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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.
In style, the two chapters present an intensely crafted, suspenseful, in-scene adventure narrative rich with poeticism and irony. Beginning with Krakauer’s journey to Petersberg, Alaska, the story of his attempt at the Devils Thumb perhaps rivals any other chapter in Into the Wild for intensity of visual description. The narrative moves between dangerous escapades on the face of the mountain and long spells of boredom at base camp and while waiting for the delivery of supplies, mimicking closely the lived experience of mountaineering. The reader encounters a very pure example of adventure writing for which Krakauer is best known, and these chapters may be taken as the most significant and sustained appearance of that genre in Into the Wild.
Read more about Krakauer and the wider context of Into the Wild.
Parallels between Krakauer’s adventure and McCandless’s journeys come rich and fast in Chapters Fourteen and Fifteen. The explicit connections are many, and include the expositional material provided in the opening of Chapter Fourteen. Among the implicit comparisons to be made include the number of telling “blunders,” Krakauer cites. He drains his food supplies after the smoking of a marijuana cigarette. These anecdotes generate amusement and sympathy for his character despite the self-imposed danger of his climb. That is, more than simply engaging the reader in cinematic storytelling, Krakauer ridicules the ambitions of his younger self while insisting on careful explanations of his thought process. The narrative stakes are high in these passages, since the reader’s judgment of Krakauer’s success in paralleling his life with McCandless determines whether the latter’s story might be judged worth reading. By connecting his willful, youthful recklessness with McCandless’s, Krakauer argues against the idea that McCandless was a nihilist and tries to preserve the significance of the latter’s death.
Read more about how and why Krakauer compares himself to McCandless.
In addition to the story of his climb up the Devils Thumb and as a part of his effort to convince the reader of McCandless’s death as meaningful, Krakauer dives into an examination of his relationship with his own father. He bucked parental expectation only to realize that he had in fact internalized his father’s strict sense of discipline and achievement. These passages shed yet more explicit light on Christopher McCandless’s psychology. He, too, internalized his father’s perfectionism. Perhaps unintentionally, Krakauer also underlines the relative mildness of the trauma that McCandless suffered at his father’s hands. Krakauer’s father attempted to commit suicide in front of his son, and his obsessive self-medication along with the suicide attempt led to his confinement to a psychiatric hospital. By comparison, the reader might find the trauma that Walt McCandless’s actions inflicted upon his son to be relatively minor.
Read more about how McCandless was affected by his family and yearned to leave.
Generally speaking, Krakauer illustrates the way that fractured relationships, especially between father and son, can radiate through a life, operating as a continuous trauma and instigating a desire for solitude or risk-taking behavior. The section rests on the assumption that acts of hubris or ignorance can be explained, if not entirely redeemed, by scrutinizing their root causes. In turn, this assumption underwrites Into the Wild as a biography, and the genres of autobiography and biography themselves. In the sense most specific to the text, however, this section helps or at least intends to help cast the case of Christopher McCandless as a relatable, human story of a person in search of happiness, healing and meaning.