The Jeff Wise Blog

Beguiled by Hollywood, Drawn to a Death in the Wilderness

In 1992, hunters traveling through the backcountry near Denali National Park made a gruesome discovery: inside an abandoned schoolbus that had been left in the backcountry as an emergency shelter they found the emaciated corpse of a young man. Further investigation revealed that the body belonged to Christopher McCandless, a 22-year-old wanderer who had styled himself “Alexander Supertramp.” Lost in the wilderness, McCandless had apparently been unable fend for himself and died of starvation.

To Alaskans, the gruesome find was sad but not surprising: another greenhorn had come to the north country without the necessary respect for the dangers of the outdoors and had paid the ultimate price. But Outside magazine writer Jon Krakauer looked into the story and was able to piece together a nobler tale. Delving into McCandless’s history, he found a troubled soul caught up in the romance of the road, a young man too unseasoned to understand his own limitations. He turned his research into a book, Into the Wild. When Sean Penn made a movie of Krakauer’s book, the McCandless story became even more gauzy: here was a man, not fatally compromised by overconfidence, but tragically gifted with an uncompromising commitment to living life in the fullest.

Many Alaskans rankled at what they saw as Krakauer and Penn’s glorifying of recklessness. But what particularly disturbed them was that after the book came out, Into the Wild fans began trekking into the backcountry to find the bus where McCandless died. Their numbers greatly increased after the movie was released in 2007. Far from learning from McCandless’ mistakes, they were re-enacting them. Writes Tim Mowry in the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner:

Troopers and park service rangers have conducted several search and rescues involving hikers who have become lost or stranded while hiking to the bus in the last few years.

“Everybody has noticed an increase (in the number of hikers going to the bus) in the last three years,” said Richard Moore, north district ranger for Denali National Park and Preserve. There is “general concern” because many of the people hiking to the bus are inexperienced in the Alaska backcountry, he said.

“We try to give information to people and tell them that they should be prepared and educated about how to travel in the backcountry,” Moore said.

Unfortunately, most of the bus-seekers are as heedless of backcountry danger as McCandless was:

Some of the hikers stop at his lodge to talk about the trail and river crossing, but most of them don’t, he said. The ones that stop usually don’t have a clue what they’re doing, Nierenberg said.

“Most of these guys don’t have any conception of river crossings,” he said. “Most of their knowledge is from YouTube.”

This past Saturday, that pilgrimage claimed its first victim. A 29-year-old Swiss woman, Claire Jane Ackermann, was fording a river near the bus when she lost her footing. She had tied herself to a line across the river, but was unable to push herself to the surface. A companion managed to cut her free, but by the time he got her to shore she was already dead.

Previously, I’ve written about the perverse incentive that well-publicized tragedies can have on the public, encouraging those of a certain mindset to throw themselves into the very same dangers that have proven fatal in the past. The case of Into the Wild is a bit different, however, in that the movie and the book didn’t just publicize the tragedy, they romanticized it. They labored hard to make the central character more sympathetic, more relatable, and in so doing made his dangerously reckless behavior seem romantic, even admirable.

Alaskan writer Craig Medred opines in the Alaska Dispatch that “It was inevitable that writer Jon Krakauer, filmmaker Sean Penn and their “Into the Wild” fantasy would get someone killed. The only surprising thing is it took so long.” To Medred, McCandless wasn’t living out a romantic vision; he was mentally ill, and to glorify his behavior only compounds the tragedy of his disease:

Schizophrenics have a bad habit of turning their backs on their families; setting off on long, cross-country treks; doing totally illogical things like burning their money; and sometimes deciding not to bathe. McCandless did all of these things, but Krakauer chose to ignore the meaning of the evidence. Instead, he scripted McCandless’ mental disintegration into a noble quest that ended with death by starvation in the Alaska wilderness. That it wasn’t really wilderness presented a bit of problem.

McCandless was within a day’s hike of the George Parks Highway. And that the 24-year-old McCandless — who preferred to refer to himself as Alexander Supertramp — died of starvation presented another problem. Normal people don’t usually decide to crawl into a sleeping bag and wait to die from starvation, especially when so close to help. They at least make a desperate bid to hike out to safety. Or they set the woods on fire to draw attention to themselves and their plight. McCandless didn’t do either of these logical things, so Krakauer had to find some way to explain the death. The author’s answer was to kill McCandless off with poisonous roots or seeds of the Eskimo potato, which turned out to be not poisonous at all. Oh well. It wasn’t enough to stop Penn from turning the book into a movie in 2007.

The worst thing about the situation is that, more than likely, it will continue to claim more victims. Some have proposed destroying the bus to end the pilgrimage, but, says Medred, “that would just encourage people to go to the ‘site.’ I think they should move the bus near the highway and charge admission, which might put the psychological spike through the whole madness.”

Perhaps a better strategy is to wait for starry-eyed fans to move on to another obsession. Earlier this year came news that James Franco had been cast to play Aron Ralston, the reckless hiker who managed to get his arm stuck under a boulder near Moab and achieved national fame by chopping it off. It won’t be a very big surprise if  mishaps in the canyonlands – and self-performed amputations — spike after that movie’s release.

Filed under: Survival

3 Responses

  1. […] the rest of this great post here Comments (0)    Posted in Hollywood News   […]

  2. Cardboard Box says:

    If idiots are going to keep knuckle-dragging their way to this damn school bus, there’s money to be made.

    Make the path McCandless took an official trail. Have it cut and graded. Put a bridge across the crossing. Erect School Bus Hut next to the damn thing. Charge $20 or something per night.

    In other words, take a) the idiots’ money and b) all the fun out of it.

    Then they can move on to self-amputation by boulder or some other method of thinning the gene pool.

  3. lee says:

    I was ok with this article until Wise insulted Aron Ralston.

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Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

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