25 February 2020
Sheldon chalet shouldn’t exist. The culmination of legendary bush pilot Don Sheldon’s ingenuity and the tenacity of his children and their families to finalize his dreams. There is so much history here that is so integral to the region and so intertwined with the huge mountainous Alaskan Range and the towering peak of Denali that looms high 15000 feet above the chalet itself. Don Sheldon was already a famous name in these parts having flown all over the range dropping off climbers and rescuing those stricken here after failed attempts. In recognition of his achievements a huge open portion of the Ruth Glacier had been named the Don Sheldon Amphitheatre. Following this Don was able to lay claim to a small rocky outcrop in the middle of the amphitheatre and purchase it for himself under the Alaskan Homestead act in 1964*. His dream was to construct a shelter here that climbers could use to live out on the Glacier and aid their attempts to succeed out here in the wilderness.
The original mountain house still stands to this day and in a remarkable legacy to Don is still in use hired out by climbers desperate for a fixed structure and a warm stove to re-energise them before them move onwards to tackle their personal challenges of peaks and summits. Don it seemed had always had plans to expand upon the original house and to build a second larger home up here. Speaking to Don’s son Robert over breakfast in Talkeetna he explains unbelievably that once he and his sister Kate had finalised the blueprints for their own luxury chalet on their fathers’ corner of the mountain they discovered his original plans and they matched the shape and location of the structure almost identically. They also discovered a cache of raw materials that their father had flown up here ready for the project before his untimely death falling ill in his early 50’s. They have been able to incorporate a couple of these surviving beams into the magnificent structure that sits atop its rocky home today. It’s a truly fitting memorial to Don’s dream and somewhere I feel incredibly privileged to be visiting.
My journey starts in Talkeetna the arty community that acts as a launching off point for climbers on Denali and flightseeing expeditions into the mountains. Guests are picked up here and then flown by helicopter into the mountains. The journey takes you across the huge Susitna valley the huge marshy wilderness spanning 60 miles between Talkeetna and the rising mountains beyond. On route we spot moose, black bear and the innumerable water channels criss-crossing the valley floor as the sprawling Susitna and Talkeetna rivers merge fed by the huge glaciers flowing down from the mountains above.
The helicopter gets closer and we begin to pick out details on the vast glacier below. Gentle ripples make way for huge crevasses and the bluest of blue pools speckle the surface were meltwater collects. The glacier we are flying over is the Ruth Glacier and we will follow its path higher and higher into the mountains before we swing high and to the left to examine the Moose’s Tooth a huge granite monolith which towers above the surrounding peaks. Everything is snow, rock and ice now, we feel tiny, insignificant in our 6 seater helicopter dwarfed by the scale of the mountains around us. Rounding the bend we rise higher again up towards the rocks in front. Hearts are in mouths as we get closer and closer to the edge before sweeping up and through a gap and then open beyond us stretching off in every direction is the Don Sheldon Amphitheatre. In the very centre of the snow covered expanse is a seemingly tiny mound of black rock upon which I can just make out the distinct hexagonal structure of Sheldon Chalet and its flat steel helipad.
As we draw closer I can make out the four people waiting to greet us and upon landing I’m introduced to Kathryn the chalet host, Nikolai and Maxwell our guides and chef Micah. I am travelling with Ed, his wife Joanne and sister Rosie all from Lake Tahoe and as we begin to take in the incredible surroundings, 360 degrees of mountains and above us the huge and lonely stands Denali itself Champagne is cracked open and handed out. Wow what a welcome. As we enter the chalet we are greeted with a seafood buffet, fresh Alaskan King Crab legs, oysters and prawns. We build a plate and head out back onto the helipad, our ride now departed and replaced with lounge chairs so we can soak up the sun as we are given a welcome briefing and properly introduced to the team.
After lunch and settling in Max and Nikolai suggest we head up to the original mountain house so we get ready and make the short climb across the narrow snowy ridge to Don’s construction. We crack open the door and enter a real world of mountaineering. The rough wood walls are hung with various ropes and carabiners alongside old stores of food some of which seem to have been there for years and even abandoned backpacks left by climbers eager to lighten their loads. It’s an incredibly atmospheric place and we sit together in a circle as Nikolai and Maxwell begin to tell stories of Don, the history of the house and their own adventures mountaineering on Denali. Its then that I realise how incredible it is to be here. Many have been here through history but most have been professional climbers traversing glaciers and trekking miles to reach this remote wilderness.
