AD Header Dropdowns

AD Main Menu

Search and rescue flights on Denali gave Don Sheldon place in Alaska lore

Colleen Mondor
In 1960, Don Sheldon became the most famous Alaskan pilot since the days of Ben Eielson and Joe Crosson when he helped coordinate four expeditions on Denali and subsequent high-altitude rescues. Jacob W. Frank / NPS

After the West Buttress Expedition pioneered a new route up Denali in the summer of 1951, Bradford Washburn briefly met and spoke with Don Sheldon, then a young Talkeetna pilot who was just beginning to make a name for himself in the area. Washburn realized after the expedition that he needed a local pilot who could commit longterm to his planned survey of the mountain and Sheldon had been recommended to him by several pilots, including Bob Reeve. Sheldon, whose partner at Talkeenta Air Service was killed in a crash in October, was interested in bringing new business to the company. Scientists were the only ones flying on the mountain at that time and with a set of retractable skis on one of his Super Cubs, he was ready to go after that business.

Before Washburn returned, Sheldon flew for several other expeditions in the Alaska Range, most notably in 1953 for Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian mountaineer and author of the bestseller Seven Years in Tibet. Along with Fred Beckey and Henry Mehbohm, Harrer successfully made the first ascent of Mount Deborah after Sheldon dropped them at the 7,000-foot level. In 1954 they made the first ascent of Mount Hunter as well, again with fly-in assistance from Sheldon. This is also the year Sheldon flew the first commercial flight on Denali, from Talkeetna to the Kahiltna Glacier.

Washburn’s survey work resumed in 1955 with Sheldon paid $25 an hour, charter rate, and $50 for each “new-area” landing. Ultimately the survey would include not only Denali, but also Hunter, Brooks,  Silverthrone, Tatum, Carpé, Koven, (named for the first two climbers to die on Denali) and Foraker. Washburn would determine the first accurate measurement of the South Summit and his topographic map of Denali, published in 1960, would be considered the most accurate ever completed; it is still in use today.

Sheldon finds fame in Alaska Range

In 1960, Sheldon became the most famous Alaska pilot since the days of Ben Eielson and Joe Crosson when his high-level rescue of stranded climbers on Denali brought him to the pages of Life magazine. Four expeditions were on the mountain in May that season, all supported to one degree or another by Sheldon. Most significant, one climber from Anchorage, Helen Bading, was in camp at the 16,400-foot level struggling to adjust to the low oxygen levels as the rest of her team made a summit attempt.

When the John Day Expedition and the Mountaineering Club of Alaska met on the South Summit on May 17, it was the first time two teams were present there simultaneously. On the way down, a member of the Day team slipped, pulling his three roped teammates with him. The Anchorage team was able to radio out for assistance as it became clear that none of the fallen group would be climbing down the mountain. John Day was the worst injured and their own teammate, Helen Bading, now needed a rescue as well.

In the days that followed as bad weather moved in and out, dozens of climbing teams, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force helicopter crews and numerous commercial aircraft would descend on Denali. One volunteer pilot in a C-180 would crash at the 18,000-foot level after attempting a small cargo drop, killing himself and an Elmendorf airman who was serving as his spotter. Ultimately, Sheldon would land at the 14,300-foot level to fly out Bading who was suffering from cerebral edema (and would survive). He was directed in this landing after a phone call with Washburn, back at his home in Boston, who told him of a “shelflike basin south of the West Buttress, near where we camped in 1951.”

Sheldon followed his directions to that location and landed his Super Cub, with Anchorage pilot George Kitchen right behind him. Bading and two of her exhausted companions, who had carried her down to the site, were evacuated. The Day party still remained however; the rescuing was not done yet.

Link Luckett, a commercial pilot from Anchorage, was in Talkeetna with a two-place Hiller 12-E helicopter, when Sheldon returned. He volunteered to attempt a landing near Day’s camp and with Sheldon flying cover, headed out for the mountain. Before he was done, Luckett would land three times at 17,230 feet, twice ferrying climbers down to Sheldon at the 14,300 foot landing strip. The final two members of the Day expedition would hike down to the high attitude strip on their own; and all four men were flown down to the 10,200 level until finally departing for Talkeetna and much needed medical attention. All of the climbers survived and Sheldon, subject of memorable photographs by the Life photographer, would become forever associated with Denali.

In his biography Wager With the Wind, Sheldon made clear that any such coverage of heroics should be considered carefully however. “Don’t believe a word you read,” he told biographer James Greiner. “Most of it’s a pack of lies.” Don Sheldon died in January 1975, from cancer. 

Contact Colleen Mondor at colleen(at)alaskadispatch.com