The tale of Chris McCandless has been told many times over. In his 1996 book Into the Wild, author Jon Krakauer explored the fate of the fiercely independent young man who met his tragic end at Denali National Park in 1992. The 2007 movie of the same name introduced still more audiences to McCandless. Today, experts continue to examine what actually brought the 24-year-old's life to an end, contributing to his polarized legacy.
The myriad misfortunes that plagued McCandless may change your opinion of the real story of Into the Wild. The events leading to McCandless's passing were rife with missteps and miscalculations, but his final fate may have been completely out of his hands. A hero to many, a criminal to some, and a victim to others, McCandless lived a life that was much more complicated than it looks on the surface.
The Potato Seeds He Ate May Have Given Him Lathyrism
In his 1996 book Into the Wild, author Jon Krakauer asserts that McCandless perished from starvation caused by consuming poisonous potato plant seeds. In one of McCandless's final journal entries, he wrote, "Extremely weak. Fault of potato seeds."
This echoes Chip Brown's 1993's article "I Now Walk Into The Wild," which more or less explores the possibility that McCandless paid the ultimate price for "stupidity" and ate the poisonous seeds just before his passing. Years later, however, Krakauer continued to explore the potato plant seed theory. Based on the number of potato seeds in the proximity of the bus, Krakauer determined that McCandless had probably been eating them for weeks, not just for a day or two. In Krakauer's own experience, "Wild potato plants were growing everywhere I looked in the surrounding taiga... I filled a one-gallon bag with more than a pound of seeds in less than 30 minutes."
Krakauer sent samples of potato plant seeds to a lab in Michigan to analyze them for a protein-based poison after reading a paper by Ronald Hamilton. Hamilton recalled an experiment conducted by German forces in WWII in which concentration camp inmates were slowly poisoned using a ground-up legume. Their symptoms reminded him of descriptions of McCandless's final days. Called neurolathyrism or lathyrism, the disease brought on by the poison involves a neurological breakdown that results in weakness, paralysis, and, ultimately, loss of life.
His Age Made Him Exceedingly Vulnerable To Lathyrism
Researcher Ronald Hamilton based his theory on medical experiments conducted at the Vapniarka concentration camp during WWII. At Vapniarka, located in the Ukraine, prisoners were given "pea fodder" in their bread to assess potential side effects. Individuals at the camp started limping and, within a few months, were so weak that they had to crawl around the camp. The more the men ate, the worse the effects were - and there was no way to reverse it. When camp administrator Colonel Savin Motora ordered the end of the experiment, he was removed from his position.
In the aftermath of WWII, scientists explored the toxicity of the poison, Lathyrus sativus. Dr. Arthur Kessler, a Jewish doctor and prisoner at Vapniarka, spent the rest of his life in Israel studying and caring for victims of Lathyrus sativus. When he and his colleagues finally isolated the toxin in the substance, it was labeled "beta-N-oxalyl-L-alpha-beta-diaminoproprionic acid," or OPAD. Further study of OPAD determined that, while all individuals exposed to the toxin were susceptible to its effects, men between the ages of 15 and 25, especially those with low-calorie diets, regimens of heavy physical activity, and nutrient deficiencies, were impacted most severely.
Initially, seeds from the site where McCandless was discovered were analyzed by Thomas Clausen and Edward Treadwell at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Author Jon Krakauer was expecting the scientists to find swainsonine, an alkaloid poison, but the results came back negative. It was only after Hamilton contacted Krakauer that more seeds were analyzed for the presence of OPAD - a toxic protein.
In 2013, Krakauer sent a sample of seeds to Michigan for analysis. Dr. Craig Larner found levels of OPAD in the seeds at a concentration significant enough to cause lathyrism. Given the large amount of seeds McCandless was likely consuming, his age, and his overall malnutrition, he would have been highly susceptible to the debilitating condition. Krakauer ultimately agreed with Hamilton, who concluded:
McCandless did indeed starve to death in the Alaskan wild, but this only because he’d been poisoned, and the poison had rendered him too weak to move about, to hunt or forage, and, toward the end, “extremely weak,” “too weak to walk out,” and, having “much trouble just to stand up.” He wasn’t truly starving in the most technical sense of that condition. He’d simply become slowly paralyzed.
Improper Storage May Have Exposed Him To Mold
One additional theory on McCandless's passing involves the way he stored his food. In 2007, chemists posited that McCandless's seeds were contaminated with Rhizoctonia leguminicola, the mold that causes swainsonine.
It's possible that McCandless's store of food - seeds, berries, the meat of small animals - had become moldy. However, scientists Edward Treadwell and Thomas Clausen attempted to grow mold on the two types of legume seeds found near Bus 142 - Hedysarum mackenziei and Hedysarum alpinum - but found no trace of swainsonine.
He Was Close Enough To Alert Others With A Fire, But Didn't
McCandless made his base at an abandoned bus, called Bus 142, along the Stampede Trail. Hikers and hunters who traversed the area used the bus as a place of refuge. During his 113 days in the Alaskan backcountry, McCandless spent much of his time at the bus. His remains were discovered inside the rusty shelter in September 1992. A note on the door read:
Attention possible visitors.
I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of here. I am all alone, this is no joke. in the name of god, please remain to save me. I am out collecting berries close by and shall return this evening. Thank you,
McCandless left a note asking for help but never did anything else to draw attention to his position. The bus wasn't near any flight paths, something he wouldn't have known. However, he could have lit a fire large enough to be seen in the nearby town of Healy, AK, or at other hunting camps in the area. According to his sister, Carine McCandless, "Chris would never, ever, intentionally burn down a forest, not even to save his life. Anyone who would suggest otherwise doesn't understand the first thing about my brother."