Source: In the final postcard he sent to Wayne Westerberg, McCandless had written, If this
adventure proves fatal and you dont ever hear from me again I want you to know that you are a
great man. I now walk into the wild. When the adventure did indeed prove fatal, this melodramatic
declaration fueled considerable speculation that the boy had been bent on suicide from the
beginning, that when he walked into the bush, he had no intention of ever walking out again. Im
not so sure, however.
My suspicion that McCandlesss death was unplanned, that it was a terrible accident, comes
from reading those few documents he left behind and from listening to the men and women who
spent time with him over the final year of his life. But my sense of Chris McCandlesss intentions
comes, too, from a more personal perspective.
As a youth, I am told, I was willful, self-absorbed, intermittently reckless, moody. I
disappointed my father in the usual ways. Like McCandless, figures of male authority aroused in
me a confusing medley of corked fury and hunger to please. If something captured my
undisciplined imagination, I pursued it with a zeal bordering on obsession, and from the age of
seventeen until my late twenties that something was mountain climbing.
I devoted most of my waking hours to fantasizing about, and then undertaking, ascents of
remote mountains in Alaska and Canadaobscure spires, steep and frightening, that nobody in
the world beyond a handful of climbing geeks had ever heard of. Some good actually came of this.
By fixing my sights on one summit after another, I managed to keep my bearings through some
thick post-adolescent fog. Climbing mattered. The danger bathed the world in a halogen glow that
caused everythingthe sweep of the rock, the orange and yellow lichens, the texture of the
cloudsto stand out in brilliant relief. Life thrummed at a higher pitch. The world was made real.
In 1977, while brooding on a Colorado barstool, picking unhappily at my existential scabs,
I got it into my head to climb a mountain called the Devils Thumb. An intrusion of diorite sculpted
by ancient glaciers into a peak of immense and spectacular proportions, the Thumb is especially
imposing from the north: Its great north wall, which had never been climbed, rises sheer and clean
for six thousand feet from the glacier at its base, twice the height of Yosemites El Capitan. I would
go to Alaska, ski inland from the sea across thirty miles of glacial ice, and ascend this mighty
nordwand. I decided, moreover, to do it alone.
I was twenty-three, a year younger than Chris McCandless when he walked into the Alaska
bush. My reasoning, if one can call it that, was inflamed by the scattershot passions of youth and
a literary diet overly rich in the works of Nietzsche1
, Kerouc2
, and John Menlove Edwards, the
latter a deeply troubled writer and psychiatrist who, before putting an end to his life with a cyanide
capsule in 1958, had been one of the preeminent British rock climbers of the day. Edwards
regarded climbing as a psycho-neurotic tendency; he climbed not for sport but to find refuge
from the inner torment that framed his existence.
Nietzsche German philosopher whose writings on morality, power, and the meaning of existence have heavily
influenced Western thought
Kerouc American writer from the Beat generation most famous for his novel On the Road, written in a stream-ofconsciousness style based on his, and his friends, travels in the United States3
As I formulated my plan to climb the Thumb, I was dimly aware that I might be getting in
over my head. But that only added to the schemes appeal. That it wouldnt be easy was the whole
I owned a book in which there was a photograph of the Devils Thumb, a black-and-white
image taken by an eminent glaciologist named Maynard Miller. In Millers aerial photo the
mountain looked particularly sinister: a huge fin of exfoliated stone, dark and smeared with ice.
The picture held an almost pornographic fascination for me. How would it feel, I wondered, to be
balanced on that bladelike summit ridge, worrying over the storm clouds building in the distance,
hunched against the wind and dunning cold, contemplating the drop on either side? Could a person
keep a lid on his terror long enough to reach the top and get back down?
And if I did pull it off . . . I was afraid to let myself imagine the triumphant aftermath, lest
I invite a jinx. But I never had any doubt that climbing the Devils Thumb would transform my
life. How could it not?
I was working then as an itinerant carpenter, framing condominiums in Boulder for $3.50
an hour. One afternoon, after nine hours of thumping two-by-tens and driving sixteen-penny nails,
I told my boss I was quitting: No, not in a couple of weeks, Steve; right now was more like what
I had in mind. It took me a few hours to clear my tools and other belongings out of the crummy
job-site trailer where Id been squatting. And then I climbed into my car and departed for Alaska.
I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world
was suddenly rich with possibility

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