When I first saw the movie Everest, I developed a fascination with this peculiar group of people obsessed with summiting mountains, pushing their bodies to the extreme limits until life hangs by a thread. I had to learn more about the inner workings of these minds that seemed to put so little value on human life that they could climb past the frozen bodies of those who had gone before them to a place where their own body, starved for oxygen, was literally dying. I devoured books written by two of the members of that tragic May 1996 expedition, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air and Anatoli Boukreev’s The Climb in an effort to wrap my mind around the senselessness of it. I was left with more questions than answers.
Just recently, the book Into the Wild, also by Jon Krakauer, crossed my Instagram feed and my attention was immediately captured. At first glance, I was sure that it was a clear-cut case of some stupid, selfish, reckless rich kid, feeling invincible, overconfident, running away to a wilderness where he had no business being.
“The prevailing Alaska wisdom held that McCandless was simply one more dreamy half-cocked greenhorn who went into the country expecting to find answers to all his problems and instead found only mosquitoes and a lonely death.”
But strangely enough, the more I read the more I started to feel that Chris McCandless knew what he was doing. He didn’t leave college, burn his money, and lose himself immediately in the Alaskan wilderness. By the time he reached Alaska he had spent nearly two years on the road, from July 1990 on, in all different climates and environs, living off the land, all his belongings on his back. When he arrived at the Stampede Trail in Alaska at the end of April 1992, he had good reason to believe he had the skills and the stamina to survive.
“He was green, and he overestimated his resilience, but he was sufficiently skilled to last for sixteen weeks on little more than his wits and ten pounds of rice. And he was fully aware when he entered the bush that he had given himself a perilously slim margin for error. He knew precisely what was at stake.”
Krakauer was more than thorough in retracing McCandless’ steps in the months leading to his death, and pursued an explanation for his demise with dogged determination bordering on obsession. This could perhaps be attributed to the fact that the author saw himself in Chris McCandless, a fact supported by a chapter in the book that recounts Krakauer’s own near-deadly foray into the Alaskan wild in his early twenties. It made me wonder, what if Chris McCandless had survived—would that change people’s view of the level of risk from foolhardy to calculated and brave? Krakauer’s own account of climbing the Devil’s Thumb alone reaches the same level of foolhardy as did McCandless’ venture into the wild, the only difference being: Krakauer survived.
“At that stage of my youth, death remained as abstract a concept as non-Euclidean geometry or marriage. I didn’t yet appreciate its terrible finality or the havoc it could wreak on those who’d entrusted the deceased with their hearts.”
It’s a tragic biography, but a thought-provoking one. It sparks discussion and raises more philosophical questions for every factual answer it provides. Jon Krakauer does a painstaking job of trying to get inside Chris McCandless’ head, but of course the only one who could possibly answer these questions would be the Chris McCandless of today, had he survived. I’d love to have a conversation with the man today, to get a glimpse inside his mind and see how he would reflect on the actions and decisions of his younger self with a few decades of experience between him and the tragic events.
The book is honest, at times funny, inspiring, and well-written, the story of a thinking, self-reliant young man on a quest for independence who viewed civilization as poison and believed nothing was worth doing unless it was difficult. The adventures of the self-styled “Alexander SuperTramp” broach the notion of happiness via loneliness, rather than the two states being at odds with one another. McCandless was comfortable in his own presence; he bore the burden of being alone with his own thoughts and entirely self-reliant and it did not break him.
“He was unheeded, happy, and near to the wild heart of life. He was alone and young and willful and wildhearted, alone amid a waste of wild air and brackish waters and the seaharvest of shells and tangle and veiled grey sunlight.”James Joyce, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man