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Christopher McCandless

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Christopher McCandless
Chris McCandless.png
Self-portrait on the Stampede Trail, found undeveloped in his camera after his death.
Born Christopher Johnson McCandless
(1968-02-12)February 12, 1968
El Segundo, California, US
Died August 1992 (aged 24)
Stampede Trail, Alaska, US
Cause of death Starvation
Body discovered September 6, 1992
Other names
  • Chris McCandless
  • Alexander Supertramp
Education W.T. Woodson High School
Alma mater Emory University

Christopher Johnson "Chris" McCandless (/ˈkrɪstəfər ˈɒnsən məˈkændlɨs/; February 12, 1968 – August 1992) was an American hiker. He ventured into the Alaskan wilderness in April 1992 with little food and equipment, hoping to live simply for a time in solitude. Almost four months later, McCandless' starved remains were found, weighing only 30 kilograms (66 lb). His death occurred in a converted bus used as a backcountry shelter, along the Stampede Trail on the eastern bank of the Sushana River.

In January 1993, Jon Krakauer published McCandless' story in that month's issue of Outside magazine. Inspired by the details of McCandless' story, Krakauer wrote and published Into the Wild in 1996 about McCandless's travels. In 2007, the book was adapted into a film directed by Sean Penn with Emile Hirsch portraying McCandless. That same year, McCandless's story also became the subject of Ron Lamothe's documentary The Call of the Wild.

Early life[edit]

Christopher Johnson McCandless was born in El Segundo, California. He was the first child to Walter "Walt" and Wilhelmina "Billie" McCandless (née Johnson). The couple subsequently had three more children. He also had six half-siblings from Walt McCandless' first marriage who lived with their mother in California. Author Jon Krakauer later speculated that Walt's transition between these two marriages may have deeply affected and profoundly shaped McCandless' world-view.[1]

In 1976, the family relocated to Washington, D.C., settling in suburban Annandale, Virginia, when McCandless' father was hired as an antenna specialist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). His mother worked as a secretary at Hughes Aircraft. The couple went on to establish a successful consultancy business out of their home, specialising in Walt McCandless' area of expertise.

McCandless graduated from W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, Virginia in 1986.[citation needed] He excelled academically, while a number of teachers and fellow students observed that he "marched to the beat of a different drummer." McCandless also served as captain of the cross-country team, where he would urge teammates to treat running as a spiritual exercise in which they were "running against the forces of darkness ... all the evil in the world, all the hatred."[2]

In the summer of 1986, McCandless travelled to Southern California and reconnected with distant family and friends. It was during this journey he learned that his father had not yet divorced from his first wife when he and his sister Carine were born, and had apparently maintained somewhat of a double life before the move to Virginia. It is speculated this discovery had a profound impact on the younger McCandless.[3]

McCandless graduated from Emory University in May 1990, with a Bachelor's degree, double majoring in history and anthropology.[citation needed]


By the end of summer in 1990, McCandless had driven his Datsun through Arizona, California and South Dakota, where he worked at a grain elevator in Carthage. A flash flood disabled his car, at which point he simply removed its license plates, took what he could carry and kept moving on foot. His car was later repaired and served as an undercover vehicle for the local police department.[4]


In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked from Enderlin, North Dakota, to Fairbanks, Alaska. As noted by Krakauer, McCandless was last seen alive at the head of the Stampede Trail on April 28, 1992 by a local electrican named Jim Gallien. Gallien gave McCandless a ride from Fairbanks to the start of the rugged track just outside the small town of Healy. Gallien later said that he was seriously concerned about McCandless' (who introduced himself as "Alex") safety after noticing McCandless' light pack, minimal equipment, meagre rations and obvious lack of experience. Gallien said he had deep misgivings about whether "Alex" could survive the harsh and unforgiving Alaskan bush.

