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UER Forum > Private Boards Index > The great outdoors > How Chris McCandless Died (Viewed 2351 times)
splumer 


Location: Cleveland, Ohio
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How Chris McCandless Died
< on 9/13/2013 2:40 PM >
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by Jon Krakauer

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Twenty-one years ago this month, on September 6, 1992, the decomposed body of Christopher McCandless was discovered by moose hunters just outside the northern boundary of Denali National Park. He had died inside a rusting bus that served as a makeshift shelter for trappers, dog mushers, and other backcountry visitors. Taped to the door was a note scrawled on a page torn from a novel by Nikolai Gogol:

ATTENTION POSSIBLE VISITORS.
S.O.S.
I NEED YOUR HELP. I AM INJURED, NEAR DEATH, AND TOO WEAK TO HIKE OUT OF HERE. I AM ALL ALONE, THIS IS NO JOKE. IN THE NAME OF GOD, PLEASE REMAIN TO SAVE ME. I AM OUT COLLECTING BERRIES CLOSE BY AND SHALL RETURN THIS EVENING. THANK YOU,
CHRIS McCANDLESS
AUGUST ?

From a cryptic diary found among his possessions, it appeared that McCandless had been dead for nineteen days. A driver’s license issued eight months before he perished indicated that he was twenty-four years old and weighed a hundred and forty pounds. After his body was flown out of the wilderness, an autopsy determined that it weighed sixty-seven pounds and lacked discernible subcutaneous fat. The probable cause of death, according to the coroner’s report, was starvation.


In “Into the Wild,” the book I wrote about McCandless’s brief, confounding life, I came to a different conclusion. I speculated that he had inadvertently poisoned himself by eating seeds from a plant commonly called wild potato, known to botanists as Hedysarum alpinum. According to my hypothesis, a toxic alkaloid in the seeds weakened McCandless to such a degree that it became impossible for him to hike out to the highway or hunt effectively, leading to starvation. Because Hedysarum alpinum is described as a nontoxic species in both the scientific literature and in popular books about edible plants, my conjecture was met with no small amount of derision, especially in Alaska.

I’ve received thousands of letters from people who admire McCandless for his rejection of conformity and materialism in order to discover what was authentic and what was not, to test himself, to experience the raw throb of life without a safety net. But I’ve also received plenty of mail from people who think he was an idiot who came to grief because he was arrogant, woefully unprepared, mentally unbalanced, and possibly suicidal. Most of these detractors believe my book glorifies a senseless death. As the columnist Craig Medred wrote in the Anchorage Daily News in 2007,

“Into the Wild” is a misrepresentation, a sham, a fraud. There, I’ve finally said what somebody has needed to say for a long time …. Krakauer took a poor misfortunate prone to paranoia, someone who left a note talking about his desire to kill the “false being within,” someone who managed to starve to death in a deserted bus not far off the George Parks Highway, and made the guy into a celebrity. Why the author did that should be obvious. He wanted to write a story that would sell.

The debate over why McCandless perished, and the related question of whether he is worthy of admiration, has been smoldering, and occasionally flaring, for more than two decades now. But last December, a writer named Ronald Hamilton posted a paper on the Internet that brings fascinating new facts to the discussion. Hamilton, it turns out, has discovered hitherto unknown evidence that appears to close the book on the cause of McCandless’s death.

To appreciate the brilliance of Hamilton’s investigative work, some backstory is helpful. The diary and photographs recovered with McCandless’s body indicated that, beginning on June 24, 1992, the roots of the Hedysarum alpinum plant became a staple of his daily diet. On July 14th, he started harvesting and eating Hedysarum alpinum seeds as well. One of his photos depicts a one-gallon Ziploc bag stuffed with these seeds. When I visited the bus in July, 1993, wild-potato plants were growing everywhere I looked in the surrounding taiga. I filled a one-gallon bag with more than a pound of seeds in less than thirty minutes.

