Wednesday, 23 Jun 2021

Harrowing last days of off-grid man who starved ‘after seeds left him paralysed’

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In April, 1992, Chris McCandless hitchhiked to Alaska and trekked into the Last Frontier's unforgiving wilderness.

Five months later, he was found dead, wrapped in a sleeping bad in an abandoned bus. He was just 24.

The self-styled vagabond adventurer, who also went by the name Alexander Supertramp, died weighing just 30kg (4st 7lbs) and his official cause of death was given as starvation.

McCandless documented his final days and possibly hours in his diaries, describing how he survived eating animals he hunted and roots and seeds he foraged.

Twenty five years have passed since author Jon Krakauer told McCandless's heartbreaking story in his book Into The Wild, which was later made into a hit movie.

But to this day, there remains some uncertainty around the factors in the young man's death.

McCandless, from Fairfax, Virginia, was a talented student and athlete, but high school teachers also noted his individuality, saying he "marched to the beat of a different drummer".

After graduating from Emory University in 1990, with a degree in history and anthropology, he gave his entire $24,000 (£17,000) savings to the OXFAM charity.

He spent the next two years working when necessary and embarking on different hiking and adventuring expeditions.

Then in 1992, having given away the vast majority of his worldly possessions, he hitched a ride to Fairbanks, Alaska, and headed into the wilderness with minimal supplies and equipment.

His journal entries, which included photographs, tell us he trekked along the snow-covered Stampede Trail and found an abandoned bus somewhere near Denali National Park.

He camped in the old bus, living off the squirrels, birds and rabbits he hunted. The rest of his diet was foraged roots and seeds. The young adventurer seemed to be thriving.

In the June, he apparently illegally hunted a moose, but his attempts to preserve the meat – which would have kept him fed for weeks – failed and it went rotten.

Heartbreakingly, McCandless's journals reveal that in the July, he tried to return to civilisation but was blocked by the impassable Teklanika River.

He was left with little choice but to return to his bus camp.

Clearly fearing for his life, in an act of desperation, he displayed an SOS on the bus, writing: "Attention Possible Visitors. S.O.S. I need your help. I am injured, near death, and too weak to hike out. 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, Chris McCandless. August."

No one saw or came.

McCandless's journals document 113 days in the area. His final written note on day 107 simply reads: "BEAUTIFUL BLUE BERRIES."

Days 108 to 112 were marked only with slashes. Day 113 is blank.

The exact date he died is unclear, but in one of his final acts he took a picture of himself holding a note which read: "I HAVE HAD A HAPPY LIFE AND THANK THE LORD. GOODBYE AND MAY GOD BLESS ALL!"

His decomposed body and diaries were found by moose hunters on September 6.

In a cruel twist, unbeknown to McCandless, who was without a proper map of the area, an abandoned, hand-operated cable car could have helped him the river not too far from where he had turned back.

But questions were asked about how this otherwise fit and healthy young man starved to death if he was hunting and gathering his own food every day?

In his book, Krakauer speculated that what had killed McCandless was not starvation but wild potato seeds.

According to his diaries, McCandless had eaten a lot of these seeds and Krakauer deduced that a toxic alkaloid in the seeds had so weakened him so much that he had been unable to hunt and gather his food.

The only problem with this theory was the fact that wild potatoes are described in most guidebooks as a non-toxic plant.

Undeterred, Krakauer sent some seeds to a professor for tests, but they still couldn't find any toxic alkaloids.

Krakauer didn’t give up and now thinks a medical paper by researcher Ronald Hamilton has the answer.

Hamilton concluded that McCandless had, in fact, been killed by the wild potato seeds, but not because of any toxic alkaloids.

Hamilton’s paper said that McCandless's meagre diet and malnutrition had made him susceptible to a rare but brutal affliction often found in malnourished young men called "lathyrism" that gradually paralyses its victims.

Lathyrism is caused by the ingestion of an amino acid that was first discovered in the seeds of wild grass peas.

Krakauer sent some wild potato seeds to a chemist who found that the wild potato seeds did contain the amino acid that causes lathyrism.

After his death, the converted bus where McCandless lived his final days became a well-known pilgrimage destination for hikers.

Known as "The Magic Bus", it contains a plaque in McCandless's memory from his father, Walt.

In September 2020, the bus was moved to the Museum of the North at the University of Alaska, where it will be restored and an outdoor exhibit will be created.

In the 2007 film, Into The Wild, actor Emile Hirsch plays the part of McCandless. During the filming, Hirsch climbed mountains, floated naked in 35-degree river water and stood inches from an 8ft grizzly bear.

Director Sean Penn wanted to make the film as soon as he read Krakauer's book.

“I ended up reading it cover to cover, nonstop, twice – the first time realising it was a movie and the second time affirming it,” he said.

He contacted Krakauer, who introduced him to McCandless' parents, Walt and Billie, and his younger sister Carine.

The family were initially reluctant to make a film as it was too soon after McCandless’ death but he got the call 10 years later and the film was finally made.

While some celebrate his wild spirit, others have branded his actions foolish and inconsiderate.

Park ranger Peter Christian said: "When you consider McCandless from my perspective, you quickly see that what he did wasn't even particularly daring, just stupid, tragic, and inconsiderate.

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"First off, he spent very little time learning how to actually live in the wild. He arrived at the Stampede Trail without even a map of the area. If he had a good map he could have walked out of his predicament.

"Essentially, Chris McCandless committed suicide."

Another ranger, Ken Ilgunas, wrote in The McCandless Mecca:"McCandless, of course, did not commit suicide. He starved to death, accidentally poisoned himself, or a combination of the two."

Krakauer also defended his subject, writing: "In 1992, however, there were no more blank spots on the map — not in Alaska, not anywhere.

"But Chris, with his idiosyncratic logic, came up with an elegant solution to this dilemma: He simply got rid of the map. In his own mind, if nowhere else, the terra would thereby remain incognita."

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