Christopher McCandless

Why Did Chris McCandless Go Into the Wild & How Did He Die?

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I’m not quite sure how the classic “road story” Into The Wild passed under my radar for so long, but it did.

I was at a friend’s house in London when I picked up a copy of the book.

“It’s a true story” he told me.

“It’s about this guy who gets rid of everything he owns and gives away his trust fund to go traveling in search of true happiness and beauty. They find him dead in Alaska in an abandoned bus and try to figure out why he did what he did.”

The story intrigued me, even if my friend did put it rather bluntly.

Coincidentally, the following day, I saw that the Into the Wild movie (directed by Sean Penn) was playing on TV. I watched intently.

So what happened to Christopher McCandless?

The Christopher McCandless Story

The body of Chris McCandless was found in an old bus in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992 and the most haunting thing about this was the journal, notes and photos he left behind, which act as a voice beyond the grave.

The self portrait photo of an emaciated Chris McCandless sitting on a chair in front of that run down bus will stay etched in everyone’s minds I’m sure.

Chris McCandless - Into the Wild Story

The discovery of Chris’s body prompted Jon Krakauer to write a book examining what brought him to abandon his possessions, cease communication with his parents and give his $24,000 savings account to charity to go on his Great Alaskan Adventure.

Found in the wilderness, Chris had starved to death as he tried to survive on wild plants and minimal provisions.  He wrote a journal recording his spiritual and physical state as he experienced solitude living off the land in Alaska.

The questions asked by many- was this a romantic story of a backpacker on a quest to discover the meaning of life and a world without material possessions? Or is it the story of a foolish American who went unprepared into the wilderness?

Since his death hundreds of people have hiked to the site of that abandoned bus, and he has been cast by some as a heroic figure who they admire for shunning societal norms.

But what led him to starvation in the wild?

How did Christopher McCandless Die?

Some people have questioned whether Chris suffered from Schizophrenia, especially as he went back and forth between his real name and his alter ego name “Alexander Supertramp”.

In his book, Jon Krakauer questions whether Chris died because of poisonous toxins found in the seeds of the potato plant Hedysarum alpinum, but lab results ruled his official cause of death was starvation – something brought about because of his lack of supplies.

A note scribbled on a page torn from a novel said:

attention possible visitors.

s.o.s.

i need your help. i am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out of herei am all alone, this is no jokein the name of godplease remain to save me. i am out collecting berries close by and shall return this eveningthank you,

chris mccandless

august ?

Chris tried to leave but his path was blocked by an impassable river. Ironically, however, there was a manual tram about 1/2 a mile from where he had previously crossed.

In a more recent article for The New Yorker, Jon Krakauer goes into great detail to get to the bottom of how Christopher McCandless died.

Did Christopher McCandless Die of Poisoning?

Around June 24, 1992, McCandless started to consume the roots of the Hedysarum alpinum plant in his daily diet. On July 14th, he started harvesting and eating Hedysarum alpinum seeds as well. Apparently there is a photo of him with a Ziploc bag full of them.

On July 30th, McCandless wrote in his journal, “extremely weak. fault of pot[ato] seed. much trouble just to stand up. starving. great jeopardy.” 

After that his condition seemed to deteriorate rapidly until he could no longer hike or walk, so Jon Krakauer decided to collect the Hedysarum alpinum seeds and send them to Dr. Thomas Clausen, a professor in the biochemistry department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, for analysis. The professor concluded there were no toxins or alkoloids in the seeds.

However later on Krakauer discovered Ronald Hamilton’s paper “The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless”, who suggested the toxic agent in Hedysarum alpinum is not an alkoloid but, rather, an amino acid called beta-N-oxalyl-L-alpha-beta diaminoproprionic acid (ODAP), which brings about paralysis by over-stimulating nerve receptors, causing people to die. 

While ingesting the seeds may not be that dangerous for a healthy adult eating a balanced diet, anyone suffering from malnutrition and hunger may be extra sensitive to ODAP.

Krakauer concludes that McCandless experienced poisoning and contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds. If he had known they were poisonous and avoided them, he would have walked out of the wild in late August and still be alive today.

Lessons Learned by Christopher McCandless

Sadly it seems that Christopher McCandless went Into The Wild to discover something he wrote down in his journal; “Happiness is only real when shared”.

He went all that way there to discover that things are only really worth experiencing if you can share them with someone else. Unfortunately this was something he found out far too late.

