Vail Valley local Kate Sheldon’s family dream came true in Denali, Alaska
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Go to sheldonchalet.com. Rates from $2,300 per person, per night, include accommodations, food and beverages and helicopter transfers.
DENALI, Alaska — It took Kate Sheldon and her brother Robert 13 years to make their parents’ dreams come true.
Sheldon Chalet is one of Alaska’s most luxurious lodges, and one of its most remote, 10 miles from the summit of Denali, one of the Seven Summits and North America’s tallest mountain. It was worth every minute and every mile, Kate said.
Sheldon Chalet is Denali’s only exclusive vacation villa. The family can do that because their 4.9-acre homestead predates Denali National Park.
Vail locals Doe Browning, Jack Hunn, Bill Gardiner and Marty Baumgart joined Kate and Robert as their first guests earlier this month.
“It’s hard to explain how special this place it,” said Gardiner, who has been to special places all over the globe. “You get to be on a spot of the planet where so few people have been.”
Kate wanted input from her friends, so Gardiner smiled, looked her in the eyes and said, “I’ll tell you everything wrong with this place!”
Then he was silent for several seconds. “OK, that’s my whole list,” he said.
Kate and Robert’s father, Don Sheldon, was raised in an Ohio farming family. He wanted an easier life, so at 17 years old, he struck out for the hunting and trapping life in Alaska. He quickly learned that you could fly an hour or walk a week. Before long, he pioneered glacier landing, creating skis to keep the plane on top of the snow. The book “Wager With the Wind” is an action-packed tale of the adventure that was Don’s life. Life magazine and the New York Times published stories about him, as did dozens of other publications. About half the Fairbanks air museum is dedicated to him.
He’d eventually survey the region with photographer and cartographer Brad Washburn. He and Washburn identified places to land planes and built landing strips. Don modified planes that could do the job.
Bob Reeve, Kate and Robert’s maternal grandfather for whom Kate’s daughter is named, was also a pilot and Alaska pioneer. Reeve showed up in Valdez in 1932, 27 years before Alaska won statehood. He charted airline routes and created Reeve Aleutian Airlines, which helped create some of the state’s first tourism.
When Don died in 1975, the governments of Alaska and the United States considered naming a mountain in the Alaska Range for him. It wasn’t enough, they decided, so the 35-square-mile amphitheater that surrounds Sheldon Chalet bears his name.
Don Sheldon claimed the spot in the 1950s under the Homestead Act, which mandated that he operate a commercial enterprise. He opened Mountain House No. 1 in 1966, welcoming backcountry adventurers.
Robert was just 4 years old when their father died in 1975. Memories include Don taking off from the village airstrip in Talkeetna in a small plane, winging toward adventure.
Everything Kate and Robert knew of their parents’ dreams stemmed from a 1970s National Geographic television clip and a brochure for Mountain House No. 1. Their mother, Roberta, never spoke of it. After Don died, she stayed in Talkeetna, her adopted hometown.
They and Robert’s wife, Marne, were wading through a warehouse full of their parents’ stuff in Talkeetna after Roberta died in 2014 when they found a roll of papers, including blueprints for the hexagonal structure on Sheldon Nunatak that would become Mountain House No. 1.
“This has been a family dream,” Kate said.
Sheldon Chalet is a scaled-up version of their father’s 1966 cabin. Don Sheldon did some science along with some trial and error and found that 30-degree angles worked best, hence the hexagon. Winds can be less than balmy and extreme. Your standard cabin with its 90-degree angles tends to get blown to smithereens. The wind wafts easily around a hexagon, Don discovered.
Helicopters hauled in all of the materials. The steel frame took nine months. Overall, it took three years to build Sheldon Chalet.
“Lots of people put love into it,” Kate said.
“Many considered it a privilege to work on Don the Legend’s dream,” Browning said.
Sheldon Chalet is one of the most luxurious lodges in Alaska, one of the most remote anywhere and also one of the most eco-conscious.
There’s a snow-capture system for water. Solar panels provide the power. The soapstone Finnish fireplace doubles as a high-efficiency, clean-combustion heating system.
The Federal Aviation Administration issued a landing code, 09AA, so their helicopter landing pad is now an official airport.
The dining is family style around a birchwood table handcrafted in Talkeetna.
The furnishings do not try to compete with the natural beauty that’s outside, Brown said.
The five-bedroom hexagon sleeps 10 and comes with a staff of two guides, a chef and a concierge. Chef “Delicious” Dave Thorne was the private chef for Neil Young, Justin Timberlake, President Barack Obama and many other celebrities. You can cook salmon on rocks heated to 450 degrees, if you’re Delicious Dave.
The concierge is a first responder and tuna boat captain. She was once lowered from a helicopter to pluck a hat off the glacier. They’re serious about their environment.
Storm watching is a participation sport.
“Sometimes, you just sit and look out the window,” Browning said.
Mostly, though, you don’t. You’ll descend into fjords. You stand an excellent chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Shooting stars light up the sky almost every night.
Aurora season runs from mid-September through early March, adventure season from early March through mid-July.
Days may include trekking out on Ruth Glacier, igloo-building, snow-cave digging, descending into fjords the depth of the Grand Canyon, if you want to go that deep. You’ll do some ropes training so you can traverse trails a few feet wide that drop 300 feet.
No matter what you do, Don Sheldon is smiling, as you enjoy his family’s dream.
Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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