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How Chris McCandless Died
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John S.
(jshann) - F
How Chris McCandless Died on 09/13/2013 11:28:27 MDT Print View

Seems like the case is closed on what incapacitated him. The immediate cause of death being starvation probably won't change though.

Edited by jshann on 09/13/2013 13:17:06 MDT.

Tim Zen
(asdzxc57) - F

Locale: MI
Re: How Chris McCandless Died on 09/13/2013 12:25:45 MDT Print View

Thanks for post.

eric chan
(bearbreeder) - F
A death in Oregon sparks another look at 'Into the Wild' on 09/13/2013 15:38:13 MDT Print View

Eighteen-year-old Johnathan Croom was found dead not far from his abandoned car, and his parents believe some responsibility belongs to tales told of Chris McCandless, a young man who starved to death in a derelict bus near Healy, Alaska, while seeking wilderness solitude.


also ...

The lure of a famous bus, abandoned in the woods near Healy, Alaska, and Denali National Park, has claimed another victim. On June 25, a military helicopter plucked a 25-year-old Floridian from the area around the bus made famous by a book and movie detailing the life of Christopher McCandless, a wanderer who starved to death at the bus in 1992. The group told rescuers that they had run out of food two days prior to signaling a passing aircraft.


more at links ....

David Thomas
(DavidinKenai) - MLife

Locale: North Woods. Far North.
Re: A death in Oregon sparks another look at 'Into the Wild' on 09/13/2013 16:36:35 MDT Print View

>"his parents believe some responsibility belongs to tales told of Chris McCandless"

The relative responsibility of Parents/Child/Book could range from 79-20-1% to 19-80-1%.

Parents blaming a book for a tragic outcome instead of looking inward, suggests the former ratio.

My teenager has read the Odyssey, Harry Potter, Winnie the Pooh, and Ender's Game.

He has, perhaps as a result, studied Latin (it just seemed cooler than Greek), played quidditch at our house and Pooh Sticks in the Hundred Acres Wood (in Southern England). He hasn't sailed into a giant whirlpool, attempted to fly on a broom, gather honey from a bee hive or fight to the death in zero-g.

And yet, copycat suicides are real. Some work has been done in how media coverage of suicides can increase or decrease the number of copycats. Emphasizing the romantic aspects encourages others. Detailing gruesome aspects of the pain, suffering and corpse decrease copycat incidents.

Dena Kelley

Locale: Eagle River, Alaska
Rebuttal to Krakauer's version of how McCandless died on 09/16/2013 12:17:55 MDT Print View

Here's an Alaska writer's rebuttal to Krakauer's "proof" that McCandless died from "wild potato seed" poisoning. Frankly I think this makes a lot more sense than what Krakauer is claiming.

The explanation for how a now infamous young man named Chris McCandless came to die in the Alaska wilderness more than 20 years ago has apparently been found at last behind Door No. 3 by celebrity author Jon Krakauer.

Krakauer, of course, built his reputation on the book "Into the Wild," which made McCandless into a modern-day hero wandering the West in the search of the meaning of life. The book was actually as much about Krakauer wandering the world searching for the meaning of life as about McCandless, but the dead wanderer ended up as the big star.

As a character, Krakauer himself became more of a bit player like Friar Laurence in Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Krakauer is the thinner, all-knowing character in this tale of a tragic love affair between our hero and the alluring Alaska wilderness.

"Two years he walks the Earth. No phone, no pool, no pets, no cigarettes. Ultimate freedom," McCandless scratched into a sheet of plywood attached to his last home in a dirty, old abandoned bus along the Stampede Trail not far off the George Parks Highway east of the coal-mining community of Healy. "An extremist. An aesthetic voyager whose home is the road. Escape from Atlanta. Thou shalt not return, 'cause 'the West is the best.' And now after two rambling years comes the final and greatest adventure. The climactic battle to kill the false being within and victoriously conclude the spiritual revolution. Ten days and nights of freight trains and hitchhiking bring him to the great white north. No longer to be poisoned by civilization he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild.”

This actually was among McCandless' most cogent observations on life. Krakauer fixated on the "aesthetic voyager" part and started shaping a book around it. McCandless was transformed from a foolish, dead cheechako into a heroic figure who died tragically, as heroes must.

