Chemistry mystery solved: The death of Chris McCandless


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The author argues that the people who see McCandless clueless and his death as self inflicted autodarwin may overthink their position now, that he could prove that poison killed him.

Let’s not forget that he first ran out of food, failed to procure a high protein diet, tried to flee, was stopped by a river he could’ve crossed or just walked to the nearest highway all before he ate those seeds…


I feel a little conflicted about this. Now people can go “Ah HA! He didn’t starve to death, he was poisoned thanks to an inaccurate plant identification guide!”, but it seems like he was already slowly starving death before he started eating those seeds and they just sped up his demise.


Of course, if they sped up his demise by about, oh… 19 days? Then he probably would have lived through the experience, and gone on to become a much wiser and more prepared adult if he had not eaten them.


I tried reading Into The Wild but just could not get enthused about it at all, it’s like the Hatchet series used up all my wilderness survival quota.

This article solved for me an unrelated mystery. Oliver Sacks described a patient of his with a crippling untreatable neurological disease caused by being forced to eat “chick beans” in a Nazi concentration camp. I have never been able to identify what “chick beans” were, or to confirm that it wasn’t a mistype for “chick peas”, which I do eat.

Now I know “chick beans” are a mystype for “grass pea”, also known as chickling vetch.


Maybe they could just be a little less obnoxious and a tad bit more empathetic…


It’s entirely believable that some kind of poison or disease contributed to McCandless’s death, but Krakauer has developed this pattern of trotting out new diagnoses every few years that makes it increasingly difficult to take him seriously. First it was misidentification, then eating the wrong part of the plant, then mold, and now a previously unsuspected poison. I wish he’d drop it; let it just be McCandless’s story and not Krakauer’s, even if the uncertain ending to that story is less romantic than Krakauer wants it to be.

I didn’t read the book but I did watch the movie. What I liked most is that it didn’t pick a side. You could take the movie either way. He was to be admired for trying to do it his way or shown as an example of what not to do. The new info doesn’t change that in the least. It’s still up for individual interpretation.

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I’m glad to learn this new information, it certainly makes the original story a bit more interesting. But yeah, as has been said already, this was not a single point failure.

The main point of contention between left and right, young and old, seems to be, “How dangerous is the world, really?” McCandless made a bid on that question, and staked everything on it. Just because he lost his bid, doesn’t settle the bet of course.

I don’t think Krakauer glorified the death of an idiot, but then even without the stupid ending, McCandless’ story isn’t the best example of testing boundaries. I’ve got a lot more attention for the kids who try and fail here in the big city.

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The world is indeed dangerous. Many people will die today in car accidents, which are a leading cause of death for young people. Will we call them “idiots” for dying in this way, or go on decrying their senseless risk-taking, in driving cars?

Several years ago I built a canoe, put it in a river, and traveled as far as I could go – which ended up taking 5 months. I knew there was some probability that I would die; I certainly knew the world was not a place that would coddle me, and moreover I knew that I did not want to be coddled. There is no safe adventure.

If I were to do it again, I’m sure there are things I would have done differently. But I don’t ever look back and wish I had taken fewer risks.


Samuel Thayer’s arguments are more convincing:


The difficult part of empathy is maintaining it for somebody who died of sustained, voluntary until a fair way in, incompetence in a world where people die like flies in desperate struggles over which they have no control, where the dice were stacked against them from the beginning.

In an absolute sense, is it unfortunate that he lost? Sure. Can I muster much empathy for somebody who decided to play a little game of Wilderness adventure fun time and lost, when there’s a rather long queue of people who didn’t choose their life-threatening circumstances ahead of him? Not really.

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I want to quote at length from the article @spimon linked, because it’s great, but quite long, and I want to highlight some sections for people who don’t have time to read it all. It’s very well written and reasoned, hitting all the important points.

  • Chris starved:

What Chris did is common for wilderness survivalists today, who typically “survive” on negative calorie budgets, steadily losing weight. The only difference is that their excursions are normally of less than a month’s duration, and they simply gain back the lost weight after returning to civilization.

  • Krakauer is deluding himself:

Having Chris die from a poisonous plant that could even fool “experts” makes him seem less foolish and overconfident than if he died by simple starvation. Krakauer’s incongruous interpretation of the evidence seems to be based on this desire to preserve a more positive image of McCandless—both for the readers and for himself.

  • The derision of Chris’s critics is unjustified:

Although Chris made serious and egregious mistakes, this is not a sensible reason to become furious at him or about what he did. The impulsive disparagement levied toward Chris displays the insecurities of a kind of redneck found in every rural district—one who feels deeply threatened by those who do things that he would not dream of trying and can’t understand. Only on the surface is this criticism about his fatal mistakes. Chris’s death verifies his critics’ self-image as rugged frontierspeople, and renders him a defenseless target.
When people say that Chris’s adventure was pitiful and insignificant, and imply that “Alaskans do that kind of stuff all the time,” they are kidding themselves. What they actually mean is that Alaskans go into the bush with snowmobiles or ATVs, lots of gear, and ample food supplies; why couldn’t Chris just do the same? This is as irrelevant and hollow as mocking a marathon runner because you can get to the finish line faster in your car. There is nothing inherently moronic about what Chris tried to do; he just failed. No person who has the ability to successfully do what Chris attempted would detest him for trying.

If you’re at all interested in the subject, there’s quite a bit more there, in particular a great deal of wise advice on foraging.

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You can feel a little empathy for both types. You illustrate my point. I get the feeling that mocking this troubled kid gives a cheap ego boost to certain kinds of folks (macho assholes?) who think they’re probably a little more together than they are. There’s a tone to it that is most certainly obnoxious, and it is less: “Wow, that poor kid really should have been more prepared for the harsh realities of nature” to “Huh, Darwin Awards, what a dummy…”

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