On July 30th, McCandless wrote in his journal, “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.” Before this entry, there was nothing in the journal to suggest that he was in dire straits, although his photos show he’d grown alarmingly gaunt. After subsisting for three months on a marginal diet of squirrels, porcupines, small birds, mushrooms, roots, and berries, he’d run up a huge caloric deficit and was teetering on the brink. By adding potato seeds to the menu, he apparently made the mistake that took him down. After July 30th, his physical condition went to hell, and three weeks later he was dead.

When McCandless’s body was found in the Alaskan bush, Outside magazine asked me to write about the puzzling circumstances of his demise. Working on a tight deadline, I researched and wrote an eighty-four-hundred-word piece, published in January, 1993. Because the wild potato was universally believed to be safe to eat, in this article I speculated that McCandless had mistakenly consumed the seeds of the wild sweet pea, Hedysarum mackenzii—a plant thought to be toxic, and which is hard to distinguish from Hedysarum alpinum. I attributed his death to this blunder.

As I began expanding my article into a book and had more time to ponder the evidence, however, it struck me as extremely unlikely that he’d failed to tell the two species apart. He wrote his diary on blank pages in the back of an exhaustively researched field guide to the region’s edible plants, “Tanaina Plantlore / Dena’ina K’et’una: An Ethnobotany of the Dena’ina Indians of Southcentral Alaska,” by Priscilla Russell Kari. In the book, Kari explicitly warns that because wild sweet pea closely resembles wild potato, and “is reported to be poisonous, care should be taken to identify them accurately before attempting to use the wild potato as food.” And then she explains precisely how to distinguish the two plants from one another.

It seemed more plausible that McCandless had indeed eaten the roots and seeds of the purportedly nontoxic wild potato rather than the wild sweet pea. So I sent some Hedysarum alpinum seeds I’d collected near the bus to Dr. Thomas Clausen, a professor in the biochemistry department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, for analysis.

Shortly before my book was published, Clausen and one of his graduate students, Edward Treadwell, conducted a preliminary test that indicated the seeds contained an unidentified alkaloid. Making a rash intuitive leap, in the first edition of “Into the Wild,” published in January, 1996, I wrote that this alkaloid was perhaps swainsonine, a toxic agent known to inhibit glycoprotein metabolism in animals, leading to starvation. When Clausen and Treadwell completed their analysis of wild-potato seeds, though, they found no trace of swainsonine or any other alkaloids. “I tore that plant apart,” Dr. Clausen explained to Men’s Journal in 2007, after also testing the seeds for non-alkaloid compounds. “There were no toxins. No alkaloids. I’d eat it myself.”

I was perplexed. Clausen was an esteemed organic chemist, and the results of his analysis seemed irrefutable. But McCandless’s July 30th journal entry couldn’t have been more explicit: “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED.” His certainty about the cause of his failing health gnawed at me. I began sifting through the scientific literature, searching for information that would allow me to reconcile McCandless’s adamantly unambiguous statement with Clausen’s equally unambiguous test results.

Fast forward to a couple of months ago, when I stumbled upon Ronald Hamilton’s paper “The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless,” which Hamilton had posted on a Web site that publishes essays and papers about McCandless. Hamilton’s essay offered persuasive new evidence that the wild-potato plant is highly toxic in and of itself, contrary to the assurances of Thomas Clausen and every other expert who has ever weighed in on the subject. The toxic agent in Hedysarum alpinum turns out not to be an alkaloid but, rather, an amino acid, and according to Hamilton it was the chief cause of McCandless’s death. His theory validates my conviction that McCandless wasn’t as clueless and incompetent as his detractors have made him out to be.

Hamilton is neither a botanist nor a chemist; he’s a writer who until recently worked as a bookbinder at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania library. As Hamilton explains it, he became acquainted with the McCandless story in 2002, when he happened upon a copy of “Into the Wild,” flipped through its pages, and suddenly thought to himself, I know why this guy died. His hunch derived from his knowledge of Vapniarca, a little-known Second World War concentration camp in what was then German-occupied Ukraine.