What kind of book would Krakauer have if McCandless merely wandered off into the wilderness and starved to death like some sort of ignorant city kid unprepared? That's not tragic. That's merely sad. No best seller there.

Let's make (up) a deal!
And obviously McCandless starved to death. That's what the autopsy concluded, but Krakauer in the original version of "Into the Wild" found a tragic reason for the starvation -- the killer seeds behind Door No. 1.

These were the seeds of the "wild potato plant" that poisoned McCandless in the first printing of "Into the Wild." Dr. Thomas Clausen at the University of Alaska Fairbanks quickly ruled out the seeds as poisonous.

Enter the moldy seeds behind Door No. 2. Mold on the seeds became Krakauer's poison of the moment when his book was called into question as fictional in 2007.

"It turned out — I've learned, since writing the book, those seeds were moldy," he told none other than Oprah Winfrey while out promoting the movie "Into the Wild." "And this mold created a poison that doesn't actually kill you outright, it keeps you from digesting food. So even though he was still eating food, he couldn't make use of it. And that — so he starved to death because he ate these moldy seeds."

The mold has also since been debunked. For those who are interested in the minutiae, Ron Lamonthe, a professor at Lesley University and a documentary filmmaker discusses all of this in great detail.

Which brings this to what is behind Door No. 3: ODAP, the poison du jour, full name Oxalyldiaminopropionic acid.

It's all laid out by "The New Yorker" in a piece titled simply, "How Chris McCandless Died." This is written, unsurprisingly, by Krakauer. He starts off by pimping his book, conceding his first little mistake with the deadly seeds, skips over the mold, and finally gets to the point:

The debate over why McCandless perished, and the related question of whether he is worthy of admiration, has been smoldering, and occasionally flaring, for more than two decades now. But last December, a writer named Ronald Hamilton posted a paper on the Internet that brings fascinating new facts to the discussion. Hamilton, it turns out, has discovered hitherto unknown evidence that appears to close the book on the cause of McCandless’s death. To appreciate the brilliance of Hamilton’s investigative work, some backstory is helpful.

The diary and photographs recovered with McCandless’s body indicated that, beginning on June 24, 1992, the roots of the Hedysarum alpinum plant became a staple of his daily diet.

Stop right there. This is a classic Krakauerism and the fundamental problem with the book "Into the Wild." The author is prone to wild conjecture. There is little evidence McCandless was eating roots, let along making them "a staple of his daily diet." When Chip Brown reported the original story in 1993 for the New Yorker (ironically enough), his only observation of roots was this: "...The fact that he (McCandless) may have been eating seeds and not roots is itself a sign of his desperate hunger." Brown notes that McCandless's sparse journal, if the document can be even called that, and the comments McCandless made in the margins of some books found in the bus put squirrels, gold birds, ducks, moose, wolves, berries and seeds onto the table, but not roots.

There are photographs of some roots in photos from film recovered after McCandless's death, but there is no evidence whatsoever to support Krakauer's flying leap to the conclusion that the roots of what most Alaskans know as sweetvetch became "a staple" of McCandless's diet. The fact is, nobody knows exactly what McCandless was eating.

'Fault of potato seed'
As to his consumption of seeds, there is also little known. The journal says this: "78: Missed wolf. Ate potato seeds and many berries coming. 89: Many mushrooms. Dream. 94: Woodpecker. Fog. Extremely weak. Fault of potato seed. Much trouble just to stand up."

Day 89 is now strangely missing from the journal as reported on the Chris McCandless website set up to promote Krakauer's book and the Sean Penn movie of the same name. The site does, however, contain some actual photos of portions of the journal. They are worth viewing just to see the scant evidence on which Krakauer, and even Brown, based some of their reporting.

The days are numbers with a circle around them. Day 3 says "Denali Day," from which Brown deduced that "past the river, the trail gained a couple of hundred feet of elevation, and it afforded Chris a glimpse of the roof of North America – his 'Denali Day.'"

