Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster
Into the Wild
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 South Dakota, and then, after taking to the road again, decided to buy a canoe and float four hundred miles down the Colorado River to the Gulf of California, a feat which is, in fact, technically impossible owing to the numerous dams, canals, and diversions on the lower reaches of the river.
McCandless’s journal records a series of manic highs and depressed lows on this doomed foray: on entering Mexico, “Alexander is jubilant!”; on becoming lost, “Alex is dumbfounded”; later, “He is overjoyed and hope bursts back into his heart”; later still, discovering that the Colorado becomes a swamp in Baja, “All hopes collapse!… All is in despair.” He delighted in trespassing and breaking the law. He spent over a month alone on a deserted beach in Baja, subsisting on five pounds of rice; once he nearly killed himself by rowing on the ocean in high winds. In February 1991, he wrote, “Can this be the same Alex that set out in July, 1990? Malnutrition and the road have taken their toll on his body. Over 25 pounds lost. But his spirit is soaring.” He seemed violently determined to wipe out all vestiges of the young man he was and to create of himself an idealized wanderer, completely self-sufficient, needing no one.
In April 1992, McCandless hitchhiked to Fairbanks, bought a secondhand rifle, a book on edible plants, and a bag of rice. He sent a postcard to the man he’d worked for in South Dakota. The message ended: “If this adventure proves fatal and you don’t ever hear from me again I want you to know you’re a great man. I now walk into the wild. Alex.”
Jim Gallien, an Alaskan electrician who picked up McCandless outside Fairbanks and dropped him off outside Denali National Park, listened with some astonishment to his plans, seeing that he was grossly under-equipped and ill-dressed for an extended stay in the back country. There was still snow on the ground, and McCandless had no compass, no adequate map or hiking shoes, no ax, and his rifle was inadequate for killing large game. Failing to talk him out of his plan, Gallien pressed on him an old pair of rubber boots and his lunch and drove McCandless to the trailhead he’d selected, mostly frequented only by local hunters.
McCandless walked some twelve miles toward the park on the trail, crossing the Teklanika, a typical braided Alaskan river that widens enormously with the summer runoff, and ended up camping in an abandoned bus, used by moose hunters in the fall, which was parked near another river, the Sushana. At one point he tried to hike further toward the park but was discouraged by the difficulty of bushwhacking through dense brush and by the time it took to hunt and forage for squirrels, porcupines, birds, berries, and roots; he returned to the bus. His journal records that he was jubilant when he shot a moose but soon bitterly castigated himself for losing most of the meat to flies. He was reading Jack London, Tolstoy, Walden, and Dr. Zhivago, and scrawling graffiti on the inside of the bus: “All Hail the Dominant Primordial Beast! And Captain Ahab Too! Alexander Supertramp.” In July, he decided his adventure was complete and tried to walk out, only to discover that the Teklanika had become unfordably swift and deep. Again, he returned to the bus.
Since the nineteenth century, wilderness travelers and polar explorers have documented what begins to happen to the human body under the conditions that McCandless had sought out. Jean Aspen, in Arctic Daughter, an account of the trials of living off the land in Alaska’s Brooks Range, describes the effects of the slow semi-starvation she and her boyfriend experienced in 1972 as they attempted to survive on a diet of lean meat, consuming fewer calories than their bodies were using: “We moved slowly, as if in a dream. It took a long time to get anything done. We were indecisive and spiritless—no longer able to think clearly, to act, to choose.”
The photographs McCandless took of himself during his last months clearly show his emaciation, and his apathetic response to the dilemma posed by the river suggests that his judgment, as well as his physical stamina, were impaired. After his death, it was pointed out that, had he explored even a few miles of the Teklanika, he might have found the functioning surveyor’s tram that crossed it by cable or a section where he might have been able to cross on foot.
In his last days, in August 1992, McCandless finally recognized his peril and dropped the grandiosity of his alias, placing a SOS note on the bus, pleading for help and signed with his real name. The autopsy indicated that he probably died on August 18, nineteen days before several different parties of hunters and hikers almost simultaneously happened upon the bus and discovered his body.
Krakauer suggests one likely reason for McCandless’s rejection of his family and his aimless wanderings. On his first cross-country trip, after graduating from high school, he had inadvertently discovered a skeleton in the family closet. Visiting old friends, he learned that at the time of his birth his father had been carrying on simultaneous relationships with his mother and with the woman who was still his wife, with whom he already had several children. Krakauer’s theory—that McCandless was furious with his parents for keeping such hurtful secrets—is plausible, but it’s not an entirely satisfactory explanation for his behavior. Many young people experience intense disillusionment with their families; few self-destruct quite as spectacularly as McCandless did.
But the biggest problem posed by Into the Wild is its thesis that Chris McCandless was like other famous seekers and mystics who set out into the wilderness in search of spiritual transcendence. McCandless displayed no notable talent as a writer or a thinker, yet Krakauer tries to identify him with many of the writers whose books he was obsessively reading and rereading—Jack London, Tolstoy, Thoreau. He expresses an almost protective defensiveness about McCandless; he calls him “the boy” and compares him to the naturalist John Muir and a young hiker and mystic named Everett Ruess, who was befriended by Edward Weston and Ansel Adams, and who eventually disappeared in the Escalante wilderness of southern Utah in the 1930s. He dismisses the suggestion that McCandless may have been deranged: “McCandless wasn’t mentally ill…. He wasn’t a nutcase, he wasn’t a sociopath, he wasn’t an outcast. McCandless was something else—although precisely what is hard to say. A pilgrim, perhaps.” Krakauer also identifies him with himself.
Two chapters of Into the Wild are taken, almost verbatim, from the last chapter of Krakauer’s first book, Eiger Dreams: Ventures Among Men and Mountains,* a collection of essays about outdoor adventures. (It may not be technically unethical to plagiarize oneself, but an editor I once worked with was fond of referring to this practice as “selling the same pup twice.”) Originally entitled “The Devils Thumb” and here retitled “The Stikine Ice Cap,” Krakauer’s tale of how, at the age of twenty-three, depressed and dissatisfied with his life, he tackled alone a climb so extreme and hazardous that he was lucky to live through it is powerful in its original setting but puzzling here. What inspired Krakauer to transfer it into his second book seems to have been his sense that McCandless was similarly adrift, at odds with his father, and driven to extreme acts. His denial of McCandless’s suicidal tendencies is particularly striking in view of his allusion to his own father’s breakdown and attempted suicide.
Krakauer, when he climbed the Devils Thumb, a tower of rock that rises six thousand vertical feet from a glacier near Petersburg, Alaska, was an experienced amateur mountain climber, well-provisioned and well-equipped. His pursuit of the Devils Thumb was perhaps foolhardy, but he was prepared to attempt it. Indeed, after a few misadventures, he succeeded. Chris McCandless, on the other hand, did just about everything he could to kill himself. Neither a visionary nor the heroic adventurer he wanted to be, McCandless was simply a sad, disturbed young man.
1990, reprinted by Anchor, 1997.↩
1990, reprinted by Anchor, 1997.↩