Gallien repeatedly tried to persuade McCandless to defer the trip, at one point offering to detour to Anchorage and buy him suitable equipment and supplies. However, McCandless ignored Gallien's persistent warnings and refused his offers of assistance (McCandless did accept a pair of Wellington boots, two sandwiches, and a packet of corn chips from Gallien). Gallien dropped McCandless off believing he would head back towards the highway within a few days as hunger set in.[1]

After hiking along the snow-covered Stampede Trail, McCandless came upon an abandoned bus (about 28 miles (45 km) west of Healy) alongside an overgrown section of the trail near Denali National Park, where he set up camp and attempted to live off the land. He had 4.5 kilograms (9.9 lb) of rice, a Remington semi-automatic rifle with 400 rounds of .22LR hollowpoint ammunition, a number of books, including one on local plant life, some personal effects and a few items of camping equipment. Self-portrait photographs and journal entries indicate he foraged for edible plants and hunted game. McCandless poached porcupines, squirrels, and birds, such as ptarmigans and Canada geese. On June 9, 1992, he stalked and shot a moose. However, the meat spoiled within days after McCandless failed to properly preserve it.

It has been speculated that McCandless may have been responsible for vandalizing several cabins in the area that were stocked with food, survival equipment and emergency supplies. In response, Denali National Park Chief Ranger Ken Kehrer, has categorically stated that McCandless was not considered a viable suspect by the National Park Service.[5]

McCandless' journal documents 113 days in the area. In July, after living in the bus for three months, he decided to head back to civilization, but the trail was blocked by the increased water level of the Teklanika River. The watercourse by that stage was considerably higher and swifter than when he crossed in April. McCandless did not have a detailed topographical map of the region, was unaware that a hand-operated tramway that crossed the river eight tenths of a mile away from where he had previously crossed.[2] At this point, McCandless headed back to the bus and reestablished his camp. McCandless posted an S.O.S. note posted on the bus reading:


McCandless' final written journal entry, noted as "Day 107", simply read, "Beautiful Berries."[7] The days 108 through 113 contained no words and were marked with only slashes.[8]

On September 6, 1992, a hunter who was looking for shelter for the night came upon the converted bus McCandless had been staying in. Upon entering, he smelled what he thought was rotting food and discovered "a lump" in a sleeping bag. The hunter quickly radioed police who arrived the following day. They found McCandless' decomposing body in the sleeping bag. He had died of starvation sometime in August.[8]

Possible death scenarios[edit]

In the book Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer suggested two factors may have contributed to McCandless's death. First, he offered that McCandless was running the risk of a phenomenon known as "rabbit starvation" due to increased activity, compared with the leanness of the game he was hunting.[9] Krakauer also speculated that McCandless might have been poisoned by a toxic alkaloid called swainsonine, by ingesting seeds (Hedysarum alpinum or Hedysarum mackenzii) containing the toxin, or maybe by a mold that grows on them (Rhizoctonia leguminicola). Swainsonine inhibits metabolism of glycoproteins, which causes starvation despite ample caloric intake.[10]

However, an article in the September 2007 issue of Men's Journal by Matthew Powers states that extensive laboratory testing showed there were no toxins or alkaloids present in the H. alpinum seeds McCandless had been eating. Dr. Thomas Clausen, the chair of the chemistry and biochemistry department at UAF said "I tore that plant apart. There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I'd eat it myself."[11] Analysis of the wild sweet peas, given as the cause of McCandless' death in Into the Wild, found no toxic compounds and there is not a single account in modern medical literature of anyone being poisoned by this species of plant.[12] As Powers put it: "He didn't find a way out of the bush, couldn't catch enough food to survive, and simply starved to death."[11]

In 2013, a new hypothesis was proposed. Ronald Hamilton, a retired bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania and published author,[10] suggested a link between the symptoms described by McCandless and the poisoning of Jewish prisoners in the Nazi concentration camp in Vapniarca. He put forward the proposal that McCandless starved to death because he was suffering from paralysis in his legs induced by lathyrism, which prevented him from gathering food or hiking out.[13] Lathyrism may be caused by ODAP poisoning from seeds of Hedysarum alpinum (commonly called wild potato). The ODAP, a toxic protein, hadn't been detected by the previous studies of the seeds because they had suspected a toxic alkaloid, rather than a protein, and nobody had previously suspected that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contained this toxin. The protein would be relatively harmless to someone who is well-fed and on a normal diet, but toxic to someone who is malnourished, physically stressed, and on an irregular and insufficient diet, as McCandless was.[14] McCandless' field guide did not warn of any dangers of eating the seeds, which were not yet known to be toxic. Krakauer suspects this is the meaning of McCandless' journal entry of July 30, which states "EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY."[15]

