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Alaska, with its wild allure, holds a special place in my heart. In 1978, driven by a family crisis, my dad left Minnesota’s predictability for Alaska’s limitless adventure. While caring for his brother after a plane crash, he and his siblings embraced the rugged lifestyle there — king crab fishing seasons, helicopter commutes to work on the pipeline and an impromptu climb up Denali in bunny boots.

In the midst of this northern saga, my mom entered the scene. A born-and-bred New Yorker, she had been exiled to Anchorage by her family. Upon meeting, my parents found more than solitude in the 49th state’s vastness; they found love. Together, they formed a family as a refuge from their fractured pasts.

Despite growing up in Minnesota, I heard all sorts of nonconformist Alaskan tales throughout my childhood that defined my outlook on life. Years later, chasing a desire to rediscover my roots and rebel against societal norms, I would return to the place that shaped my family’s unconventional story. First, I headed to the bustling streets of New York City as a wide-eyed 17-year-old, eager to absorb every drop of urban wisdom. The knowledge I acquired there became the foundation for my expertise in design and hospitality. But it wasn’t until I was back in the northernmost state that my perspective on luxury took an unexpected turn.

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In the heart of the last frontier, I immersed myself in a place that completely redefined my understanding of grandeur, discovering the secret lay not in the concrete jungle of New York City but in the captivating beauty of Alaska. There, I unearthed a hideaway that embodies the essence of its roots and introduces a sixth dimension to high-end hospitality.

Welcome to Sheldon Chalet, a once isolated rock transformed into an illustrious eco hotel offering year-round experiences. Here, 6,000 feet above the Ruth Glacier and just 10 miles from North America’s highest peak, my journey as a concierge unfolded. My role was to contribute to a broader story marked by dedication, resilience and a humble pursuit of excellence.

Nestled amid the rugged Alaska Range, Sheldon Chalet has become a hallowed haven where passion, purpose and the human spirit converge. Its key players show up in tales of aviation, cartography, glaciology, mountaineering and sustainable engineering, all of which contribute to the property’s standard-setting stature.

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So how did this world-renowned retreat come to be? In the 1950s, the late trailblazer Don Sheldon claimed a plot of land under the Homestead Act; he was granted a land patent only after the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971. Over time, this privately owned outcrop became enveloped by Denali National Park. All the while, the Sheldon family has actively collaborated with policymakers to support conservation and heritage efforts, striking a delicate balance between preservation and development for current and future generations’ benefit. They are also committed to honoring the longstanding history of local Alaska Native communities, including using traditional names for area geographical features.

My connection with the Sheldon legacy starts with the historic Mountain House, the pioneering refuge built by Don and his wife, Roberta. From my initial stay in that rustic abode in 2010 to my work at the chalet years later, I have witnessed the evolution of a family’s bold vision and its lasting impact on the rare few who, like me, have had the privilege of being part of this remarkable tradition.

Bound by a deep love and a shared commitment to adventure, Don and Roberta forged a lasting connection with the Alaskan wilderness. Roberta, the daughter of notable pilot Bob Reeve, brought worldly intelligence from her career as a Flying Tigers flight attendant and Reeve Aleutian Airways administrative manager. Don, a legendary bush pilot who pioneered a glacier landing technique, created strategic partnerships between his air taxi operation and luminaries like mountaineer Ray Genet, bush pilot Stub Morrison and cartographer Bradford Washburn. Together, they transcended boundaries and left an enduring impact on both the landscape and the community.

Photography provided by the Sheldon Family Archive

In 1966, Don and his friends built the Mountain House by leveraging their unique skills to access the glacier. The 212-square-foot hut, now known as the Don Sheldon Amphitheater, sits on a five-acre rock and ice outcrop overlooking the Ruth Gorge. Back in the day, Roberta had an apt mandate for anyone venturing up to the Mountain House: You must be physically fit and mentally flexible. This inspiring directive fueled my desire to explore and understand the way of life in such a remote place. The shelter was more than just a structure; it felt like a living, breathing homage to the spirit of adventure.

The Mountain House now shares its revered rock with Sheldon Chalet — a dream that was inspired by 1968 blueprints Don and Roberta left behind and that was realized in 2018. Elegantly accommodating up to 10 guests within its 2,000 square feet and five bedrooms, the warm abode was brought to fruition by the next generation of the Sheldon family in honor of their forebears’ undeniable trailblazing spirit.

In 2018, I served as a concierge at the hotel, helping to craft utterly unforgettable moments for guests. But my bond with this special place goes far beyond professional duty; I have also relished the retreat from a personal perspective.

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A journey to Sheldon Chalet begins with a captivating flight by helicopter, the exclusive transportation mode for guests, or on a fixed-wing aircraft for the staff. Soaring above the Alaska Range teaches a lesson about the infiniteness of space and time, urging us to approach our years on earth with sincerity.

Upon landing, you’re immediately immersed in a transformative atmosphere, a realm where each breath carries qualities of both freedom and vulnerability. A magical camaraderie would unfold once the staffers’ boots hit the glacier, and we’d morph into a close-knit family bonded by the frozen canvas. We shared a common purpose as we unloaded provisions: ensuring our guests’ comfort during their stay with us.