Brown's conclusions based on shards of evidence pale compared to those of Krakauer. From the tiny amount of evidence available, including a photo of a bag of seeds found on film among McCandless's personal effects, Krakauer deduces that McCandless ate enough seeds to poison himself, and then somehow correctly diagnosed this poisoning, though McCandless had no information on which to base a reasonable conclusion that any sickness was the "fault of potato seed."

McCandless did have an Alaska plant book describing how the Athabascan Indians have harvested and eaten sweetvetch roots for centuries. There is no mention of anyone eating the seeds, which would lead to the obvious conclusion they are not very tasty. Because if they were tasty enough to tempt someone to eat enough to poison himself, that fact would surely be noted in Athabascan oral history.

An intelligent reader familiar with life in the wild might here also pause to ponder why McCandless would even be chowing down on seeds when tasty berries were appearing on the scene, but let's ignore that and move on to more of Krakauer's Hamilton-fueled speculation.

Hamilton has a theory about the seeds based on what he says is a historic account of efforts by the Nazis to poison Jews in Romania. As Krakauer writes:

In 1942, as a macabre experiment, an officer at Vapniarca started feeding the Jewish inmates bread made from seeds of the grass pea, Lathyrus sativus, a common legume that has been known since the time of Hippocrates to be toxic.

"Very quickly,” Hamilton writes in "The Silent Fire," a Jewish doctor and inmate at the camp, Dr. Arthur Kessler, understood what this implied, particularly when within months, hundreds of the young male inmates of the camp began limping, and had begun to use sticks as crutches to propel themselves about.

Let's stop right there again, and let's ignore the fact that Clausen, the chemist who debunked Krakauer's earlier poisoning theories, says that he is equally skeptical of this one. Let's just put our noses to work.

Debilitation theory
The Nazis, who were intentionally trying to poison Jews, found this poison disabled them "within months," and yet it felled McCandless in just 16 days? Does this even pass the most basic smell test?

No one has any evidence McCandless was at the bus eating the seeds before he got sick, though Krakauer tries to suggest the young man -- who some want to believe was a modern-day Thoreau -- was in the bus chowing down on seeds for more than two weeks.

"When I visited the bus in July, 1993, wild potato plants were growing everywhere I looked in the surrounding taiga," Krakauer writes. "I filled a one-gallon bag with more than a pound of seeds in less than thirty minutes."

Sadly, he doesn't mention tasting any. This would be useful information since Krakauer himself observes McCandless was at this time surviving "on a marginal diet of squirrels, porcupines, small birds, mushrooms, roots, and berries." I've personally eaten "squirrels, porcupines, small birds, mushrooms and berries," and all of them were tastier than any grasses or seeds I've tried chewing on. Although I do admit I've never tried Hedysarum alpinum.

Is it possible McCandless was gobbling these seeds like popcorn? Yes, maybe. Is it possible he simply tried a handful of seeds again before Day 94 and got as sick as the Richardson expedition reportedly did from the tubers in the early 1800s? Possibly.

And what about those mushrooms? There are plenty of poisonous mushrooms in Alaska. Could he have eaten those and become weak? Again, it's possibile.

Now ask yourself this: Would it make more sense for someone to tie their illness to something they've been eating daily for more than two weeks, or to something new that had been eaten in the last 24 or 48 hours? I don't know about you, but if I believe I'm sick from something I've eaten, I tend to blame the recent and unusual and not the everyday.

Is it possible McCandless gathered some seeds on Day 78, left them stored in a plastic bag, and then decided to try them on a food-short Day 93 only to get sick on Day 94? Certainly it's possible.

But all that is really known for sure is that on Day 94 McCandless reported "Woodpecker. Fog. Extremely weak. Fault of potato seed. Much trouble just to stand up. Starving. Great jeopardy."

Good-luck deciphering that. The worst Sarah Palin text message is clear by comparison.

Indoor hunting?
Still, there is evidence McCandless did later stand up, if his journal is to be believed. It reports: "104: Missed bear! 105: Five squirrel. Caribou. 107: Beautiful berries."

He might have recorded five squirrels inside the bus, but definitely not a caribou. He had to go out in the surrounding forest to spot it. Brown wrote that "on Day 105, (McCandless) killed five squirrels and saw a caribou.'' I admit to almost making the same mistake. It is a reasonable presumption, but a presumption nonetheless.