“I first learned about Vapniarca through a book whose title I’ve long forgotten,” Hamilton told me. “Only the barest account of Vapniarca appeared in one of its chapters …. But after reading ‘Into the Wild,’ I was able to track down a manuscript about Vapniarca that has been published online.” Later, in Romania, he located the son of a man who served as an administrative official at the camp, who sent Hamilton a trove of documents.

In 1942, as a macabre experiment, an officer at Vapniarca started feeding the Jewish inmates bread made from seeds of the grass pea, Lathyrus sativus, a common legume that has been known since the time of Hippocrates to be toxic. “Very quickly,” Hamilton writes in “The Silent Fire,”


a Jewish doctor and inmate at the camp, Dr. Arthur Kessler, understood what this implied, particularly when within months, hundreds of the young male inmates of the camp began limping, and had begun to use sticks as crutches to propel themselves about. In some cases inmates had been rapidly reduced to crawling on their backsides to make their ways through the compound …. Once the inmates had ingested enough of the culprit plant, it was as if a silent fire had been lit within their bodies. There was no turning back from this fire—once kindled, it would burn until the person who had eaten the grasspea would ultimately be crippled …. The more they’d eaten, the worse the consequences—but in any case, once the effects had begun, there was simply no way to reverse them …. The disease is called, simply, neurolathyrism, or more commonly, “lathyrism.”…

Kessler, who … initially recognized the sinister experiment that had been undertaken at Vapniarca, was one of those who escaped death during those terrible times. He retired to Israel once the war had ended and there established a clinic to care for, study, and attempt to treat the numerous victims of lathyrism from Vapniarca, many of whom had also relocated in Israel.

It’s been estimated that, in the twentieth century, more than a hundred thousand people worldwide were permanently paralyzed from eating grass pea. The injurious substance in the plant turned out to be a neurotoxin, beta-N-oxalyl-L-alpha-beta diaminoproprionic acid, a compound commonly referred to as beta-ODAP or, more often, just ODAP. Curiously, Hamilton reports, ODAP

affects different people, different sexes, and even different age groups in different ways. It even affects people within those age groups differently …. The one constant about ODAP poisoning, however, very simply put, is this: those who will be hit the hardest are always young men between the ages of 15 and 25 and who are essentially starving or ingesting very limited calories, who have been engaged in heavy physical activity, and who suffer trace-element shortages from meager, unvaried diets.

ODAP was identified in 1964. It brings about paralysis by over-stimulating nerve receptors, causing them to die. As Hamilton explains,

It isn’t clear why, but the most vulnerable neurons to this catastrophic breakdown are the ones that regulate leg movement…. And when sufficient neurons die, paralysis sets in…. [The condition] never gets better; it always gets worse. The signals get weaker and weaker until they simply cease altogether. The victim experiences “much trouble just to stand up.” Many become rapidly too weak to walk. The only thing left for them to do at that point is to crawl….

After Hamilton read “Into the Wild” and became convinced that ODAP was responsible for McCandless’s sad end, he approached Dr. Jonathan Southard, the assistant chair of the chemistry department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and persuaded Southard to have one of his students, Wendy Gruber, test the seeds of both Hedysarum alpinum and Hedysarum mackenzii for ODAP. Upon completion of her tests, in 2004, Gruber determined that ODAP appeared to be present in both species of Hedysarum, but her results were less than conclusive. “To be able to say that ODAP is definitely present in the seeds,” she reported, “we would need to use another dimension of analysis, probably by H.P.L.C.-M.S.”—high-pressure liquid chromatography. But Gruber possessed neither the expertise nor the resources to analyze the seeds with H.P.L.C., so Hamilton’s hypothesis remained unproven.

To establish once and for all whether Hedysarum alpinum is toxic, last month I sent a hundred and fifty grams of freshly collected wild-potato seeds to Avomeen Analytical Services, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, for H.P.L.C. analysis. Dr. Craig Larner, the chemist who conducted the test, determined that the seeds contained .394 per cent beta-ODAP by weight, a concentration well within the levels known to cause lathyrism in humans.