Although, like most backpackers, I can relate to the story, having left home with my entire world fitting into a backpack, I don’t find him a romantic figure.

Many backpackers are on a search for meaning to their lives, wanting to discover more about themselves and what it means to truly live. Many backpackers have things that they wanted to forget and leave behind. But Chris’s story is just a tragic one.

Chris McCandless wanted to know what it was like to live off the land in the wilderness, choosing to go with only ten pounds of rice, a rifle and a book on wild plants. He found out what it was like to live in the wilderness…lonely and hard.

If I was to hazard a guess I think Chris McCandless had an arrogant vision of himself as someone who could survive with barely anything but the clothes on his back.

He wanted to explore the unexplored and discover a life without responsibility, possessions, people, money… but in doing so, he went to his death. He insisted on embarking on a hardcore Bear Grylls-style adventure to prove his capabilities of surviving in the wild, but in the end he went to his death.

When things didn’t go to plan and he was dying of starvation he left a desperate SOS note asking for help, but it was too late.

Unfortunately, Chris went into the wild looking for answers, but ended up dying because of lack of preparation and lack of supplies. While it seems that Christopher McCandless quite possibly died of poisoning, he may not have died from those seeds if he was getting enough nutrition. He was already gaunt and emaciated and ultimately the answer he got was a simple one; nature will kill you if you’re ill-prepared.

You can rent the movie on Amazon here or buy the book here.

FAQs About Christopher McCandless

What happened to Christopher McCandless?

After graduating from university, Christopher McCandless donated his college savings of $24,000 to Oxfam and adopted a nomadic lifestyle, hitchhiking around the US and working odd jobs. He traveled through the Sierra Nevada mountains, California, Arizona, South Dakota and Colorado. In 1992 he went into the Alaskan wilderness with minimal supplies and attempted to live off the land. He lived on a diet of squirrels, berries, small birds, roots, mushrooms and porcupines but unfortunately became weak and starved to death. His decomposed body was found in an abandoned bus, which he used as shelter.

How long did Christopher McCandless survive in the wild?

Christopher McCandleess survived 113 days in the Alaskan wilderness.

Could Chris McCandless have survived?

It’s possible that he could have survived if he had not eaten the potato seeds or he had taken the proper equipment and supplies. He may also have survived if he had taken a map with him or located the hand-operated cable car that crossed the river 12 mile (800 m) downstream from where he had previously crossed.

Was Chris McCandless Rich?

Christopher McCandless was from a fairly wealthy family and graduated with a degree in history and anthropology from Emory University in Georgia in 1990.

Where is Fairbanks Bus 142 now?

Fairbanks Bus 142 aka “the Into the Wild bus” or “magic bus” was moved to the UA Museum of the North in 2020. If you want to visit the bus you can view it 8:00 am – 8:00 pm Monday – Friday at the ConocoPhillips Alaska High Bay Structural Testing Lab at the Engineering Learning and Innovation Facility (ELIF Building) on the UAF campus.

Who discovered Christopher McCandless?

The body of Christopher McCandless was discovered on September 6, 1992 by moose hunters.

How old was Christopher McCandless when he died?

He was 24 years old when he died.

18 thoughts on “Why Did Chris McCandless Go Into the Wild & How Did He Die?”

  1. He went through a spiritual death, fulfilling his calling of what is is like to live like our ancestors. The guy is just shunned by “society” and that’s what he was trying to escape in the first place. He did what a lot of people wouldn’t have the balls to do, even if the outcome wasn’t death.

  2. First and foremost his parents and family were the reason for his downfall. He couldn’t seem to be able to escape their selfishness, lies, and need to control him. He wanted love but was being stubborn and instead turned all of his pain and anguish onto himself.

    He decided to “rough it” because he wanted to see where his life would lead him if he had absolutely nothing (except bare essentials-which he probably didn’t even like having). If a life of privilege left him hopeless, in pain, and emotionally as well as mentally destatute-then he wanted to live on the outside how he felt on the inside.

    Apparently the abuse was pretty bad and the fact that he didn’t seek therapy meant his life was only going to get worse and more self-destructive. He died because he didn’t have the physical needs to survive but his outward way of living caught up to how he was on the inside. His body was found starved as his emotional needs (and possibly physical needs) were starved as well while growing up and even throughout college. He couldn’t heal on his own-but what was he to do? He didn’t trust anyone anymore.

