Into the Wild Author: This Is What Killed McCandless
Mystery solved after 21 years, says Jon Krakauer
By Kate Seamons, Newser Staff
Posted Sep 13, 2013 8:26 AM CDT
Updated Sep 15, 2013 12:26 PM CDT
The abandoned bus where Christopher McCandless starved to death in 1992 is seen in this March 21, 2006 photo.   (AP Photo/ Jillian Rogers)

(Newser) – It's a question that has nagged Jon Krakauer and readers for some 20 years: What truly killed Christopher McCandless? McCandless, you'll recall, is the 24-year-old who perished in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992, and the subject of Krakauer's Into the Wild. The coroner listed cause of death as starvation; in his book, the author theorizes that Hedysarum alpinum, or wild potato plant, seeds contained a toxic alkaloid that ultimately did him in. Except those seeds have long been held as nontoxic, and "my conjecture was met with no small amount of derision," writes Krakauer in the New Yorker. But now Krakauer says he's figured it out—with the help of a Indiana University of Pennsylvania bookbinder. Ronald Hamilton posted an essay online a few months ago that asserts Hedysarum alpinum is indeed toxic, but due to an amino acid, not an alkaloid. How he came to this conclusion is fascinating.

Hamilton had previously read about a WWII concentration camp called Vapniarca, where hundreds of male prisoners were paralyzed after being fed toxic seeds. Their disease, lathyrism, was spurred by a compound known as ODAP, which, Hamilton wrote, strikes in a peculiar manner: It particularly ravages men between the ages of 15 and 25 who are eating very little, lacking key trace elements, and performing heavy physical activity. Convinced that there was a link, Hamilton got a chemist at his university to test Hedysarum alpinum seeds for ODAP; it "appeared to be" present, but more sophisticated testing was needed. So Krakauer last month had further analysis done, and "a concentration well within the levels known to cause lathyrism in humans" was identified. He asserts that had McCandless' guidebook alerted him to this neurotoxin, "he probably would have walked out of the wild in late August with no more difficulty than when he walked into the wild in April." The full story is absolutely worth a read. (The bus where McCandless died continues to be a spot of fascination—and danger—for some.)

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Showing 3 of 44 comments
mtman2
Mar 17, 2014 1:21 PM CDT
Spent part of a summer in the back country in Denali, a very beautiful place that people from around the world visit(on the roads). Had my closest encounters with Tolkat Grizzlies there, 20 miles above the treeline. Though my training through the Craighead brothers gave me a cool head. Ate Arctic Grayling from streams in the high plateau regions. Same survival luck at Kodiak Island, the Yukon and B.C. even the lower 48 Rockies were fine except Yellowstone. They had just stopped public feeding of the bears so those of us in the back-country then were at risk(no pepper-spray then), people meant food and they were hungry. Out there you have to use your head, if you have one. Bad luck or a mistake could kill expert mountain men though. What a life they must have had back then, freedom with courage and learned wisdoms. Absolutely fascinating!
bheann@yahoo.com
Mar 14, 2014 6:57 PM CDT
McCandless was an idiot. Stop trying to make some kind of freakin hero. He wasn't.
TimMullins
Mar 14, 2014 3:42 AM CDT
It's surprising how common this sort of thing is. People decide they want to live off the land, but when they get out there and discover that Mother Nature doesn't label anything they lay down and die, like they were expecting some miracle to take place and save them. The ironic part is that, as crude as this sounds, their death is the miracle. Nature always kills what cannot cope or figure anything out. Sorry, but there's no Welfare line in the woods. The closest thing to it, is when the scavengers gather to eat the remains of the ignorant. Don't try this at home. Don't try it anywhere if you don't know what you're doing.