An Alaskan's Destination: the Sheldon Mountain House
Sat May 20 2017
Located on a rocky precipice surrounded by glacier, the Sheldon Mountain House was built in 1966 by renowned pilot, Don Sheldon. He flew up the materials strapped to the underside of the wings of his Cessna 180 and Super Cub from the nearby town of Talkeetna. It is a round wood structure with a nearly 360-degree view of the Sheldon Amphitheater, a collection of peaks and various arms of the Ruth Glacier, just below the South Buttress and south peak of Mt. Denali, the namesake of Denali National Park & Preserve.
To get to the mountain house, you need to first make a reservation directly through the Sheldon family on the hut website, and depending on when you want to plan your trip, as early as a year in advance. The cost of the house varies depending on the size of the party, but it averages $225-250 per night per couple. Once you have your dates confirmed, you need to reserve an air charter with K-2 Aviation located in Talkeetna. The reservation regardless of the size of your party is $100, with the full fair running $550 per person round trip.
How many people to take with your party is a very good question. If you don’t want to sleep in a tent outside or have anyone sleeping on the floor in the hut, then the maximum group size is four. With two people sleeping on the valuable and scarce floor space, you can have six. (There are spaces underneath the sleeping benches where you could store the floor sleepers’ bags and pads during the day.) Exterior surface for pitching a tent can be fairly limited in the winter time, as the winds create sizable drifts and cornices, leaving few flat surfaces available to pitch a tent.
What gear to bring is also a good question. The Sheldon Mountain House website provides no information as to what is provided at the hut, other than a two-burner stove. But, when at the hut, you will find numerous pots and pans, knives, cutting board, utensils, and silverware. You may want to bring your own plates, bowls and cups. You should also plan to bring a backup stove just in case, and green Propane canisters for the provided stove (look to the website for information). The sleeping benches are padded, so no bed rolls are needed. A sleeping bag and a pillow will keep you quite comfortable. Each person should also bring up at least a quart of water with them, because by the time you get to the hut you will be thirsty, and it takes a while to melt snow into water.
There is a bit of an uphill slope from the point where K2 Aviation drops you off on the glacier to the base of the rock where the hut is located. After you have reserved the hut, you will receive information on how to access the hut from below. The map identifies the main route and a winter route. But when we were there in early April, the winter route was not accessible, and even when we were on top of the rock at the hut, we could not see where the winter route was located. So, plan on accessing the hut via the wooden stairs. And that creates some challenges in how you get your gear up to the top of the rock. Whether you ski or snow shoe up to the rock from the landing site, you will need to take your skis or snow shoes off once you reach the base of the steps. Any cleats will chew up the wood, so you can only go up with bare boots. But once you are at the top of the steps up above, you will need to put cleats back on your boots because the surface can be slippery and is steep. Now, in the summer time and fall, this is not an issue because the surface is bare rock – these precautions are only necessary in the winter or when snow is on the top of the rock. But, this creates a situation where the fastest way to get your gear up to the top is to stage people with different footwear at different locations to ferry gear up to the top at the house. It took us three hours to get all our gear from the landing strip to inside the house.
Granted, we did not pack lightly. In addition to all the proper outdoor winter gear, we also brought prepared meals – breakfast burritos, chili, Icelandic fish stew, plus boxed wine, pre-made cocktail (lemon drop), a bottle of B&B, plenty of snacks, and about 50 pounds of camera gear (two photographers’ camera bags plus a Kessler-Crane slide rail with Second Shooter time lapse control system). You should take advantage of the sleds offered by K2 Aviation for hauling up your gear.
You don’t use firewood for the wood burning stove in the house. Rather, K2 Aviation sends up several bags (100 pounds total) of compressed wood pellets to use for heat. Once started, these things keep burning for a while, requiring less stoking than regular firewood. And they keep a steady temperature, unlike firewood that burns hot at first and then cools down. The key to water production is to always have a large kettle (provided in the house) on top of the wood burning stove, with a lid on top to maximize heat. As snow melts, extract the water and keep replacing the snow. If you need to speed up the snow melt, you can always add water to the snow. Keeping the kettle full all weekend, we were never wanting for water.
Waste management is not as daunting as it seems. The little shack where the human waste bucket is located is not dissimilar to any outhouse, except you are sitting on a bucket – and a seat is provided for the bucket. Packing up the solid human waste for disposal and delivery to the National Park Service station in Talkeetna is fairly easy. How we managed our urine waste was using a second bucket, and then dumping the bucket periodically in the same area. When we were there, the portion on the map described as “secondary urination area” was not accessible due to snow drifts and cornices. So, we simply pitched out our urine and grey water waste as far as we could over one of the drops away from the house.
We were relatively lucky with weather. After a short weather delay, we were able to land and drop off our gear. Shortly after the DeHavilland Otter took off, a snow squall hit and keep going well into the night. In the morning, our trails we had made to get up to the house were covered in snow drifts, and we had to shovel them out again. By late morning, the weather started to break, so we geared up for a snow shoe outing down on the glacier. By afternoon, it was mostly clear, with just some clouds hanging over the peaks. It was a mostly clear and starry night, but no aurora borealis (the main aurora storm had hit the night before, when we were enshrouded in clouds). In the morning, we were treated to perfectly clear skies and first light on the south peak of Denali and the South Buttress.
The Sheldon Mountain House provides a perfect balance of a little adventure with a little bit of comfort. It was certainly much more luxurious of accommodations than the two gentlemen who were tent camping down at the edge of the air strip for several weeks, waiting for breaks in weather here and there to go climb nearby peaks. They were quite appreciative of the remaining breakfast burritos we provided them as we hauled our gear back down to the landing strip and waited for our K2 Aviation taxi. With beautiful, sunny weather, we had one last cocktail on the glacier before heading back to Talkeetna. And we were already planning our next trip to the Mountain House – this time for three nights instead of two. Two is simply not enough, especially when the weather allows for exploring the nearby landscape.
If you have any questions about an adventure at the Sheldon Mountain House, please feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.