The McCandless stories has been written in presumptions. It is so easy to read so much into so little. Krakauer is a master at it. What jumps out now, though, is what is not in the journal. There is no mention of McCandless limping or needing to use a stick as a crutch to get around, as was the case for the poor victims at Vapniarca.

And then, of course, there is the sad, second-to-last note McCandless wrote, when he once again became a man of more than a few words:


He mentions being "near death" and weak, as a normally starving man would be. He mentions being "too weak to hike out of here," which suggests he is capable of hiking, but just doesn't think he can go the 20-mile distance to the Parks Highway. He mentions being "injured," but not sick.

And, of course, he has to be ambulatory to go "out collecting berries," all of which seems glaringly at odds with the description of Vapniarca victims provided by Hamilton:

...Once the (poisoning) effects had begun, there was simply no way to reverse them.... The disease is called, simply, neurolathyrism, or more commonly, “lathyrism." ... (Dr.) Kessler, who ... initially recognized the sinister experiment that had been undertaken at Vapniarca, was one of those who escaped death during those terrible times. He retired to Israel once the war had ended and there established a clinic to care for, study, and attempt to treat the numerous victims of lathyrism from Vapniarca, many of whom had also relocated in Israel.

So, years after the war the victims of Vapniarca were still suffering from the irreversible effects of ODAP poisoning, yet any mention of such symptoms disappears from McCandless' journal after Day 94?

Not once over the course of the next 19 days does McCandless report he is disabled. He does write that he is "too weak to walk out," but not too weak to walk. There is no further mention of difficulties standing up or limping or of making a crutch to help himself get around. And in the last of the many photographs he took of himself, he stands fully upright holding his very last note.


Don't you think he would have wanted to warn the world if he'd been poisoned to death by those seeds? Or did he somehow sense Krakauer would come along to do that?

"Hamilton’s discovery that McCandless perished because he ate toxic seeds is unlikely to persuade many Alaskans to regard McCandless in a more sympathetic light, but it may prevent other backcountry foragers from accidentally poisoning themselves," the author nobly observes in the last paragraph of his latest tome.

Jennifer Mitol
(Jenmitol) - M

Locale: In my dreams....
Re: Rebuttal to Krakauer's version of how McCandless died on 09/16/2013 16:30:31 MDT Print View

Wow that writer has some feelings about Krakauer, eh?

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
Re: Re: Rebuttal to Krakauer's version of how McCandless died on 09/17/2013 14:12:27 MDT Print View

Yes, he's not a fan of Krakauer but I'd have to say the gist of his opinion is supported by most Alaskans. That doesn't make him, or Alaskans, right of course.

I'm a big fan of the saying "we see things not as they are, but as we are." Krakauer obviously identifies with McCandless and wants to see his death not as incompetence, but the inevitable result of an unforeseeable situation: poisonous seeds, moldy seeds or what have you.

Alaskans for the most part see it as a much simpler situation: McCandless was in over his head and died of starvation. Some would argue, rightfully, that most Alaskans would never get in such a situation because very few of them ever set off on such a bold and/or foolhardy adventure.

It think the new paper does shed new light on the situation, but Craig Medred, in turn, sheds light on how Krakauer continues to reach definitive conclusions on less than perfect evidence.

Jennifer Mitol
(Jenmitol) - M

Locale: In my dreams....
Re: Re: Re: Rebuttal to Krakauer's version of how McCandless died on 09/17/2013 17:30:20 MDT Print View

FYI, as a non-Alaskan who read the book, then much later saw the movie, I actually came away from the book with the impression that he was NOT a hero, just a tortured, narcissistic soul. I thought the movie romanticized his "adventure," but not at all the book.

Perhaps that is a function of the bias people have when approaching the book - that it would be a romanticized adventure of a wandering youth that ended tragically. Frankly I thought he was a selfish, spoiled little brat and I did NOT like that the movie version made him seem so much more sympathetic (although the sound track really is awesome).

I have no opinion of Krakauer himself, but from a journalistic point of view he obviously nailed a good story. We're still talking about it, aren't we?