In September 2013, Krakauer published an article in The New Yorker following up the claims of Ronald Hamilton.[10] A sample of Hedysarum alpinum's fresh seeds were sent to a laboratory for HPLC analysis. Results indicated that the seeds contained .394 per cent beta-ODAP by weight, a concentration well within the levels known to cause lathyrism in humans.[citation needed] The article notes that while occasional ingestion of foodstuffs containing ODAP is not hazardous for healthy individuals eating a balanced diet, "individuals suffering from malnutrition, stress, and acute hunger are especially sensitive to ODAP, and are thus highly susceptible to the incapacitating effects of lathyrism after ingesting the neurotoxin."[10] Krakauer also points out that McCandless' guidebook had no warnings against eating the seeds of Hedysarum alpinum, as the plant was generally believed to be safe to eat.

Anchorage, Alaska reporter Craig Medred has also pointed out in a January 2015, article[16] in the Alaska Dispatch News that mushrooms which McCandless collected, photographed[17] and consumed may have also contributed to his death.

In February 2015, Krakauer published a follow up article in The New Yorker that reported on scientific analysis of the H. alpinum seeds McCandless ate. A report in Wilderness and Environmental Medicine[18] demonstrated relatively high levels of L-canavanine in Hedysarum Alpinum Seeds and suggests this as the toxic component in McCandless' diet rather than ODAP as originally supposed by Ronald Hamilton. In his New Yorker article Krakauer goes on to speculate that L-canavanine "was a contributing factor to" McCandless's death.[19]


McCandless has been a polarizing figure since his story came to widespread public attention with publication of Krakauer's Outside article in January 1993. While the author and many others have a sympathetic view of the young traveller,[20] others, particularly Alaskans, have expressed negative views about McCandless and those who romanticize his fate.[21]

Alaskan Park Ranger Peter Christian wrote:

When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate. First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he [had] had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament [...] Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide.[21]

Sherry Simpson, writing in the Anchorage Press, described her trip to the bus with a friend, and their reaction upon reading the comments that tourists had left lauding McCandless as an insightful, Thoreau-like figure:

Among my friends and acquaintances, the story of Christopher McCandless makes great after-dinner conversation. Much of the time I agree with the "he had a death wish" camp because I don't know how else to reconcile what we know of his ordeal. Now and then I venture into the "what a dumbshit" territory, tempered by brief alliances with the "he was just another romantic boy on an all-American quest" partisans. Mostly I'm puzzled by the way he's emerged as a hero.[22]

Jon Krakauer defends McCandless, claiming that what critics point to as arrogance was merely McCandless's desire for "being the first to explore a blank spot on the map." Krakauer continues that "In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map—not in Alaska, not anywhere. But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita."[23]

McCandless' adoption of the moniker "Alexander Supertramp" and reports he exhibited signs of paranoia at times, has led to conjecture that he was suffering from some type of mental disorder, perhaps schizophrenia.[24]

The converted bus where McCandless lived and died has become since a well known destination for hikers, due in large in part to the book and film chronicling McCandless' life. Known as "The Magic Bus", the 1946 International Harvester was abandoned by road workers in 1961 on the Stampede Trail where it remains today. A plaque in McCandless' memory is affixed to the interior.[25]

In popular culture[edit]

A full-length article on McCandless appeared in the February 8, 1993, issue of the The New Yorker magazine.[26]

A PBS documentary uncovering some additional information, with interviews, is titled Return to the Wild: The Chris McCandless Story. It first aired on the PBS network in November 2014.[27]

