One of the most luxurious lodges in Alaska, and one of the most remote anywhere, has just opened on a rocky glacier outcropping, or nunatak, smack in the middle of Denali National Park. From its wraparound windows, the resort’s guests – a maximum of 10 at any given time – can watch the aurora borealis dance around the sky or survey an endless horizon of jagged peaks blanketed in untouched snow. The only thing between them and the nearest summit is a sheer vertical rock wall that is twice the height of Dubai’s Burj Khalifa skyscraper.
It took more than a decade to secure the final permits to build Sheldon Chalet. Construction took three additional years. In the time it takes to get there from Los Angeles, you could almost fly to Tokyo: Arrival includes a six-hour flight to Anchorage, a two-hour drive to the tiny but charming town of Talkeetna, and an hour-long helicopter ride to Don Sheldon Amphitheatre, a 35-square-mile (90 sq km) valley carved by glacial ice in the shadow of North America’s tallest mountain.
All that is a drop in the bucket compared to the 50 years of family history that make Sheldon Chalet so special for Alaska.
True Alaskan pioneers
Robert Sheldon, who built Sheldon Chalet with the help of his wife Marne and sister Kate, lost his father Don – a trailblazing Alaskan pilot – when he was just four years old. “I only have a couple of memories with my father, and the earliest one was taking off from the village strip in Talkeetna on a very small aeroplane, zooming through the puffy white clouds.”
Bob Reeve, Robert’s maternal grandfather, was also a pilot; like Don Sheldon, he made his name as an Alaskan pioneer.
Reeve landed in Valdez in 1932, 27 years before Alaska was declared the 49th US state. He used his experience charting routes for Pan Am throughout South America to create Reeve Aleutian Airlines, a leading-edge Alaska carrier that connected tiny towns across the territory with their counterparts across the Bering Sea. He also built a series of remote mountain huts – some of the state’s first tourism infrastructure.
Don Sheldon, meanwhile, came from a farming family in Ohio, but his son says he “wanted to go for the easier life of hunting and trapping in Alaska”. As the story goes, “He very quickly learned that, in Alaska, you could fly an hour or walk a week.” He’d eventually survey the region with photographer and cartographer Brad Washburn, a contemporary of Ansel Adams. This meant identifying places where planes could land amid the jagged peaks, building landing strips, and even developing specialised aircraft for the job. “All the flying that happens around Denali National Park today can be traced back to his efforts,” says Marne Sheldon. “It’s what has allowed for present day tourism in Alaska.”
To wit, 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, opting instead to designate a 35-square-mile amphitheatre filled with dozens of peaks.
A resort 50 years in the making
The primary landing strip in Denali National Park – built by the elder Sheldon to facilitate explorations with Washburn – is a half-mile (800 metres) from Sheldon Chalet. “That’s the provenance of the interest in this area,” explains Marne, who ran point on logistics as the hotel took shape. Everything from the drawer pulls to the heating system had to be flown to that landing strip by helicopter or fixed-wing plane, and the family is among the lucky few who have special dispensation to fly there, thanks to their long history in the area.
That history also explains how the Sheldons earned commercial rights in such a protected place. Back in the 1950s, well before Denali was a national park, the family scooped up five acres (2.02 hectares) of land under the Homestead Act; it included the glacial outcropping that would be called Sheldon Nunatak. Their final land permit, though, got caught in the cross hairs of the state’s ratification – it took until 1971, the year Robert was born, to come through.
Robert’s parents started small, with a basic operation for passionate mountaineers and explorers. Don had bigger plans, but he passed away before he could execute them. Everything the younger Sheldons knew of their parents’ one-time aspirations came from a National Geographic television clip from the 1970s in which he referenced a broader vision for tourism on the nunatak, as well as a prototype travel brochure for “Mountain House #1”.
Robert’s mother Roberta never spoke again of the dreams she had shared with her husband; instead, she poured her affection into preserving the small-town charm of her adopted home, Talkeetna, roughly one hour outside Denali. “We were sorting through a warehouse full of stuff in Talkeetna after Roberta died in 2014,” recalls Marne, “when I came across an odd roll of paper.” Inside were decades-old blueprints for a hexagonal structure on Sheldon Nunatak: Mountain House #1.
Alaska’s new jewel
Sheldon Glacier is an upgraded vision of that decades-old vision. Guests arrive via helicopter – a ride that takes them zooming through narrow slots in the surrounding canyons –– and are greeted with Champagne and Alaska seafood hors d’oeuvres. “It’s extravaganza upon arrival,” says Marne. “One of my favourite things is seeing people’s faces when they land – their brains can’t quite comprehend what their eyes are seeing. They need a few breaths to take it all in.”
Inside, there’s a living room called the Commons, anchored by a special Finnish fireplace that doubles as a high-efficiency, clean-combustion heating system. A family-style dining space is built around a beautiful, birchwood table handcrafted in Talkeetna. The rooms are sparsely designed, with faux fur throws and panoramic views, to keep guests’ focus squarely on the beauty outdoors. The Sheldons want the property to be carbon-neutral and believe they are close to accomplishing this, thanks to generous solar panels and a run-off-powered water supply.
“It’s simple but elegant,” says Marne, who adds that “pretty much everything was challenging” when it came to building the state’s first luxury highland lodge. Guests are encouraged (but not required) to travel to Sheldon Chalet in groups or via buyouts, as three bathrooms must serve five bedrooms – a concession that several high-end hotels in Alaska have made because of the difficulty of building larger structures in such extreme environs. “The simple things in life, like running water, are actually quite luxurious when you’re 6,000 feet [1,828 metres] up on a glacier,” she explains.
During aurora season, from mid-September to early March, days are spent “flight seeing” around the national park, snowshoeing, ski touring, and visiting remote hot springs. (You can also build an igloo.) During “Adventure Season,” from early March through mid-July, additional thrills include rappelling, glacier trekking, visiting a Mastodon bone yard and fishing.
Either way, evenings can include warm-ups in the rooftop sauna, stargazing sessions and elegant meals by Alaskan chef Dave Thorne, who used to cook for Justin Timberlake, Keith Urban and Kings of Leon when they were on tour. (Dishes such as barbecued Alaskan oysters with roasted poblano and pepita chutney are more often paired with Anchorage Brewing Co beers than with big California reds.)
“My mom and dad were people worth remembering, but their desire for this property had nothing to do with their own legacy. They just wanted other people to experience this place that’s majestic beyond anything else on the planet,” Robert Sheldon says.
He is also in it for the big picture. “Alaska has been in a recession for four years, but tourism is a bright spot,” Robert explains. “Hopefully, this shows that we can still do great things for the state of Alaska.”
Rates from US$2,300 per person, per night, include accommodation, food and drink, and helicopter transfers.