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Spoiled Brat on 09/17/2013 18:52:46 MDT Print View

"Frankly I thought he was a selfish, spoiled little brat" Two things jumped out at me from the story

1. He never contacted his family. Big red flag there. Might have been family problem. Or maybe the family was fine, and Chris was just "off" emotionally, mentally or whatever.

2. The kid didn't know how to take help or advice, MAJOR problem. I'm still fairly young but I have never understood the arrogance of some kids who think they know it all and any advice from anyone older is just an attempt to keep them down.

I personally feel that if McCandless had survived Alaska he would have gotten in real trouble sooner or later somewhere else (unless he wised up). He just didn't know how to learn from other people.

Will Elliott
(elliott.will) - F

Locale: Juneau, AK
a on 09/18/2013 18:55:49 MDT Print View

There is another book of note here, Sheila nickerson's "disappearance: a map -- life and death in the northern latitudes." something like that. its a journal kept by the author of all the disappearances in Alaska that year: hikers, boaters, fishermen, pilots, hunters, kids. And mccandless is in there. What makes him special is not his heroism, or folly, or background, or place or manner of death-- all these are dizzyingly unremarkable alongside the fate of so many others that year (the book shows). What sets mccandless apart is that when his body was found, nobody could figure who he was, and so the papers were reporting not on a death but a mystery, not a person but a blank canvas for readers-- and later, artists like krakauer and penn --to fill in. Had the paper reported "the body of Christopher mccandless, a backpacker from ..." we we would not remember him.

Steven Davis

Locale: SF Bay Area
<3 on 09/23/2013 00:17:24 MDT Print View

I LOVED the movie. It's one of my all-time favorites. Any stories about adventure like that and "leaving it all behind" are very enticing to me. I can watch it over and over. It's one of the most life-changing movies for me.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: <3 on 09/23/2013 07:42:34 MDT Print View


the McCandless movie is life changing and you're going to go solo backpacking

hopefully we won't read about you in the news : )

David K
McCandless on 09/23/2013 14:17:06 MDT Print View

I just saw the movie recently and although I did think it was a good movie, i also thought that what McCandless did was foolish and his death could have been prevented.

Misfit Mystic

Locale: "Grand Canyon of the East"
Krakauer on 09/23/2013 16:42:13 MDT Print View

I'm not sure what finally killed McCandless, but this I know: Jon Krakauer is a shameless self-promoter. I've met him a few times, heard him speak, and heard folks in the climbing community discussing him; let's just say none of these episodes left a favorable impression of him. IMO he's a lot of mouth and opinion, without the humility his experience should have given him. I'm curious if he was as contrite as Conrad Anker over the "poop bag" incident on Denali...

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Re Krakauer on 09/23/2013 17:20:41 MDT Print View

So if Krakauer is a "Shameless self promoter" does that put another spin on "Three Cups of Deceit"? Just curious.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Re Krakauer on 09/23/2013 17:46:45 MDT Print View

That's pretty funny Luke.

I like reading Krakauer books. Into the Wild, Into the Void, Three Cups of Deceit.

Maybe if you're not a shamless promoter, then no one will know about you.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Re Re Re Krakauer on 09/23/2013 17:51:10 MDT Print View

"Maybe if you aren't a shameless self promoter no one will know about you"

Good point Jerry, there' a line between promoting yourself, even if you're obnoxious and being dishonest. Has Krakauer crossed that line? Sounds like the guy from "Three Cups of Tea" did, I don't think Krakauer was the only one who questioned his honesty. But if we're taking another look at Krakauer who knows?

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re Re Re Krakauer on 09/23/2013 17:52:37 MDT Print View

"But if we're taking another look at Krakauer who knows?"

If you are taking another look at Krakauer, you might be into thin air.


Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Re Re Re Re Re Kravauer on 09/23/2013 18:01:17 MDT Print View

Good one Bob!

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: Re Re Re Krakauer on 09/23/2013 18:16:31 MDT Print View

The Three Cups of Tea guy made up a bunch of stuff, asked people to donate money but didn't spend it on what he said.

Although I think he was well intentioned and over-all did some good things. And he confessed to his sins and has tried to make good.

Another good Krakauer story.