Summary Jon Krakauer, the author of Into the Wild, has his own theories about Chris McCandless's state of mind when he retreated into the Alaskan wilderness. His belief that McCandless's death was solely accidental, and not the manifestation of a death wish, is based on evidence collected from McCandless's writings and interviews with those who knew him, but even more than that, it is an insight that derives from a more personal perspective. There are numerous striking parallels between Krakauer's experience and that of Chris McCandless, and it is these parallels that make the character of McCandless so fascinating to him, and that allow him to examine the intricacies surrounding McCandless's fate with such sympathy and understanding.
Like Christopher McCandless, Jon Krakauer as a youth was "willful, self-absorbed, intermittently reckless." He had a passionate nature, paradoxically rebelling against authority even as he longed to please. Energetic and imaginative, Krakauer pursued his interests with "a zeal bordering on obsession;" during his young adulthood, this obsession was mountain climbing.
In 1979, at the age of twenty-three, Krakauer "got it into (his) head" to climb the Devils Thumb, an imposing peak rising from a frozen bald called the Stikine Ice Cap in Alaska. Inspired by authors and philosophers, many of whom were favorites of McCandless as well, Krakauer, convinced that the experience would be life-transforming, decided to attempt to scale the mountain alone. As soon as his decision was made, he precipitously quit his job as an itinerant carpenter, packed up his car, and headed for Petersburg, Alaska, the closest city to his destination. When he arrived at the glacier, oblivious of the extreme danger of the undertaking, he "staggered" slowly upward for two days under the weight of an enormous pack, his emotions amplified, a "young man inebriated with the unfolding drama of his own life." It was not until he reached the "phantasmagoria of shattered ice" of the Stikine Ice Cap that Krakauer first became "truly afraid." The author somehow managed to navigate the treacherous terrain in stormy weather, despite almost falling to his death on multiple occasions into crevasses hundreds of feet deep. He had arranged for additional food and equipment to be airlifted to him when he reached the foot of the Thumb, but when he finally arrived, inclement weather made flight impossible. By the time the plane, several days late, managed to get through, Krakauer was down to the last of his supplies and frantic with the awareness of his complete isolation and vulnerability. The next day, the skies cleared, and though he was no longer mentally prepared, Krakauer began his climb up the mountain.
After a grueling commencement, Krakauer was able to establish focus and settle into a rhythm in his ascent. He experienced a period of "overpowering clarity of purpose" and happiness, but his euphoria was cut short when he reached a point of solid rock. Unable to find an area where he could continue his climb, he was forced to give up and return to base camp. Heavy snow and winds again engulfed the mountain, and as the author waited for the weather to clear, he was faced with the decision of whether to try again or to return home. After three days, crazed by his confinement, he accidentally started a fire, burning a section of his expensive shelter. What bothered Krakauer the most about this blunder was that the tent had been lent to him, unwillingly, by his father. When he returned, he would have to face him, having once again lived up "to the old man's worst expectations."
Like Christopher's father Walt McCandless, Lewis Krakauer was volatile, confrontational, and ambitious. He was a loving father, but "relentlessly competitive," and...
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he extended this attribute to his offspring. Lewis Krakauer mapped out his children's lives with rigid clarity; they were to excel in school and go into medicine or law, thus achieving success and happiness. Jon Krakauer, of course, rebelled, but although his relationship with his father became increasingly contentious, the traits the older man tried so hard to instill in him indeed took hold. It was the sense of uncompromising ambition inherited from his father that kept Jon Krakauer from conceding defeat after his first attempt to scale the Devils Thumb, and stimulated the determined attitude that allowed him to try again, and yet again.
Krakauer's second foray up the mountain was unsuccessful, as was the first, and, when forced to turn back, he made the misguided decision to camp out on the peak's flank during a snowstorm instead of returning immediately to base camp and almost met his demise. Panic-stricken, Krakauer made a desperate attempt to get back to his camp at the height of the storm, only to discover that all landmarks had been obliterated by the snow, and that he was unable to locate his tent. Having no choice but to "hunker down" and wait on the barren glacier, the author for the first time entertained the possibility that the natural elements might defeat the sheer strength of his will. Krakauer did manage to locate his camp when the storm finally abated, but he was forced to accept the reality that climbing the north wall of the Devils Thumb would be impossible. In order to salvage some remnant of his lofty undertaking, he lowered his sights and decided to tackle the more accessible southeast face instead. Traveling quickly and light, Krakauer managed to reach the pinnacle of the Devils Thumb, but he found the summit to be "a surreal, malevolent place" that "did not encourage loitering." After taking a few snapshots to testify to his success, he turned around to begin his descent toward home.
Jon Krakauer's initial feeling of relief and euphoria at having attained his objective wore off quickly and was replaced by an "unexpected melancholy." People with whom he shared the details of his adventure believed him, but did not seem to care very much. What Krakauer had been convinced would be a life-altering experience had not turned out that way at all, and within a month after having reached the summit of the Devils Thumb, he was back in Colorado, working as a carpenter at the same job he had held prior to leaving for Alaska.
Analysis In reading these two chapters, it is easy to understand why the character of Christopher McCandless is so intriguing to Jon Krakauer, the author. The parallels between the two men in both temperament and experience are nothing short of astonishing. Although McCandless was born more than a decade after Krakauer, both men had fathers who were authoritarian and exacting, but who were also conscientious parents who spent time with their sons and instilled in them an appreciation for the natural world. Chris McCandless's love for exploring his wider surroundings had its beginnings in the regular trips on which Walt took his family all around the United States, while Jon Krakauer learned how to climb at the age of eight from his father, Lewis. Both Chris and Jon railed against the expectations set for them by their patriarchs, and neither, as young adults, could bring themselves to forgive when they discovered that their fathers were less than perfect. Chris McCandless and Jon Krakauer shared the same impulsive nature and the undeniable need to test themselves against the inexorable power of the wilderness. Both men were strong-willed and capable but prone to foolish errors in judgment. Inspired by the writings of dreamers and philosophers, both were drawn to Alaska as the ultimate frontier, believing that their lives would be changed irrevocably for the better by the execution of their chosen challenges, and both were disappointed.
The obvious difference between the parallel experiences of Jon Krakauer and Chris McCandless is the fact that Krakauer survived his arduous undertaking, while McCandless did not. Having lived to tell about his solitary trek to the summit of the Devils Thumb, Krakauer had the opportunity to evaluate its significance, or, perhaps more accurately, its lack thereof, in the greater scheme of things, from the vantage point of hindsight. Similarly, because he emerged alive from his self-inflicted ordeal and was gifted with the time to continue in growth and maturation, Krakauer was able to evaluate his life, relationships, and motivations from a different and likely clearer perspective. Chris McCandless's life, on the other hand, was cut short at the tender age of twenty-four. Driven by the same yearnings, both men challenged the natural world in all its majesty, "mis(taking) passion for insight and act(ing) according to an obscure, gap-ridden logic." Jon Krakauer admits that "the fact that (he) survived (his) Alaskan adventure and McCandless did not...was largely a matter of chance." Whatever the case, McCandless is gone, and his family and others, like Krakauer, whose imaginations he captured, can only conjecture about what his motivations were while he lived, and about what might have been.