Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster
by Jon Krakauer
Villard, 293 pp., $24.95
Into the Wild
by Jon Krakauer
Anchor/Doubleday, 207 pp., $12.95 (paper)
On September 13, 1992, The New York Times ran an Associated Press story with the headline, “Dying in the Wild, A Hiker Recorded the Terror.” The remains of an unidentified man, who had apparently been injured and stranded in the Alaskan wilderness, had been discovered along with a cryptic journal that recorded months of starvation and fear. The journal entries were telegraphically brief: “Weakness,” “Snowed in,” “Disaster,” “Fall through the ice.” It seemed to be simply the story of a gruesome accident, the kind of thing that happens in Alaska as a result of inexperience or bad luck, Alaska being so vast and inhospitable that anything from a Sunday hike outside Anchorage to a tourist flight over the mountains can become a nightmare. But after an autopsy and investigation it turned out that the stranded, injured hiker had, in fact, sustained no serious injuries and, in the strangest way, had deliberately stranded himself.
The mystery of the man’s identity and the puzzling circumstances surrounding both his death and his terse account of his last days inspired great media interest, including many newspaper articles, features in Outside magazine and The New Yorker, and then a book, by the author of the Outside piece, Jon Krakauer.
The hiker’s name was Christopher McCandless, and he was twenty-four years old when he died. He had spent most of his childhood in Annandale, Virginia, the son of a NASA scientist. By all accounts, Chris McCandless was a gifted child, musically and athletically talented, and a successful entrepreneur at a young age, earning seven thousand dollars working as a salesman during the summer before he graduated from high school. Shortly after his graduation from Emory University in Atlanta in 1990, he disappeared. Unbeknownst to his family, he had donated all of his savings, almost $25,000, to the charity OXFAM, moved out of his apartment, and driven off across the country. His family never saw him or heard from him again.
His journey, a bizarre odyssey through the West ending with his death in Alaska, was a downward spiral in which he divested himself of everything he owned and everyone who cared about him. He renamed himself “Alexander Supertramp” and began keeping a scrapbook-journal in which he recounted his adventures in a melodramatic third person and illustrated them with photographs.
After leaving Atlanta, in the summer of 1990, he drove to Lake Mead, the reservoir formed by Hoover Dam near Las Vegas, and abandoned his car after driving it off the road and getting it stuck in the sand. In it, he left the keys and a note: “This piece of shit has been abandoned. Whoever can get it out of here can have it.” According to his journal, he then burned all his money, $123, and wandered around the desert near Lake Mead until he became delirious from heat stroke. Over the next few months, he hitchhiked throughout the West, spent a few weeks working as a laborer at a grain elevator in …