In November 2014, HarperCollins published the memoir The Wild Truth, by McCandless' younger sister Carine. In the book, Carine McCandless alleges that their father Walt was physically abusive and frequently abused their mother, Billie. She claims both parents drank heavily and were verbally abusive, controlling and manipulative. Carine cites their abusive childhood as one of the motivating factors in her brother's desire to "disappear" into the wilderness. In a statement released to the media shortly before the memoir was released, Walt and Billie McCandless denied their daughter's accusations stating that the book is, "fictionalized writing [that] has absolutely nothing to do with our beloved son, Chris, his journey or his character. This whole unfortunate event in Chris's life 22 years ago is about Chris and his dreams."[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Krakauer, Jon (1997). Into The Wild. New York City: Anchor. ISBN 0-385-48680-4. 
  2. ^ a b Krakauer, Jon (January 1993). "Death of an Innocent: How Christopher McCandless Lost His Way in the Wilds.". Outside. Retrieved 2008-04-04. 
  3. ^ Krakauer, Jon (1997). Into The Wild. New York City: Anchor. p. 166. ISBN 0-385-48680-4. 
  4. ^ Krakauer, Jon (1996). Into the Wild. New York: Doubleday. pp. 28–29. ISBN 0-385-48680-4. 
  5. ^ Into the Wild, page 197
  6. ^ "Scan of Chris McCandless' note". 
  7. ^ Medred, Craig (August 12, 2012). "Examining Chris McCandless, 20 years after he went 'Into the Wild'". The Alaska Dispatch. Retrieved October 2, 2015. 
  8. ^ a b Hewitt, Bill (October 5, 1992). "End of the Trail". People (Time, Inc.) 38 (14). ISSN 0093-7673. Retrieved October 2, 2015. 
  9. ^ Into the Wild, page 188
  10. ^ a b c d Krakauer, Jon (September 12, 2013). "How Chris McCandless Died". The New Yorker Blog: Page-Turner. Retrieved December 12, 2014. 
  11. ^ a b Power, Matthew. The Cult of Chris McCandless at the Wayback Machine (archived November 24, 2007). Men's Journal, September 2007. Retrieved Jan 03, 2011
  12. ^ "::: Terra Incognita films :::". 2007-08-21. Retrieved 2010-12-05. 
  13. ^ "Chris McCandless Now I Walk Into The Wild - Ali Ingah". 
  14. ^ "When Edible Plants Turn Their Defenses On Us". October 24, 2013. 
  15. ^ "Chris McCandless Now I Walk Into The Wild Biography - Christopher McCandless Journal". 
  16. ^ "The fiction that is Jon Krakauer's 'Into The Wild'". Alaska Dispatch News. 
  17. ^ "Christopher McCandless". 
  18. ^ Krakauer, J., et al. (2015). "Presence of l-canavanine in Hedysarum alpinum seeds and its potential role in the death of Chris McCandless." Wilderness & Environmental Medicine. doi:10.1016/j.wem.2014.08.014
  19. ^ Jon Krakauer (February 11, 2015). "How Chris McCandless Died: An Update". The New Yorker. Retrieved February 11, 2015. 
  20. ^ "Letters". Outside Online. Retrieved 2010-12-05. 
  21. ^ a b George Mason University English Department. Text and Community website. Christian, Peter. Chris McCandless from a Park Ranger's Perspective. Retrieved August 26, 2007.
  22. ^ Simpson, Sherry. "A Man Made Cold by the Universe". Anchorage Press. Archived from the original on 2004-03-28. Retrieved 15 February 2013. 
  23. ^ Young, Gordon (Feb 1996). "North to Alaska". Retrieved 2010-12-05. 
  24. ^ Medred, Craig. "Into the Wild: The False Being Within". Far North Science. Doug O’Harra. Retrieved October 13, 2007. 
  25. ^ Sainsbury, Brendan; Benchwick, Greg; Bodry, Catherine (2015). Lonely Planet: Alaska (11 ed.). Lonely Planet. p. 274. ISBN 1-742-20602-6. 
  26. ^ Brown, Chip (February 8, 1993). "I Now Walk Into the Wild". The New Yorker. ISSN 0028-792X. 
  27. ^ "Return to the Wild". Return to the Wild - PBS Programs. 
  28. ^ Dodd, Johnny (November 12, 2014). "Chris McCandless' Sister Pens New Book Detailing Parents' Violence and Abuse". Retrieved October 2, 2015. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 63°52′06″N 149°46′09″W / 63.8684°N 149.7693°W / 63.8684; -149.7693 (accident site)