Jon Krakauer talks about the death of Christopher McCandless

Jon Krakauer believes he’s finally cracked the mystery surrounding the death of Christopher McCandless, whose four-month adventure into the Alaskan wilderness two decades ago became the subject of Krakauer’s bestselling book, ‘Into the Wild.’

Krakauer speculated in his book that the 24-year-old McCandless died after ingesting toxic alkaloids present in wild potato seeds.

Weighing just 67 pounds when he died, a medical examiner had ruled that the cause of McCandless’ death was starvation.

But Krakauer wouldn’t accept that ruling, pointing to the fact that McCandless himself blamed the potato seeds in a journal entry written just before he died in August of 1992.

From his journal: ‘EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.’

Krakauer explains that he recently came across the research of writer Ronald Hamilton, who concluded that a neurotoxin called ODAP was responsible for a degenerative disease, known as lathyrism, that slowly paralyzed him.

Christopher McCandless
Christopher McCandless

To prove Hamilton’s theory, Krakaeur last month had a batch of wild potato seeds tested for ODAP.

The chemist who conducted the test determined that the seeds contained a percentage of ODAP known to cause lathyrism in humans.


Krakauer writes, ‘Hamilton’s discovery that McCandless perished because he ate toxic seeds is unlikely to persuade many Alaskans to regard McCandless in a more sympathetic light, but it may prevent other backcountry foragers from accidentally poisoning themselves.

‘Had McCandless’s guidebook to edible plants warned that Hedysarum alpinum seeds contain a neurotoxin that can cause paralysis, 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, and would still be alive today.

‘If that were the case, Chris McCandless would now be forty-five years old.’

Chris Mccandless magic bus to be tourist attraction

The cult of Chris McCandless marches on. Texas businessman Brad Benson has announced plans to fly eager tourists over the Magic Bus and Alaskan backcountry where the 24-year-old McCandless spent his final days before dying more than 20 years ago.

McCandless is, of course, one of the most well-known characters in Outside’s history. His story has fascinated and perplexed since Jon Krakauer’s initial 1993 story for the magazine and subsequent book Into the Wild. Even as more details have emerged about McCandless’ demise, adventurers have continued to fetishize him, poring over his pictures and recreating his dangerous journey.

Now, as the Anchorage Daily News reports, following in McCandless’ footsteps will be easier than ever—if you’ve got a bit of cash. For $250 apiece, Benson will offer tourists the opportunity to safely connect with the McCandless myth via his company, Stampede Aviation, but his business plan has some critics shaking their heads.

Chris Mccandless magic bus
Chris Mccandless magic bus

Stampede’s website boasts that on this new “economical tour,” patrons will fly over Denali National Park, Healy Canyon, and Stampede Trail in a private, four-seat aircraft. The Stampede Trail is where the Magic Bus resides. But there’s a catch—to advertise, Stampede Aviation has actually used photographs from Sean Penn’s 2007 film adaptation of Krakauer’s book. The company is advertising a cinematic facsimile, not the real thing.


Why did Stampede use that photo rather than the real thing? “That’s a good question,” Benson told the ADN. “It’s actually kind of a difficult place to photograph, so all my pictures were poor. This is probably more of what people are envisioning.”

The magic bus
The magic bus

Benson says he’s just supplying a trip that’s in high demand. He’s a veteran of Fly Denali and Talkeetna Air Taxi and says that when he has flown patrons to see Mount McKinley, some have asked about McCandless. And, as the ADN points out, Krakauer and Penn’s retellings of the story took creative liberties similar to the romanticism Stampede Aviation boasts.

The company is expected to begin operating later this month. Whatever its fate, we can be sure McCandless’ legacy will continue to inspire adventurers of all stripes for years to come.