We depart the mountain house and make our way across the snow back to our luxurious modern version. Chef Micah is busying himself in the kitchen and we are soon sat down together as wine is poured and a delicious 3 course dinner is served including the plumpest most delicious Alaskan scallops. As dinner draws to a close talk turns to tomorrow’s activities and everyone is keen to get out on the Glacier. Before we know it its approaching 11pm but with the sun still peaking out above the peak of Denali you’d never know. We head to bed and blackout blinds are drawn.
I wake after a long delicious sleep. Something about the silence and stillness of the mountains is so restful and at breakfast we’re all amazed at how well we’ve slept. “Deeper than I have in years” says Joanne. Nikolai and Max join us at the breakfast table and explain what lies ahead for the day. We will be taken through the basics of glacier trekking before making our way across the valley crossing a mile or so of snow before we scale a small peak overlooking a deep gorge beyond.
The sun is streaming down and light waterproofs are all that’s required alongside plenty of sun block and sunglasses. We make our way back towards the mountain house before descending some ancient wooden stairs onto the snow covered glacier. It looks so peaceful and safe but Nikolai explains that beneath the covering of snow is a huge icefield that’s unstable and full of crevasses and the glacier bends and twists its way down the mountain.
We are shown the basics of rope travel, two of us per guide with Nikolai and Max taking the lead point on each rope and the rest of us in pairs behind. We wear harnesses and are attached by three points to the rope to ensure we are held securely should there be an accident. My heart was certainly in my mouth as we strapped on snow shows and slowly descended down onto the glacier. As we hit the valley floor and the huge white sheet streched out in front of us I realised just how huge this place was. The point we were trekking to which seemed so close from high at the chalet now becomes a true challenge. Slowly we make our way there, breathing hard in the thin air sun shining down and eyes straining in the bright light. It’s essential to keep an even pace and being in the middle of our trio I have to ensure I am keeping up with Max ahead of me whilst making sure Ed isn’t too close or too far behind. You really feel like a team starting and stopping in unison and getting closer to our goal.
As we reach the far side of the valley the small ridge we are to picnic on now rises 60 feet above us. As we stand there weighing up the challenge a huge boom sounds out across the valley from our right and high on a distant peak snow begins to barrell down the side of the mountain sound thundering and white cloud rising high above. The avalanche is no danger and our guides have made sure to keep our route across the glacier a safe distance but it’s incredibly exhilarating. “Whoooaaaa – did you see that!!” cries Nikolai. A true adventurer he must have seen hundreds of avalanches but the childlike excitement infects us all and we set off up the hill with renewed enthusiasm.
We reach the peak after a real slog and inch our way along a steep ridge digging the edge of our snow shoes in for purchase on the slope. When we get up there the views are incredible looking down into the next valley and gorge the huge granite face of the Moose’s Tooth shooting upwards on the other side of the valley. It’s the same size as Yosemite’s famous El Capitan but feels weirdly in scale here where everything is so incredibly massive.
As we stretch and unclip from the rope on the small snowy plateau I notice a dug-out area. Nikolai and Max approach it and begin to set down cushions and even a picnic umbrella for shade. We all sit down on a snowy bench that they had cut out the day before and then they begin to unpack a cocktail shaker and all of a sudden we are served hibiscus daiquiris mixed in advance by the chef and shaken with glacial snow and poured out for us with fresh mint and lime garnish. It’s a little silly but utterly joyous to be served a cocktail in this location.
After cocktails and some delicious home baked banana bread for energy we begin the trek back to the chalet. The majority of the way up to the ridge was downhill until the final climb, the way back is quite different with the initial steep decent followed by a long steady uphill trek towards the chalet in the distance. Looking out ahead of the group, strung together nothing around us but huge mountains I really felt like one of the climbers making their way towards Denali. It’s a special feeling, being in this place, completely isolated and pulling together as a team to reach your goal. I know that its only a mile or so back but it really brings home the achievements of those who have made the epic climb up the mountain itself and what an incredible feet it is.
Back at the chalet we get out of our gear and settle down for a late lunch of salmon chowder. As the evening approaches Kathryn says she will be firing up the sauna and soon I’m sat in the small wooden cabin cleverly built under the helipad with one huge window overlooking the peak of Denali which stands proud against the cloudless sky. I begin to contemplate the achievements of those climbers through the years who have risked their lives to tame the mountain and some of those who perished too. I have been reading the account of a group of young men in the 1960’s who challenged themselves to make the climb and what befell them upon the ruthless mountain. Sitting there in the warmth of the sauna it felt so far away and yet so close.
