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Roadtrippin’: Inspiration behind the luxury Sheldon Chalet

Updated: Jun. 7, 2021 at 9:19 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska’s history runs deep, and for those that know anything about venturing into the wilderness, the name Don Sheldon might ring a bell.

A legend, a trailblazer, a pioneer of his craft — these are just a few words to describe the impact Sheldon has had on Alaska’s history. He was a renowned Alaskan bush pilot, entrusted by many for pioneering daring glacier landings across the Alaska Range.

Sheldon built a mountain house in an amphitheater — which was later named after him — on Ruth Glacier in the Denali National Park and Preserve. It became the inspiration for his children to build the larger Sheldon Chalet, and both buildings now sit on the luxury adventure property.

In 1955, he met Bradford Washburn, the head of a surveying team from the Boston Museum of Science, who at the time was looking for a pilot to help mat the area surrounding the mountain we now call Denali.

“They had to find what are called control points, a point at which you anchor your studies from, and Brad couldn’t find anyone else to land up in this amphitheater area, but my dad was more than willing to,” said Robert Sheldon.

The two worked together for 15 years.

“In the process in 1953, this was one of the major control points, this nunatak, which by the way the snow use to be level straight across,” Robert Sheldon explained. “My dad would drive his aircraft up to here, it’s now 300 feet subside. They chose this place because you could see so many different peaks.”

Over the years, Don Sheldon assisted in numerous rescue operations and was the go-to pilot for knowing where and how to land in some of Alaska’s most unforgiving conditions.

“My dad would either spend the day either assisting with a survey or flying people out and around,” Robert Sheldon said.

Before the area became a national park, Don Sheldon had plans of his own. In 1953, he filed an application to claim his own piece of Alaska.

“The Homestead Act allowed for up to 5 acres and because my father was very exact and a good surveyor, he and Brad decided they would figure a rectangle of 4.99 acres exactly and it is to the foot,” Robert Sheldon said.

To meet federal requirements, the land had to be used for a residence, recreation or business purpose. So, in the summer of 1966 and over a period of two months, the 212-square-foot Historic Sheldon Mountain House was born.

“Most people probably can wear a pair of snowshoes and can probably get on an otter aircraft or maybe something slightly smaller, land up here and hike up here without killing themselves, and that was the whole goal back then,” Robert Sheldon said.

The original structure is a hexagon, so it’s 6-sided and it does the best job at deflecting the elements, he said.

When asked what his dad would think about the mountain house still being here today, Robert Sheldon said, “He would think that this was great fulfillment of his legacy that he and my mother could not do together.”

Don Sheldon died in 1975 at the age of 53. Robert Sheldon said that in 2014 the historic mountain house was largely restored, 48 years after his father put it on the Alaska map.

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