Paul Sibley, Deborah Hammock and Josh Gross and Madoline Wallace-Gross have given and given to the climbing community.
JANUARY 10, 2022
These longtime climbers’ houses were lost to the flames of December 30, in Boulder County, Colorado. Borne by 100-mph winds, the Marshall Fire burned more than 6,000 acres and 1,000 homes, damaging others, in Superior, Louisville, and Boulder County in less than 24 hours. Two persons are dead or missing. The area had had a recent trace of snow, but no major precipitation since summer.
Paul Sibley and Deborah Hammock and Josh Gross and Madoline Wallace-Gross are among the many who lost their homes. They are people who have given and given to our community.
Sibleyville: Paul Sibley and Deborah Hammock
Jeff Lowe, legendary alpinist, wrote The Ice Experience, of 1979, while living in the Coop, a former chicken coop with a second story built upon it, at Paul Sibley’s place in Marshall, Colorado. Jeff Long, one of climbing’s greatest writers, wrote his first big novel, Angels of Light, during the year he lived in the Coop. A talented itinerant So Cal climber, Ray Olson, posted on Supertopo in 2007 that he’d lived there from 2000 to 2002, and “did a fair bit of writing there, too, getting my first piece of fiction published while in residence.”
Asked how much warning he and his wife had in the December 30 fire that swept across his five acres, Sibley says, “Minutes.” The only indication was the smell of smoke, which Hammock noticed. Sibley says, “I opened up the door and said, ‘Oh, fuck, we’re out of here!’ Got the dog and cat, and by the time we got outside the fire was coming down the road.” Over her protests, he told Hammock to go ahead, and turned back to fight. Roy McClenahan, 10-year resident at the compound, and Sibley.
The Coop is behind them. (Photo: Larry Hamilton)
The main place was Sibley’s home, restored from a shell with holes in the roof and no doors or windows, and was a repository of 50 years of climbing history. When the Black Canyon visionary and early soloist Earl Wiggins broke both his ankles ice climbing with Mugs Stump in Provo, Utah, he called saying, as Sibley recalls, “I’m all messed up. Can I come park the bus at your place?” Wiggins stayed in a hospital and temporary housing briefly, and in spring of 1985 he and Katy Cassidy, his coauthor of the classic Canyon Country Climbs, arrived in Buster the school bus, bought for their traveling work on power-line jobs, and stayed two years.
They left; the bus stayed on. Other people lived in it, adding rugs, furniture, and hardwood floors; and residents and friends would open the back door at the end of a day for a beer and to drink in what Roy McClenahan, who set up a sewing business and lived in Sibley’s workshop 50 yards up the hill for 10 years, calls “the million-dollar view” of the whole Front Range: Flatirons to Longs. Michael O’Donnell lived in the Coop, recovering from tragedy and severe frostbite, both incurred high on the East Face of Longs Peak. Mike Weis, leading climber and filmmaker, stayed there following an injury on the Triolet. Jeff Long was given what he calls “sanctuary” after the trauma of being jailed in Nepal when someone on his expedition tried to smuggle goods out.
Legions of climbers logged time at “Sibleyville,” five miles outside Boulder and three miles east of Eldorado Canyon. Patrick Edlinger of France, one of the best climbers in the world, stayed at Sibley’s on his triumphal first visit in 1985—and many times later. The great alpinist and humanitarian Doug Scott, UK, dossed there on a half a dozen trips.
The day of the fire Sibley fought alone for three hours, in battering wind, with the water from the 30-foot well outside his home, pulling buckets up with a piece of hose. A window exploded and fire entered the bedroom. He smothered that and went back outside.
A fire truck arrived, and two young firefighters jumped out, pulled out two hoses, and went to the west side, where Sibley had been working, while he put out fire on the porch and courtyard. Part of the roof blew off and the fire blowing sideways from the Coop, 20 yards away, entered the attic.
A firefighter looked at him. “I’m sorry, man,” he said. “It’s over.”
Sibley’s friend Roy McClenahan says, “When the stakes are high and the chips are down, Paul will go at it like a beast.” In a phone conversation, Sibley stops to cough; he coughed up spots of blood for two days after the fire.
“We lost everything,” Sibley says. “I walked out of there with a belt buckle that Eric Bjornstad”—pioneering desert climber, now deceased, as are Lowe, Olson, Wiggins, Stump, and Doug Scott—“gave me. I was wearing it. That was it.”
The house, the memorabilia, the memories; the Coop, the shop, the bus. “All burned up.” He had no time to grab his wallet, let alone papers or a computer or photos.
The place, built in 1864 and by legend a stagecoach stop, was an institution in an era, when climbers lacked today’s opportunities to make a living; the dearth of area camping also added to the influx. It was a time and scene of mavericks and talent and eccentricity.
Jimmie Dunn, of the hardcore Colorado Springs crowd that included Wiggins, helped with the initial cleaning. “It was a totally nasty mess,” he recalls, “with nasty [hypodermic] needles. We used brooms and shovels. I don’t think I saw the potential for [what became] an iconic climbers’ house. Paul’s doors were always open for all climbers.”
“It was a beautiful old stone structure,” Sibley says. The place comprised three buildings, with a Coop outhouse whose wall was made from a panel used at the first World Cup at Snowbird, in 1988. A few disks from the “Twin Towers” wall at the Berkeley World Cup in 1990 decorated the side of the shop.