According to Dr. Fernand Lambein, a Belgian scientist who coördinates the Cassava Cyanide Diseases and Neurolathyrism Network, occasional consumption of foodstuffs containing ODAP “as one component of an otherwise balanced diet, bears not any risk of toxicity.” Lambein and other experts warn, however, that individuals suffering from malnutrition, stress, and acute hunger are especially sensitive to ODAP, and are thus highly susceptible to the incapacitating effects of lathyrism after ingesting the neurotoxin.

Considering that potentially crippling levels of ODAP are found in wild-potato seeds, and given the symptoms McCandless described and attributed to the wild-potato seeds he ate, there is ample reason to believe that McCandless contracted lathyrism from eating those seeds. As Ronald Hamilton observed, McCandless exactly matched the profile of those most susceptible to ODAP poisoning:


He was a young, thin man in his early 20s, experiencing an extremely meager diet; who was hunting, hiking, climbing, leading life at its physical extremes, and who had begun to eat massive amounts of seeds containing a toxic [amino acid]. A toxin that targets persons exhibiting and experiencing precisely those characteristics and conditions ….

It might be said that Christopher McCandless did indeed starve to death in the Alaskan wild, but this only because he’d been poisoned, and the poison had rendered him too weak to move about, to hunt or forage, and, toward the end, “extremely weak,” “too weak to walk out,” and, having “much trouble just to stand up.” He wasn’t truly starving in the most technical sense of that condition. He’d simply become slowly paralyzed. And it wasn’t arrogance that had killed him, it was ignorance. Also, it was ignorance which must be forgiven, for the facts underlying his death were to remain unrecognized to all, scientists and lay people alike, literally for decades.

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.

Jon Krakauer’s most recent books are “Three Cups of Deceit,” “Where Men Win Glory,” and “Under the Banner of Heaven.”




“We are not going to have the kind of cooperation we need if everyone insists on their own narrow version of reality. … the great divide in the world today … is between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.”

-Madeline Albright
thetrainguru 


Location: Jasper AB
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im not crazy...wait...y es I am

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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 1 on 9/16/2013 12:30 AM >
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great write up. its a pretty sad story tho.




Create don`t destroy.

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splumer 


Location: Cleveland, Ohio
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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 2 on 9/16/2013 12:47 PM >
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Posted by thetrainguru
great write up. its a pretty sad story tho.


So, at the risk of starting a debate, do we think he was a maverick who pursued the true American dream of self-determination, or an arrogant fool paid the price for underestimating an indifferent wilderness?




“We are not going to have the kind of cooperation we need if everyone insists on their own narrow version of reality. … the great divide in the world today … is between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.”

-Madeline Albright
thetrainguru 


Location: Jasper AB
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im not crazy...wait...y es I am

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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 3 on 9/23/2013 12:23 PM >
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Posted by splumer


So, at the risk of starting a debate, do we think he was a maverick who pursued the true American dream of self-determination, or an arrogant fool paid the price for underestimating an indifferent wilderness?



Both




Create don`t destroy.

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ZenCanadian 


Location: High Park, Toronto
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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 4 on 10/17/2013 11:16 PM >
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Posted by splumer


So, at the risk of starting a debate, do we think he was a maverick who pursued the true American dream of self-determination, or an arrogant fool paid the price for underestimating an indifferent wilderness?



I thought the American dream was to be wealthy? lol Regardless, I think he was living his dream but that he was woefully unprepared for the wilds of Alaska.




Zen and the art of infiltration...
http://www.flikr.com/photos/zenslens
Zen is an uber explorer, a demi god of craning and purveyor of the finer things in life.
splumer 


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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 5 on 10/21/2013 11:49 AM >
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Posted by ZenCanadian


I thought the American dream was to be wealthy? lol Regardless, I think he was living his dream but that he was woefully unprepared for the wilds of Alaska.


This isn't really the forum for it, but I've always heard that the true American dream was self-determination. Being wealthy would be a means to that end. Usually I hear this in reference to the Grateful Dead, in that they embodied the American dream more than any other American band.