That evening we discuss the possibilities for the next day and the decision is made to hire a plane to explore the mountains and get a closer look at Denali. Having all become obsessed with these climbers that make the journey to the peak and having heard Nikolai’s takes of his own climbs he suggests that we try and make a visit to Base Camp. At 8000 feet it’s the last comfortable stop for those heading out to the summit and the refuge for those returning. It has a small landing zone and a pilot could try and get in there if weather permits. We all agree to go for it and head to bed full of excitement.
Morning comes and it is a perfect day, sun shines and Denali’s peak sits clear and cloudless. Before we know it the buzz of an aeroplane engine fills the valley and into view comes our ride, a 1960’s De Haviland beaver. It’s a beautiful plane and it touches down on skis on the small glacier runway below the chalet that Don Sheldon had marked out for his bush planes 50 years before.
Our pilot Chris jumps out and we load up the plane with our gear for the day, snow shoes for exploring alongside cooking equipment and stuff for a lunchtime picnic. Soon we are all inside and Chris is taxing the plane around ready to take of down the snowy runway.
We buzz into the air sweeping down the valley and up and over the walls of the Ruth Glacier across to the next valley. We are going to make a small landing at the Paika glacier also known as Little Switzerland for its incredibly steep and jagged walls and towering peaks. We land down on the snow again and hop out to explore. Nikolai is telling us stories of the climbs that have been made and the names of each peak. As we stand and watch small avalanches crash down the walls either side of us and beyond them we can make out the dots on one of the sheer rock faces where two climbers are trying to scale the wall.
Then it’s time to go and we hop back on board and zip off again into the air and on our way to base camp. We rise high above the surrounding peaks, mountains and glaciers stretching in every direction before we drop down curving around Denali itself and then over the Kahiltna Glacier which is the route towards the west buttress of Denali that the majority of climbers use. We pass over three tiny figures dragging sleds and Max explains that they’re on their final push back to base camp. We round another peak and then below us is the small landing strip and a collection of tents and flags alongside. We touch down and start to make out individual climbers sitting around in groups chatting and eating. Lisa the basecamp manager approaches and Chris the pilot jumps out and says hello. “What y’all doing here?” she says, “Just stopping by for a picnic” says Chris.
Soon we are all out and trudging up from the runway to the camp. There are tents all around us as well as the little snow caves and sitting areas dug out by various groups. We stagger to the top of the camp, Denali huge and looming above us, so close now that it seems you could touch the summit. “Hard to think there’s 100 climbers up there right now” says Nikolai. Then him and Max set about building our own camp for the day. They use some benches already dug out into the snow, set out the cushions, the umbrella for shade and a picnic blanket upon which a stove is set out and Nikolai begins to cook up our lunch.
A cork pops and bubbles are served as climbers begin to filter in and out of camp around us, all curious as to who we are and what on earth is going on. A couple come over having just got off the mountain, streaked with sweat and dragging sledges of gear. “How is it up there?” says Ed. “Like touching heaven” says the guy a little tongue in cheek, “incredible and very cold!” says his partner. We hand them both a beer from the cooler which they almost rip out of our hands. It takes 21 days on average to climb up form base camp” says Nikola, no wonder they were thirsty.
Lunch is almost ready, hand made flatbreads with harissa lamb, tzatziki and salad. It’s the perfect picnic food and goes great with a cold beer in the beaming sunshine. We soak up the atmosphere, climbers preparing to set out and others coming back from camps higher on the mountain. In order to acclimatise groups will hike up to the next camp with food and fuel before returning back for the rest of their gear so there’s a lot of activity all around and it’s an incredible place to be. We finish lunch and head over to a group of climbers nearby. They are not scaling Denali but a scientific expedition based out here for a month studding the ice flows on top of nearby peaks and collecting samples. We share the last of our salads and a couple of beers as they talk of the crazy storm that had blown through a few days earlier and how different it felt now lying out in the sun and chatting away.
As we make our way back to the plane I wonder if I’ll every be back here. I seem to have caught the mountain bug and am fascinated by the challenge and conditions that these guys put themselves through. I’d love to return and make a climb myself but as we take off I start to look forward to another sauna and the three course dinner I have to look forward to on my return to the chalet. Maybe the whole tent thing isn’t for me after all…