The Don Sheldon Amphitheater on the Ruth Glacier is one of the most striking vistas in the Alaska Range. In the midst of miles of mountains and ice in the amphitheater sits a small structure that has been there since the 1960s. Over the years, hundreds have taken shelter inside what has become known as the “Mountain House.” The building sits on a nunatak, an outcropping of rock surrounded by ice and snow. Now, a second, larger building stands on the nunatak as well, the Sheldon Chalet.
The property the Sheldon Mountain House and Chalet occupy has a unique status. The land was claimed by Don Sheldon in the mid-1950s under the Homestead Act. Later, Denali National Park and Preserve expanded and surrounded the property. Don and Roberta Sheldon’s son Robert explains that means his family has rights beyond what landowners in other areas of the park do.
“Our neighbors, Denali National Park, came ten miles closer to us, and then past us and surrounded us in 1980….So, what we are, technically, is a holding.”
Effectively, that means the Sheldons’ land is a piece of private property completely surrounded by Denali National Park. Because of that, they were able to build the Chalet, land helicopters, and other things that are typically prohibited in the park.
Where the old mountain house is basic and rugged in its accommodations, the Sheldon Chalet is
the epitome of luxury. Arriving guests are treated to a lunch that can feature items including halibut, oysters, and Alaska King Crab. Robert Sheldon’s wife, Marne, says guests of the Chalet will likely be looking for the most Alaskan experience possible, so it only makes sense to take advantage of what the state has to offer.
“Alaska seafood is amazing, right? So why would we have an experience without that?…Not only the seafood, but the beer, and our beverages, and everything from Denali Brewing that we can source from them – keeping it local, keeping it authentic, because when people come to Alaska, that’s what they’re looking for.”
The food is far from what one would normally expect to eat while staying on a glacier, and the quality of accommodations and amenities are comparable to what one would find in a luxury hotel anywhere else in the world.
An inevitable part of any overnight stay in the wilderness, and particularly in the mountains, is what happens when nature calls. Marne says guests at the Sheldon Chalet will be using bathrooms that will feature almost all the familiar fixtures.
“We have an incinerating toilet, which requires no water—kinda the eco-friendly way of having something nicer than a [clean mountain can]…So here, somebody can come to Denali and experience a normal—within reason normal—home or hotel bathroom.”
While the building, its surroundings, and its accommodations are beautiful, safety has to be considered as well. After all, the Chalet sits at nearly 6,000 feet of elevation in a mountain range and near a significant fault line. Robert Sheldon says the building is very firmly attached to the nunatak on which it sits.
“Our base that we could build off of is super, super stable to begin with, so our seismicity is the highest rating you can receive for a structure. We also built the building with a number of components where we made sure we anchored in really well.”
In addition, Robert says the Chalet was engineered to withstand the winds of a Category 5 hurricane for two days, though he adds that sustained winds in the area have only been observed at less than half that speed.
As with anything related to flying in and out of the Alaska Range, weather is an important consideration. The plan is for guests to generally spend three or four days at the Chalet, but what happens when the weather prevents flights in and out? Robert Sheldon says delays are likely to be minimal, and Chalet guests could use the opportunity to spend time in Talkeetna.
“Any given day, you’ve got a sixty-percent-plus chance of getting in unless it’s helicopter, [then]
it’s well into the eighties. You might have a day delay, so to pivot off Talkeetna is to utilize the Historical Society, to go to some of the shops, maybe they take a boat ride…”
In fact, Robert says he hopes the tourism business the Chalet attracts will have carry-over effects into Talkeetna, with people either spending a day in or around town. He says where Alaska tourism has lacked is in targeting the high-end market. That’s something he and the other investors in the Chalet plan to address.
“This is the crown jewel, though. This place is to focus effort on Denali, and it’s probably as high-end as you’re going to receive in Alaska.”
The price tag for a stay at the Sheldon Chalet bears out the plan to target the high-end tourism market, with a night costing over $2,000 per pillow.
Something I wanted to know was how the new building fit with the legacy of Don and Roberta Sheldon, two people of near legendary status in Talkeetna. Robert Sheldon says he and his sister, Kate, had begun plans on the Chalet when Roberta passed away in 2014. When going through Roberta’s papers, they discovered plans from 1968 for a similar structure. Then, in 2015, building materials began to melt out of the ice that Don Sheldon evidently flew up to the glacier in the years before his passing. Robert says those discoveries told him that they were on the right path.
“It was really spectacular that, not only did we find these plans, but it actually was already underway. My dad was trying to do stuff. There were two of the floor joists up here. I have no idea how he actually got them up here.”
Roberta Sheldon often had strong opinions about development and conservation in Alaska. Robert believes there are ways to both develop and remain conscious of the preservation of nature.
“I think we, as a family, are staying true to what our parents demonstrated: There’s a way to get along; There’s a way to cooperate; There’s a way to advance together.
My final question to Robert and Kate Sheldon was what they think Roberta would say if she
were to walk in to the new Sheldon Chalet.
“I think wow is probably about right.”
The Sheldon Chalet is scheduled to open for business later this winter.