In order to complicate the idea that McCandless had gone into the wild to commit extended suicide, the narrator introduces a story from his own past. When he was young, he lived in Boulder, Colorado and worked as a carpenter. An avid climber, he decided to summit an extremely difficult peak called the Devils Thumb in the Alaska. He travels by car to Washington State, then heads north on a salmon boat, where he sees a caribou swimming in the Bay of Alaska a mile from shore. He disembarks in Petersberg, Alaska, where he sleeps on the floor of a woman whom he meets outside the local library.
Strangers drive Krakauer to the edge of a glacier called the Stikine Ice Pack and he begins his climb. He arrives at the edge of the Devils Thumb three days later. As he climbs, a snowstorm begins. He nearly falls through a crevasse before he makes it onto a glacial plateau to camp. He worries that supplies he has arranged to be dropped by plane will not arrive and that he will starve to death. In the morning, a plane delivers his food. He begins to climb again in perfect weather. He climbs nearly 700 feet on sheer vertical ice. Then he fails to find any further footholds and must climb back down.
Krakauer remains in his tent for several days because of foul weather. After three days, he gets so restless that he smokes his only marijuana cigarette, which makes him hungry. He lights his stove to make oatmeal and accidentally sets his tent on fire. He stands in dismay, then admits to the reader that he borrowed the tent from his father. He recalls his father’s difficult personality and their fraught relationship. Krakauer’s father forced him and his siblings to excel, in hopes that they would attend Harvard Medical School. Instead, the narrator became a climber and a carpenter, rejecting his father’s philosophy.
In his later years, Krakauer’s relationship with his father only worsened. His father experienced dementia and the return of polio symptoms from his youth. He became addicted to medications, which he would carry with him in a suitcase. After a suicide attempt at which Krakauer was present, his father was consigned to a psychiatric hospital. On the Stikine Ice Pack, Krakauer determines that he will try to climb the Devils Thumb again. He tells the reader that his father’s insistence on achievement left a lingering mark on him. He attempts to summit again, but a storm forces him to descend. He spirals down into self-pity and fears for his life. The wind shifts, allowing him to find his base camp again.
Krakauer’s return to his base camp allows him to devise a new plan. Leaving most of his gear behind, he climbs up the northeast face of the Devils Thumb and achieves the summit. He takes photographs and then descends. After a ride back to town, he visits a bar, where he drinks alone. Back in Boulder, he resumes his ordinary routine. Krakauer then surmises that it was only chance that he survived his trip to Alaska and Christopher McCandless did not. He writes that McCandless must not have had a death wish and that to the young death is only an abstraction. Instead, young adventurers are drawn by the powerful mystery of danger and the unknown.
Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen form the core of the narrator’s personal revelations and his most thorough attempt to explain Christopher McCandless’s tribulations outright.