Sibley started the Colorado Nut Company, an early nut manufacturer, with Billy Roos in 1967 or ’68; in the late 1980s and early ’90s he spent years working with Jeff Lowe to put on three international climbing comps and the domestic Danskin series. Lowe was the impresario, and Paul the competent and ingenious builder, while the organized McClenahan kept the records. Sibley also worked on Hollywood movies with Weis, from Cliffhanger (with Wiggins; David Breashears, who’d been welcomed at Sibley’s as a teenage talent; and Jim Bridwell) to K2 to Star Trek 5, and other films, for 15 years. He made furniture and cabinetry in his shop, and did a stint building communications towers for Alaska Telecom. Deborah Hammock is a special-education teacher, high school level.
The two are staying in a friend’s house in Boulder now, and are flooded with gifts of clothing and offers of help. Sibley says, “I’ve gotten calls from almost every continent in the world. It’s nuts. And it’s so heartfelt. … That’s where the strength comes from. It’s the gift that other people are giving me.”
He has lined up a contractor to help rebuild his place: Guy Kenny, whom he hired long ago to build climbing walls; who once lived in the Coop and called as soon as he heard.
Josh Gross is an AMGA climbing guide with over 20 years experience teaching, also a former Rocky Mountain National Park climbing ranger; and Madoline Wallace-Gross is a water-rights attorney in Denver. Their home in Louisville, where they’d lived 12 years, was, Gross says, “100 percent loss.”
Gross has established some 400 pitches (most for single-pitch routes, but others multi-pitch) in Colorado, Arizona, and the Moab, Utah, area; and, since they met in 2006, Wallace-Gross has been in on it, cleaning, bolting and prying, for 60 to 100 of the routes, across the Western Slope. Gross says, “I couldn’t have done it without her. For climbing you need a partner, and she has the motivation.”
Jeff Achey, guidebook publisher at Wolverine Publishing, writes in an email:.Gross house before.
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been researching a new book and discovered a whole new zone where I didn’t know that Josh (especially—Mado participates in maybe 20 percent total) had done much, and I find dozens of new pitches. Latest was Monitor Rock on the east side of Independence Pass. He and Lynn Sanson with others including Mado put up maybe six multi-pitch sport and mixed climbs, probably hundreds of bolts, these super-cool 400-foot things up the best, tallest parts of the west face. … I was blown away at the sheer amount of effort and time invested.
“Those guys contribute—and contribute routes people can actually do.” Most of the pair’s routes are what Achey calls the “sweet spot” for advanced climbers, of 5.11–5.12d.
“Those guys are priceless,” he says in the email. “They do so much behind-the-scenes work to create new climbing for people, it’s ridiculous.”
Says Andrea Cutter, who has done routes by both from Monitor to the Frying Pan (Basalt) and the New Castle, Colorado, area, “It’s nice that they’re out there looking for new routes—[it] provides us all with more variety. They have that adventure mentality and the patience to do all that work. I have a lot of gratitude for people putting up new routes. It’s so much time and effort.”
Now the two are in a surreal situation, as Gross puts it, “itemizing our life” and planning where to live, how to rebuild and when that could happen, and also experiencing an outpouring of concern and support from the community, from friends and the climbing and guiding industry.
Insurance coverage is expected, yet matters will be complicated by high rebuilding costs, and issues from supply disruptions and the area demand for building.
The only alert on December 30, the day of the fire, was a text from a friend, coming in at 12:38 p.m., warning of a wildfire. Gross saw the text at about 12:45, and quickly walked around the neighborhood knocking on doors and ringing doorbells to warn others.
He called his wife, who was at work two miles away. Wallace-Gross recalls in an email: “My coworkers and I looked online and saw video of Costco evacuating a few miles away. We went outside and the smoke was already getting thick. Josh called again and told me to come home. … I jetted to my house. … When I turned into the neighborhood, I saw flames across the street. I started honking my horn and screaming out my window to get out.”
Five minutes after she pulled in, at about 1:30, they were gone, bringing two duffles and their dog. They mainly grabbed clothing, winter things; they took computers, but not documents.
Among the losses that hurt most are photos. “I wish I had digitized slides from the 90s,” Gross says. “Things you’ve kicked the can on to do.
“The gear is not really the big thing; it’s my guidebooks from all over the world. It’s not the Gore-Tex jacket or the puffy or the cams; it’s the pictures and irreplaceable items like wedding photos and family photos and some antiques, things from Mado’s mother that came from their house.” He does rue, with some humor, an 80-meter rope—“It was still in the wrapper!”—that they bought for a climbing trip this spring.
“Or I wish I had given some more stuff to young climbers that I was handed down,” says Gross.
While the Grosses’ neighborhood was mowed down, half a mile to the east, houses were saved. Other strips were burned or not as the wildfire jumped or followed features such as hillsides and drainages.
The Grosses’ place and guest room were long a welcoming “crashpad” for visiting climber friends and AMGA peers.
Now they find themselves going to a disaster center for information and assistance—everyone having to negotiate crowds and groups amid the surge in COVID infections.
“It’s nuts to go from someone who was able to hand out assistance, to this,” he says. “To be meeting with a Red Cross representative.”
Wallace-Gross, a climber of 24 years, sends this message: “We are humbled and overwhelmed by the climbing community’s support” during what she very aptly calls “this unfathomable event.”
To help, see the Boulder County Wildfire Fund.