Waking up to the crisp mountain air, I observed the unfolding weather patterns. I navigated cinematic scenes throughout the day, including thunderous avalanches and fleeting whiteouts. As night fell, the real spectacle began. The aurora borealis danced above, creating a kaleidoscope of brilliance. In those moments, I felt intimately connected to the untouched wilderness, which the family aims to preserve.

Photography provided by the Sheldon Family Archive

To that end, the lodge is redefining luxury through sustainable living 55 miles away from civilization. Its state-of-the-art systems seamlessly blend in with the landscape and embody the leave-no-trace philosophy. Solar arrays, altitude-adapted turbines and an innovative energy storage system dramatically shrink the property’s ecological footprint and reflect an unwavering commitment to sustainability in what is often a wasteful industry. “Our mission has always been to share this incredible vertical haven with the world, responsibly and enduringly,” explains Robert Sheldon, Don and Roberta’s son.

Conventional hospitality norms take a back seat at this one-of-a-kind luxury lodge, giving way to a distinctive ethos that encourages both guests and staff to lean into a more authentic experience. The hotel is now co-managed by Robert and his wife, Marne. Along with their son Ryan, who serves as experience director, the family operates with a commitment that transcends mere business. Actively involved in daily affairs, the Sheldons uphold their forebears’ vision, emphasizing local expertise, nurturing emerging enterprises and prioritizing an all-Alaskan staff.

Marne reveals what she seeks in exceptional team members: “I treasure qualities like high emotional intelligence, attentive listening, empathy and a resilient yet gentle confidence.” Robert adds, “In a globalized society, we often overlook the potency of local knowledge.” Together, they’ve developed a team with complementary strengths that collectively tackles challenges and celebrates milestones.

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Chefs Todd Ritter and Dave Thorne (lovingly known as Delicious Dave) as well as sommelier Tom Laret chart a distinctive culinary path. Their backgrounds emphasize life experiences over conventional hospitality training, and their combined knowledge of fishing, hunting, foraging, aviating and enduring harsh environs deeply informs their craft. Their evident artistry is rooted in their Alaskan heritage and draws inspiration from the unique setting.

Some of us ventured out and experienced life elsewhere before joining the team, but we all eventually returned. I worked in the vibrant New York City fashion scene. Thorne trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America, then served as a private chef on tour with music icons like Neil Young, Justin Timberlake and Jack Johnson. Laret, who spent years in Los Angeles and New York City, has an uncanny ability to showcase his Alaskan roots while easily connecting with guests from around the world. This synergy defines the team’s sophisticated approach, organically blending the essence of the last frontier with the refined influences of top global destinations.

Each chef weaves their close connections to Alaska into their menus, accentuating the importance of place. Imagine the grandeur of Ruth Glacier, where in the late sixties Don orchestrated legendary gatherings dubbed the “highest cookouts.” Amid this breathtaking setting, he grilled steaks, scallops and wolverine burgers, creating an unforgettable experience under the open sky.

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Fast-forward to today, when Ritter upholds that legacy by meticulously selecting and serving the finest Alaskan-raised meat and produce. This culinary commitment comes to life both out on the glacier and within the cozy confines of the chalet.

Showing off his talents, Thorne prepares dishes like black cod embellished with a ginger-sesame glaze and crowned with kizami wasabi. Paired with tea-steamed rice, garlic-chili-sautéed sugar snap peas and lion’s mane mushrooms, this dish is nothing short of a delicacy to be savored on a frozen mountaintop. Thorne’s imaginative touch even involves handpicking rocks on the nunatak and heating them to a piping hot 400 degrees for a couple hours. He then skillfully sears the fish atop these hot stones to achieve the perfect medium-rare temperature by the time he’s done introducing the course.

Beyond the epicurean bliss, Sheldon Chalet distinguishes itself through the humble and familial dining experience. At the request of the guests, everyone slows down next to a crackling fire to share a meal after a day of outdoor adventures. It’s a down-to-earth luxury, where your concierge, sommelier and mountain guide become your dinner companions. The compact, exposed kitchen enhances this feeling of closeness, creating an intimate atmosphere to be appreciated by a select few.

Photography provided by the Sheldon Family Archive

In Robert’s eloquent words, “Legacy is not just the past; it’s how we conduct the present for future remembrance.” This insight lays the foundation for a team steeped in local knowledge — an invaluable asset that shows in the property’s dedication to detail.

His son Ryan, meanwhile, embodies the third generation’s leadership. “Preserving my grandfather’s Alaskan legacy, especially his vision for the chalet, is a profound responsibility,” he says in a moment of quiet contemplation. “Standing among giants, I strive to enhance the experience continually, knowing that Grandpa Sheldon envisioned it to be awe-inspiring.”

Leaving Sheldon Chalet feels like saying goodbye to family. From the historic Mountain House to the otherworldly eco lodge, it has been more than a job for me — it’s been a journey through the heart of the Sheldon legacy. And this is no ordinary luxury escape; it’s the epitome of understated elegance. During a time when genuine hospitality has become such a rarity, it’s a living story where nature, heritage and camaraderie all come together. And the journey continues, with generations of the Sheldon family carrying forth that torch to present this singular travel experience.

Read this article as it appears in the magazine.

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