History of the Mountain House

Don Sheldon, a master glacier pilot who was revered by the climbers he flew into the Range, intended the Mountain House to be a destination for mountaineers, skiers, photographers, and wilderness-seekers. Don tied lumber to the wing struts of his Cessna 180 and Super Cub, making numerous flights into the Gorge before he had enough materials to build the Mountain House. It was constructed in 1966 by two Talkeetna locals. The Mountain House sits on a spectacular 4.9 acre rock and ice covered outcrop located at the 5,800 foot level, in the middle of the Don Sheldon Amphitheater just above the Ruth Gorge; perhaps the most scenic and spectacular spot in Denali National Park & Preserve. The Mountain House is owned by members of the Sheldon family through the Mountain House LLC.

Don Sheldon and Talkeetna Air Service

Donald Edward Sheldon was born on November 21, 1921, in Mt. Morrison, Colorado. Shortly thereafter, his parents moved to Lander, Wyoming, where Don grew up traveling five miles daily on horseback to school with his sister, Berniece. He graduated from Lander High School in 1938, worked all summer, and then headed for Seattle, where he caught the next steamship to Alaska. He worked a 16 hour-a-day job in Anchorage for a stake to get to the backcountry around Talkeetna, where he worked at trapping, mining, and cutting and hauling firewood for the village.

Mountain House area map

At the advent of WWII Sheldon joined work crews assigned to construct airfields in Alaska for the war effort; he then traveled to Anchorage and took flying lessons there, receiving his private pilot certificate in January, 1942. In early 1943 he enlisted in the war effort and was sent to England, where he flew 26 missions as a tail gunner aboard B-17 bombers over industrial Germany. Honorably discharged in late 1945, he enrolled at an aviation mechanics institute in Pennsylvania and earned his Airframe & Engineer license. He moved on to work for the Piper Aircraft Corporation delivering new Piper aircraft all over the States and saved enough to purchase his own aircraft, a Taylorcraft.

In 1948 Sheldon headed back to Alaska and Talkeetna and eventually met a new arrival in the village named Robert “Stub” Morrison. The two hit it off and he and Morrison formed a partnership they named Talkeetna Air Service. In summer the two flew supplies and passengers for the Alaska Road Commission work camps, miners and prospectors, and homesteaders; in winter, supplies were flown or air-dropped to trapping camps and remote cabins. Eventually Sheldon earned his Master Guide License and offered big game hunts in the area. Tragically, in 1951, Stub Morrison encountered dense radiation fog on a flight to Anchorage with a client, and both perished.

Sheldon had earlier met Bradford Washburn, the Director of the Boston Museum of Science and an enthusiastic mountaineer and photographer who was in Alaska to study and map the great mountain Denali, and the Alaska Range. Starting in 1955, Washburn hired Sheldon to land him on the numerous glaciers and other landing sites in the range for several seasons. In the late 1950s mountaineering expeditions began to appear in Talkeetna to climb Denali, and Sheldon transported them to the lower levels of the Kahiltna Glacier for their base camps.

As the decade of the 1960s progressed with an escalating number of climbing expeditions and a high demand for other charter flights, it became necessary for Sheldon to hire additional pilots. Mike Fisher and Lynn Twigg, both longtime Talkeetna residents and pilots, agreed to carry the extra load. A third pilot, Fred Richards, also was engaged. During this decade Sheldon met and married Roberta Reeve from Anchorage and the two welcomed the arrival of their three children: Holly, Kate, and Robert Sheldon. Roberta also took over the management of Talkeetna Air Service’s scheduling and ground operation.

Don-Sheldon-Alaska-Range
Don Sheldon flying over the Alaska Range

The early years of the 1970s were not so kind, when Sheldon’s robust health took a turn for the worst. Despite the setback Sheldon valiantly kept up his hectic flight schedules for two more trying years, before he passed away from cancer in January 1975.

Don Sheldon’s biography, Wager with the Wind, was published by Rand McNally in late 1974; a popular seller for over forty years, it remains in print to this day. Out of technical necessity, Sheldon’s Alaska Transportation Commission operating certificate was eventually transferred by Roberta Sheldon in 1976, but only on the condition that the new owner change the name from Talkeetna Air Service to Talkeetna Air Taxi. This was done so that no one could exploit or tarnish the reputation and good name of Don Sheldon. The certificate itself became obsolete and ceased to exist when the commission was dissolved by the Alaska State Legislature in 1984, leaving no possible, however remote, connection between Talkeetna Air Service and any entity that may claim otherwise.

 – Roberta Sheldon, Historian and Writer