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High on Denali, the Sheldon legacy continues

  • Author: Erin Kirkland
  • Updated: December 5, 2017
  • Published December 4, 2017

Cameron Sheldon fills fuel tanks on the family’s nunatak, with the Sheldon Mountain House in the background. The Sheldon grandchildren are eager to continue the family legacy in honor of their grandparents, Don and Roberta. (Provided by the Sheldon family)

The perpetual white and gray landscape around Denali is either breathtaking or stark, depending on your perspective and reason for being there.

For the Sheldon family, the children and grandchildren of Don and Roberta Sheldon, the environment — and its features — are simply part of a larger home away from home.

I wrote about the Sheldons and their commitment to preserving the family legacy in 2016 when Siblings Kate and Robert were preparing for the construction of Sheldon Chalet, a building on the slice of rock that was the site of the tiny Sheldon Mountain House, a cabin built by their father in 1966.

The Mountain House was legendary among climbers, pilots, public figures and curious outdoor enthusiasts who flew to Ruth Glacier and the Don Sheldon Amphitheater at nearly 6,000 feet.

Even then, Don and Roberta had bigger plans for the tower of rock known as a nunatak that juts from the glacier's icy flanks. Don, a pilot who pioneered the technique of glacier landings on Denali, bought the five-acre property prior to Denali National Park and Preserve's expansion and flew up materials and carpenters to create the 200-square-foot hexagonal cabin.

But he didn't want to stop there. He had big plans to introduce Denali, glaciers, mountains and adventure to the world. A lofty goal? Perhaps, but to a guy like Don Sheldon — and now, his children — lofty goals are challenges that merely require ingenuity and grit to meet.

The Sheldon Chalet was completed a few weeks ago and sits at the far end of the nunatak, larger than its predecessor and with more panache than the humble Mountain House. It's a luxury experience for those who can afford to stay there, but this story isn't about that.

My curiosity about the Mountain House, and now the Chalet, stems from conversations I had with the family over the past year about the concept of "place."

It's a word that has come into parenting vogue, but its meaning is anything but. In essence, "place" is defined as our relationship with someplace, including the qualities that make it special to us and us alone.

I only have to close my eyes and recall the Montana ranch where my mother grew up. I can smell the drying hay, hear the wind blowing through pine trees and feel the chill of a creek running through the pasture. I am rooted to the people and landscape of this place forever, as will be my children, and theirs.

Don Sheldon and son Robert in this 1974 photo. (Photo provided by the Sheldon family)

Having a place helps create a sense of human attachment and belonging. In the case of the Sheldon kids and grandkids, place translates to a connection with Don, a father and grandfather none of them had the chance to know.

Gone too soon

Robert Sheldon sent me a photo from 1974. The black-and-white is grainy after almost 50 years, but in it Don Sheldon stands tall in a down jacket and flannel shirt, a plane in the background, and his hand on 3-year-old Robert's head. Don died of cancer when Robert was 4.

Robert and his wife Marne are parents to three sons: Taylor, 20; Ryan, 18; and Cameron, 16. As the boys grew up on a diet of tales about their grandfather and great-grandfather (Roberta Sheldon's father was noted aviation pioneer Bob Reeve), it became clear the nunatak was to become more than a place to welcome visitors. It would become an anchor to the family's story.

"The importance of knowing your heritage is paramount to me," Robert said as we sat in the Sheldon Chalet living room a few weeks ago, Denali's profile evident from every window.

"For my three boys, the first multiple Sheldon sons in a long time, I wanted them to know me and who went before them. If you don't know where you are from, you'll have a hard time knowing with confidence where you are going."

Building the Sheldon Chalet was a family affair from the day Robert and Kate started sketching plans to carry forward what their parents started. It continued with Robert's teen-aged sons helping with the construction, feet planted firmly upon the rocky surface, breathing the same air and viewing the same scenery their grandfather did.

"This is what my mom and dad wanted," Robert said. "Fulfilling my parents' vision while my sons worked alongside me these past three years allowed us to experience a common effort that literally transcends generations."

Grandchildren of a legend

Cameron Sheldon is the next-to-youngest grandchild (his cousin, Reeve, daughter of Kate Sheldon, is 8). He has his mother's reddish hair and a quick smile that he gets from both of his parents.

Cameron spent days chipping away at the nunatak with his dad and brother Ryan and nights sleeping on the glacier in a tent. The work was hard, he said, but fulfilling. I asked him what being on the nunatak meant to him.

"I always wished we could meet," he said. "The first time I went to the Mountain House, it was hard to take in, the views and where we were."

"… The Mountain House and Chalet, they'll be there forever. It's a place my brothers and I can bring our own kids."

He looked around the living room of his family's expansive home in Anchorage, where we talked.

"This is just a house," he said. "It's not as important as up there."

Kate Sheldon and her family lives in Vail, Colorado, but she frequently visits Talkeetna, where she and Robert grew up. Kate was 6 when her father died.

Reeve rides around Talkeetna on her cousins' outgrown bikes, stopping at her favorite haunts, picking berries and learning skills far different from her more urban lifestyle in Vail. Talkeetna and the nunatak are places the youngster can connect to her mother and grandmother, "Grammy" Roberta, who died in 2014.

"As a child I enjoyed sleeping out in the snow during the winter, under a big evergreen tree in the yard," Kate said. "Mom would set out tarps and my siblings and I would burrow into our sleeping bags but I always remember the feeling of snowflakes gently falling on my face. It was a different time, and I want Reeve to experience that here."

Grounding kids in a good way

Helping children connect to a place can establish a personal identity and sense of values. For Robert and Kate, who were so young when their father died, being able to be physically present on the nunatak with their own children helps weave together every story and lesson they may not remember from their father's voice, but which are present in the evidence he left behind.

"This is not just the fulfillment of my parents' legacy," Robert said. "It is fulfillment of sons knowing their father in hopes that tradition, work ethic, integrity and honor are advanced to the next generation."

I asked Cameron how he thinks his grandfather would react to the new Sheldon Chalet.

"He'd walk in with a huge smile on his face," he said, and then, "I think he'd be super proud of my dad."

Erin Kirkland is author of the Alaska On the Go guidebook series and publishes the website

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