changes to glaciers in the Himalaya. “I was awestruck to be around the climbers who would show up.” Sibley’s place was an outpost, he says, in its windswept and rocky remove, and Sibley had a varied “tableau” of friends. “He was kind of a center of gravity,” Breashears says. “I always felt accepted by him. Whenever you were around Paul and his friends, you felt loved and welcomed.” He remembers staring fascinated into a glass case at exotic items brought back from travel to South America and elsewhere.
Some have called Sibley’s place a museum, of climbing artifacts from pioneers such as Jack Durrance and Fritz Weissner; also textiles from Asia, South America, and Europe; a blowgun and darts from the Amazon; pre-Columbian pottery and axe heads from South America; arrowheads and Clovis points; fossils, minerals, skulls of animals; and a whale rib from the Arctic Circle.
Sibley has had an eclectic career. He started the Colorado Nut Company, an early nut manufacturer, in 1967 or ’68 with Billy Roos, with whom he also did the first ascent, in 1969, of the famous Ancient Art in the Utah desert. Sibley for about five years in the 1980s co-owned the International Alpine School, combining it with Boulder Mountain Guides. He worked with Jeff Lowe to put on three international climbing comps (World Cups in Snowbird in 1988 and 1989, and the Berkeley World Cup in 1990) and the domestic Danskin competition series from ’89 into the early ’90s in Boulder, Berkeley, and Seattle. Lowe was the impresario, a visionary presiding over a budding, chaotic scene; Sibley the ingenious main builder, well-suited to strange and challenging tasks. Roy McClenahan came on as the organized “wingman” who kept the records. McClenahan says, “The only reason those comps happened was Paul.” Sibley got the walls up on time.
For over 10 years, mostly with Weis, Sibley worked on commercials, documentaries (such as an ice-climbing special for National Geographic), and Hollywood films—rigging, stunt setting, and safety-officer work—from Cliffhanger (with Wiggins, Breashears, Jim Bridwell, Wolfgang Güllich, and Ron Kauk) to K2, Star Trek 5, Queen’s Logic, and Medicine Man. He did a stint building communications towers for Alaska Telecom, and built towers for eco-tourism and observation in the Amazon.
McClenahan first came to Sibley’s from So Cal in 1990 to work on the competitions. Sibley picked him up at the airport in his lime-green VW bus, took his guest shopping at King Soopers, paid for all the groceries, and housed McClenahan in the school bus. Eventually, McClenahan moved into one side of Sibley’s workshop and lived there for 10 years.
Half an hour after the fire truck arrived, a gust blew off a hunk of the home’s fire-weakened roof. Flames driven from the Coop entered the attic. “Man, I’m so sorry,” one firefighter told Sibley. “It’s over.”
Thirty or 40 feet upwind of the house, Sibley climbed into a vehicle, his Mountaineer. He meant to leave, but then just sat. You gotta look at it, he told himself. You have to begin the process of healing by seeing it burn. In the wind, the house was finished in another 20 or so minutes. The smoke moved horizontally; he remembers blue sky above the flames.
The car battery was dead. Sibley walked to the highway and hitched a ride into South Boulder. He was treated for smoke inhalation; he spotted blood for a day and coughed for a week.
Sibleyville was also a center for creativity, from climbing innovations—such as, with Roos and others, experimenting with swapping picks on ice axes or developing hanging stoves—to the visual arts.
Susan Billings, a climber and stained-glass artist, lived in the Coop, decorating the cabinets in the main house with her creations. Randi Eyre, an illustrator and graphic designer at the Daily Camera newspaper, occupied the bus from 1993 until 1999, putting in a bed and carpeting. She was there until her death at 46 in a bike race, when she hit a pothole and sustained head trauma. Jeff Lowe, who advanced genres from ice to comp climbing to mixed and dry tooling, wrote his seminal The Ice Experience (1979) while living in the Coop.
Memorials were held on the place for various climbers, such as in 1975 for the gifted Diana Hunter, who slipped after unroping above a route on Cathedral Wall, RMNP. One was for Jamie Duffy in 1981. The resident climbers built a stupa for the British alpinist and Boulder resident Roger Marshall, 45, who was lost on Everest, and Catherine Freer, 37, lost on the Hummingbird Ridge, Mount Logan, both in 1987. The stupa was reconfigured to include Randi Eyre in 1999; and Sibley and McClenahan were part of a memorial in 2013 for the ebullient Jennifer Martin, 46, a strong climber who lived so solidly in the Coop they called her “the Coopette”; friends poured her ashes down the Bastille, Eldorado. Earl Wiggins was lost to suicide in 2002 (see “On the Earl,” rockandice.com); Billy Roos, a well-known Outward Bound leader, succumbed to cancer in 2015; Jeff Lowe died, with grace, of a neurodegenerative disorder in 2018.
Like Johnson, Roy McClenahan calls Sibley’s a place of renewal. He adds, “If you consider the stupa, Catherine, Roger, and Randi, it also presented a stage for commemorating the full circle of people’s lives.”
“We lost everything,” Sibley says. “I walked out of there with a belt buckle that Eric Bjornstad”—pioneering desert climber, who died in 2014 at age 80—“gave me. I was wearing it. That was it.”
The house, the memorabilia, the foreign and found objects; the bus, the tools, the stained glass: “All burned up,” he says. Only the beloved Fiat, stored in a snowmobile trailer, came through. Sibley had no time to grab his wallet, let alone papers or a computer or photos. Hammock automatically slung on her school bag, luckily containing her wallet.
As of early 2022, Jeff Long and others have spent days at the property with Sibley, shoveling through the ashes as a preamble to the planned rebuilding. Says Long, “Here and there we find a gem in the ruins. First find, a piton from the first American K2 expedition”—in 1939. “Another day, a pot from the Amazon. Yesterday, [Paul’s] wife’s wedding ring.”
Mike Weis looks back on a lost place and bygone era when more interactions were still face to face. He laughs in positing that the compound was “an analog dating app” where a lot of people met. He also suggests that the December conflagration was a coda of sorts, saying: “This is almost fitting, in a bizarre way, that it is physically gone because it embodied so much that was physically over.”
Recalls Robin Johnson, “I don’t know if I would have made it through my internship without the place.” A longtime ER physician, she has raised a family and always aspired to open her doors to others.
Years after leaving the Coop, O’Donnell and his wife separated, and he briefly lived in a VW bus on the property, then the school bus. “It was a wild place out there,” O’Donnell says. “The people that dropped in were a cross between a Jack Reacher world, a Charles Bukowski novel, and Carlos Castaneda”—athletes, artists, dirtbags, reprobates, and eccentrics. “I would end up outside on the wall talking into the night with these people. It’s hard to explain how magical it was.”
Today, O’Donnell lives in Oslo, Norway, working in senior management for the international company Magseis Fairfield.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” he says. “ I come from a rough background. I’m self-taught. [In Marshall] I could be comfortable in who I was …. That was the beauty of what he offered people, no questions asked.” From Sibley’s, O’Donnell could see Coal Creek Canyon, Eldorado, the Flatirons, Boulder Canyon, Sugarloaf Mountain, Mount Meeker, and Longs. He says, “I remember looking at the sunset and thinking there was so much just over the next hill, so much I could do …. You could sit there and see whatever opportunity you felt was right. It was so freeing. You thought, ‘I can do that.’”
Alison Osius is senior editor of Climbing and Ascent.