In a blog post for The New Yorker, Jon Krakauer has verified the cause of death of one of the most vivid characters in Outside lore.
In 1993, Krakauer published an article on the death of Chris McCandless, a strong-willed 24-year-old who ventured into the Alaskan wilderness in search of a transcendental escape. The article subsequently became the book Into the Wild.
In it, Krakauer speculated that McCandless died due to toxic alkaloids in wild-potato seeds. (From his journal: "EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.") Subsequent analysis of the seeds at the University of Alaska discredited that theory, finding no alkaloids at all in the plant.
The reason for his death has since been hotly contested. Until today.
Krakauer explains that he recently came across the research of a writer, Ronald Hamilton, who had concluded that a neurotoxin, known as ODAP, in the potato seed was responsible for a degenerative disease known as lathyrism.
Last month Krakauer sent a modest sample of the seeds for testing, discovering that they contained ".394 per cent beta-ODAP by weight, a concentration well within the levels known to cause lathyrism in humans."
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.