    Hopefully young people will take away from this that you shouldn’t run from counseling because this is what will happen to you if you don’t get it. He was self medicating on nature whereas others will use drugs, food, sex, gambling, or whatever to destroy themselves. Chris’s drug of choice was nature and unchartered territories-“getting lost in the wild”. It is like the last, ultimate hit to the junkie.

    1. Sometimes when the pain is so unbearable you just want to escape it. It feels like it is killing you emotionally. So running from the agony felt like such a welcome option! The only problem with that is, you take yourself with you! And when you are left alone with nothing but tormenting memories filling your mind. If this was in any way the case, it would have been extraordinarily unbearable for him. Added to that the lack of basic food and care, the things that killed him physically. So very sad!

  3. I recently went to his parent’s new book/DVD tour “Back to the Wild”. I didn’t know what to expect but I was disgusted at what I saw and heard. I could only sit through 30 minutes of his father’s slide show. I realized there was a clueless man on stage trying to convince the audience that he understood his dead son through pictures and letters that they had found. The whole production was the exact opposite of what Chris would have wanted, especially put together by the people that didn’t understand him that he ran from.

  4. C. Mccandless wasn’t running away from anything, he was just answering the same call as the dog in his favourite book. He might have realized at his deathbed that happiness is only real when shared, but I’m sure he didn’t regret any of his decisions. One of his favourite Jack London quotes was “For life achieves its summit when it does to th uttermost that which it was equipped to do”, and I think he remembered that to the very end. Only when you’re not bound to any kind of modern day invention you feel the joy of the body you were given and the surroundings you were placed in the middle of.

  5. you’re wrong if you think that chirs was stupid to have little supplies! obviously you’re missing the point! he didn’t go ill prepared, what makes you think he wanted to live off land forever?! the people he met on his journey especially wayne said that he very much wanted to start a family and write a book on his travels. and he didn’t suffer from any disease he just did something we don’t have the balls to do! i’m not saying he is a hero..just different.

  6. Love ur description 20 something British girl from Manchester, got a good laugh off that!

    Chris seemed to be a troubled lad who bit off more than he could chew, not a bad chap in anyway but his luck deserted him when he needed it most…..that bus, those mushrooms, weird times in the semi wilds of Alaska I’d say

  7. I just Googled Fairbanks and it was smack dabbed in the middle of Alaska. Talk about isolation. There are plenty of places in Alaska to live and still be within reach of civilization. I plan on living on the road someday when my kids are grown and out of the house. I won’t cut off communication, but I will toss my phone away. Postcards will be sufficient. What ever job I have I will quit and sell all that I own to fund my travels. No phone, no responsibilities, no facebook. Just me and the road.

  8. I dont know how you people cannot see, this is a man who was having a gradual psychotic break with reality. He got himself in a bad situation when he lost lucidity and starved to death. This story is really nothing more than that.

  9. Well actually...

    After reading the book I dont think he was ill prepared to live off the land. The main error was that he that he didnt have a proper map with him. Honestly if he had had a decent map he would have survived. Most botanists didnt even know that those potato seeds were poisonous, t was a tragoc mistake they were. Id take a good look at the final chapters of the book before you say he was super unprepared and stupid. Hes not exactly a hero, but hes not a joke either.

  10. Would I rather die living the life of an adventurer, perhaps ill-equipped and ill prepared, as Chris was, or would I rather live a life of the living dead, pursuing material gods, forgetting the insanity of childhood, while pretending to get along with those that caused the insanity>?

    I can tell you my answer. Chris and I have a lot in common, and I chose the later route. I lived the first 45 years of my life in a drifting cloud of nothingness, of living dead. Chris made the exact right decisions. He died doing what he loved to do. He died livig life.

    I would rather die living life, than live in the eternal cloud of pretentious bliss.

    The death is tragic. It could have been prevented with a little realistic planning. But you can spend an eternity planning and end up years later not having taken the trip for all the plans you make. Society has tentacles that grab you and hold you. Breaking free of these bonds to society is difficult. Sometimes you have to cut ties and go. At least Chris went. Most of us never make it.

  11. Never say he did it out of lack common sense or he did it because he was too stupid. I think he wanted to go away from being himself(C.M), he wanted to see how his life would be without money, he wanted freedom from the society because from the book he had deep hatred for the government. And i think he was fed up with his parents.
    Chris Mcc. died a painful death due to his stubbornness but he found what he was looking for!

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