'Into the Wild' Once More

Was Into the Wild's Chris McCandless unlucky or just terribly unprepared? The book's author, Jon Krakauer, now claims to have finally found the solution, which suggests that faulty science may have been to blame.

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Maybe the adventuring Chris McCandless wasn't quite so ignorant and ill-planned after all. The cause of death of the self-styled wilderness explorer made famous by Jon Krakauer's book Into the Wild has been debated for some time. But now, Krakauer claims to have finally found the solution to this discussion in an blog post for The New Yorker, as the author blames the death not on a McCandless blunder or wilderness ignorance, but a toxic substance that he could not have possibly known about.

McCandless may have been unprepared when he entered the Alaskan woods with little more than a rifle, a book on local plants, and some camping gear, but he didn't cause his own death, Krakauer argues. If not for the dearth of information on Alaskan toxic plants, "[McCandless] probably would have walked out of the wild in late August with no more difficulty than when he walked into the wild in April, and would still be alive today," Krakauer writes.

The author has wavered back and forth on this issue since Into the Wild was published in 1996. He initially blamed the death on McCandless's confusion between a toxic sweet pea plant and nontoxic potato plant, but he has hedged on that theory in the time since then. In a post today for The New Yorker's Page-Turner blog, Krakauer argues that he's found the true cause of death — and he did so with the help of Nazi tests on concentration camp prisoners.

The cause of McCandless's infamous demise is not just an interesting historical factoid; it's the basis of his legend, which has since been made into a major film by Sean Penn. Was his death at a weight of just 67 pounds the result of an accidental poisoning that could have happened to even the most experienced outdoorsman? Or did he die of starvation due to his own unpreparedness, and, more critically, a failure to tell apart a toxic plant from a nontoxic one, as his detractors argue?

Krakauer now says that the evidence "validates my conviction that McCandless wasn’t as clueless and incompetent as his detractors have made him out to be," he writes. McCandless could not have known that a key part of his diet, wild potato seeds, were in fact toxic. Neither his ecology guidebook nor local Alaskans were aware of that, either.

That's partly because the evidence that led to Krakauer's solution originally stems from macabre experiments conducted during World War II, when Nazi concentration camp guards tested the effects on prisoners of ODAP, a toxic chemical in some plants that causes slow crippling known as lathyrism. Lathyrism particularly affected people like McCandless, according to a study by a "writer who until recently worked as a bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania library":

Those who will be hit the hardest are always young men between the ages of 15 and 25 and who are essentially starving or ingesting very limited calories, who have been engaged in heavy physical activity, and who suffer trace-element shortages from meager, unvaried diets.

Sounds a lot like McCandless while in the Alaska woods, who survived on plants and meager hunting for those 100 days.

A paper making the ODAP and McCandless connection first appeared on the McCandless's memorial website. Krakauer, faced with this evidence for the first time, had the supposedly-nontoxic potato plants tested by an organic chemist, who found that, indeed, they contained significant levels of ODAP that could cause this lathyrism disease. McCandless death, then, was a direct result of this slow crippling, as that paper on the memorial site explained:

He wasn’t truly starving in the most technical sense of that condition. He’d simply become slowly paralyzed. And it wasn’t arrogance that had killed him, it was ignorance. Also, it was ignorance which must be forgiven, for the facts underlying his death were to remain unrecognized to all, scientists and lay people alike, literally for decades.

So McCandless is not explicitly to blame in his own death; blame the lack of knowledge on toxic wild potato plants. Debate solved, it seems, at least for Krakauer, at least for now.

(Into the Wild film poster via Impawards.)

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.