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Denali National Park encompasses almost 9,500 square miles of wilderness. If it were its own state it would be the 43rd largest in the US—slightly smaller than Maryland. It’s lowest point along the Yentna River is only 223 feet above sea level. From here it rises some 20,000 feet to the site of its eponymous peak: the continental ceiling of North America. All this is to say, you could easily spend a lifetime exploring and not even crack the surface of this immense landscape. Yet one intrepid entrepreneur is determined to see you try.
Robert Sheldon grabbed international headlines in 2018 when he opened a luxe, five-suite guest lodge here, in the most unlikely of settings. Along with his wife, sister, and grown children, he built a modern, hexagonal structure atop 6,000 feet of Denali glacier. The craggy perch (or nunatak) on which it rests was homesteaded nearly 70 years ago by his dad, legendary bush pilot Don Sheldon. To him, the fact that it was accessible only by air was a feature not a flaw.
Growing up, Robert would make frequent visits to this majestic kingdom of ice. But he was warned to respect its vast beauty from a safe distance. “When I was a kid I was always told to avoid the crevasses at all costs,” he recalls of these alluring chasms that intermittently punctuated the snowfield. “Whenever someone tells me not to do something, my attention is piqued. I want to honor that, but I also need to know why.”
As an adult he would very much grow to understand the answer: the surrounding snow is merely the surface of a glacier, 3,800-feet deep. Slip through an unseen crack without proper gear and you’re toast. Yet despite that sobering possibility, an enchantment remained. What if you did have the proper gear? He wondered. And what if your journey was no accident at all, but one of deliberate discovery?
It wasn’t until last winter that he dared to find out. With his team of world-class guides, he began surveying some of these mysterious openings into the earth. Before the season was over he had added “Crevasse Exploration” to a laundry list of Instagram-shattering activities on offer at the Chalet (though you’ll be kindly encouraged to digitally detox while there).
Still, for folks keen on inflicting maximum fomo, this is an adventure that all but guarantees it. You can plumb an azure abyss which literally no other human has entered before. Yet for all spine-tingling peril it seems to project, the entire procession is rigorously controlled. And you certainly don’t need to be an adrenaline junky to join. In fact, it’s not even nearly as technically challenging as you might suspect. “There’s no experience necessary,” Sheldon contends. “After 'glacier school’ training—that lasts between 45 to 90 minutes—our guides are ready to lead you on incredible explorations into the glaciated terrain.”
You suit up at the edge of the nunatak; strap on snowshoes, fasten your harness and helmet, and clip-in to your rope. From there, a line of 4 or 5 adventurers—separated by 25 feet of safe distance—traverses the snowfield towards a crevasse pre-scouted by the guide. Depending on your skill level, you can either repel down into a vertical fissure or simply amble into a horizontal one much like you would hike into a cave while on dry earth. “The oldest participant we’ve had so far was 82 years old,” Sheldon points out.
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Regardless of which form of entry you select, it’s where you end up that matters more: An otherworldly sanctuary sandwiched between sheets of snow. Yet for Sheldon, and many of his guests, what they discover within themselves is even more profound. “A sense of presence,” he describes. “The opportunity to just be.”
It’s a serene state afforded in surprisingly few other places across the globe. Tours touted as ‘ice cave’ explorations in places like Iceland and Canada usually involve man-made chasms burrowed into sides of glaciers. Up along the nunatak they are instead gouged out by the forces of erosion; the unhurried exodus of ice over thousands of years. And because glaciers are ever-in-flux, the crew up at Sheldon Chalet is constantly discovering new entry points, continually planting their treads in spaces where shoes have never before trodden. It’s also why they’ll only be offering the adventure between December and early May, when they can ensure maximum stability of the snowpack.
Don’t expect them to run out of options any time soon. The nunatak sits high above a 35-square-mile amphitheater named after Don Sheldon, himself. So vast are its dimensions, cast beneath the distant shadow of Denali, that any sense of distance and space is hopelessly nullified. The best you can muster are clumsy, wholly inadequate descriptors such as, ‘big’ and ‘far’. Diving deep into the ice restores some semblance of scale, if even just for a moment, when you see your climbing partner’s body become comically insignificant against walls of frozen water.
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Prior to the pandemic, the ultra-luxury excursion was priced at $3,150 per person per night, with a required 3 night minimum. In order to insure social distancing protocols in the back country, they’ve shifted to a fully private model. For $35,500, you and a partner can buyout the entire two-story chalet for three nights. If you want to fill up all five rooms with a maximum of 10 guests, that figure lifts up to $88,500. Either rate is inclusive of a private chef, three meals a day built around your specifications, wine, beer, cocktails, housekeeping, concierge. And, of course, the adventure of a lifetime.
“To date less than 500 people have ever been into the Don Sheldon Amphitheater,” Sheldon points out. “It remained uninhabited and inaccessible since the last ice age asserted its icy grip 120,000 years ago.” What you discover here in the depths of Denali will surely be worth the wait.