View from the USA: Ice in his veins

Set in remote Alaska, Sheldon Chalet is a fitting tribute to an aviation hero who was at home here in America’s ‘Last Frontier’.

Published 7 Aug 2019, 06:00 BST, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 05:27 GMT
Aaron Millar.
Aaron Millar.
Photograph by Jacqui Oakley

Don Sheldon was a true Alaskan legend. He arrived here in 1939 from the plains of Wyoming with nothing but a few dollars in his pocket and dreams of wild country in his eyes. It was a journey many had made before: first in search of gold, then oil. Don’s story is one of grit and determination; a call to the wild and to the heartbeat of America’s northernmost state.

It’s a call I’ve felt too. Alaska is a humbling place, a land of vast empty spaces that will swallow you whole. To see it from the ground, or on a cruise, as most people do, is spectacular; but from the air, it’s revelatory.

That’s what Don wanted. After the Second World War — during which he’d flown B-17 bombers — Don set up the Talkeetna Air Service to ferry cargo and people across this emerging annexe of America (Alaska didn’t officially become a state until 1959). It was here, in the 49th state of the Union, that his legend was born.

Don was to aviation what Cristiano Ronaldo is to free kicks: he didn’t just make it look easy, he made it look good.

Over the next 27 years, from 1947 until his death in 1975, Don would pioneer glacier landings — a highly dangerous manoeuvre that enabled him to access remote mountain locations where few others dared to venture. His missions helped survey the entire Alaska Range, including North America’s tallest peak, Denali. He also saved the lives of dozens of stranded climbers, often at great personal risk. Unbelievably, in 1950, Don even survived a Hollywood-style plane crash, in which he plummeted nose-first into a freezing lake, swam his unconscious co-pilot to the bank, covered him in moss to keep him warm and then ran, injured, for 50 miles through grizzly bear country to get help.

Don’s adventurous spirit lives on; in honour of the man himself, Sheldon Chalet was built by Don’s son and daughter, Robert and Kate, and Robert’s wife, Marne — developing an idea originally mooted by Don himself. The result is quite possibly the most extreme hotel in the world. It sits on a rocky outcrop hundreds of feet above the Ruth Glacier, over 50 miles from the nearest town. It’s accessible only by helicopter and surrounded on all sides by the highest peaks of the Alaska Range, including 20,310ft Denali itself. The five-room chalet makes most billionaires’ ski lodges look like mere snow sheds.

It is, without a doubt, the most amazing — and preposterous — place I’ve ever stayed. I woke with the sun rising over a near-perfect circle of jagged peaks, which surround the chalet on all sides, and closed my eyes to the flickering swathes of the Northern Lights. In the day, I skied the Ruth Glacier and went caving in neon-blue crevasses. At night, I ate seafood platters and had saunas in surely the most extreme, and extravagant, spa in the world — looking through a porthole window at the east face of Denali. For four days, I felt like a combination of Edmund Hillary and Jay-Z — part rugged, summit-slaying mountaineer, part pampered, A-List royalty.

But Sheldon Chalet’s most alluring quality isn’t its luxury. Don found this spot in the 1950s, while surveying the Alaska Range, built a small mountaineer cabin on the ridge, which still stands to this day behind the main chalet. People thought he was crazy — there was next to nothing to grow, fish or hunt out here in the wintry wilds — but he had a vision. He knew people would come to this remote spot for the mountains; they’d come for the emptiness and silence and the sparkling snow drifting across the high peaks. They’d be called to the wild, just as he’d been.

Sadly, Don died before he could see it, but he was right. Sheldon Chalet may be the most ludicrous hotel in the world, but it’s also one of the most humbling. Here, miles from civilisation, surrounded by glaciers, storms and the foreboding shadows of the country’s highest peaks, it’s impossible not to hear that siren call.

“It’s about reverence,” Robert told me during my stay. Indeed, that’s what Alaska’s all about — understanding how the mountains humble us all. Don would have been proud.

British travel writer Aaron Millar ran away from London in 2013 and has been hiding out in Boulder, Colorado ever since.

Published in the September 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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