“We are not going to have the kind of cooperation we need if everyone insists on their own narrow version of reality. … the great divide in the world today … is between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.”

-Madeline Albright
jeepdave 


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It's also a gun.

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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 6 on 11/6/2013 1:21 AM >
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He's just. Stupid kid who got in over his head. His fate is similar to what would happen to 90% of Americans if a true shtf situation ever occurred.




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Ghostofthelens 


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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 7 on 6/23/2014 10:17 PM >
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Having books on the subject is not always that much of a help. Experienced people have made stupid mistakes that have nearly cost them their life, to cost their lives. Without knowing his background, and just going off this report, I'll say an idiot.
If I go backpacking, say five days, I usually only take two-days worth of food with me. It cuts back on weight, and I know enough to get my food off the land. But even then I would not go that way in Alaska, because I do not know that area enough to do it safely. Experience and not books is what keeps you alive out there.




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ZenCanadian 


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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 8 on 5/29/2015 12:51 PM >
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There was a young lad from Waterloo named Daniel Trask who disappeared just under 4 years ago on a trip he took up to Temagami. I followed the story since it started and originally had held out hope that he had simply gotten lost and that he would be found quickly. His trip started Nov 3, 2011, which was already a concern for me, the weather that far north at that time of the year leaves very little room for error. You need to have the skills to build a fire, shelter and get food. His mother stated he went on lots of trips up there and that he was a survivalist and could make do.

Reported missing pretty quickly after no communication with home for a few days, his car was found at camp Wanapitei. He knew the staff there and parked there to embark on his trip. In 2012 his snow pants and jacket were found, on the east shore of Diamond Lake just south of the lift over to Lady Evelyn. Instantly my thoughts went to paradoxical undressing. In the final stages of severe hypothermia the muscles that had been constricting your blood flow to the extremities tire, the blood rushes back to the outer layers and it's like a hot flash, making the victim disrobe. Following this typically is terminal burrowing.

In Aug 2013, his backpack and snowshoes were found 7.5 km south of his jacket and pants. This had got me thinking he was headed north, the searchers had believed him to be heading to Maple Mountain, which was a northwesterly direction. When I looked at maps and where all the items were found he seemed to be heading northeast. In the area where his jacket and pants had been found, the trees showed signs of partial chopping, with some being fully chopped through. This to me was his last stand and I figured they would find him somewhere up to 10km from the spot. From what I have read in the media on the discovery, it seems he was maybe 2km from that spot.

I'm glad his family finally has the closure they had sought for so long. It's not the way I had hoped it would end.

http://therucksack...s/Trask/Trask.html

http://www.nugget....itchener-man-found



[last edit 5/29/2015 12:52 PM by ZenCanadian - edited 1 times]

Zen and the art of infiltration...
http://www.flikr.com/photos/zenslens
Zen is an uber explorer, a demi god of craning and purveyor of the finer things in life.
splumer 


Location: Cleveland, Ohio
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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 9 on 6/10/2015 2:45 AM >
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That's really sad. It just emphasizes yet again the importance of leaving a detailed plan of where you'll be with someone.

Speaking of people lost in parks, a couple of months ago a woman went missing in Cuyahoga Valley NP near me. Our scout troop went to assist in the search. They later found her. They think she killed herself.




“We are not going to have the kind of cooperation we need if everyone insists on their own narrow version of reality. … the great divide in the world today … is between people who have the courage to listen and those who are convinced that they already know it all.”

-Madeline Albright
ZenCanadian 


Location: High Park, Toronto
Gender: Male
Total Likes: 524 likes




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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 10 on 6/12/2015 1:20 AM >
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Detailed plans are def important, but they also only work if you stick to your plan as well ;)




Zen and the art of infiltration...
http://www.flikr.com/photos/zenslens
Zen is an uber explorer, a demi god of craning and purveyor of the finer things in life.
Maureen Trask 


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 |  |  | Daniel Trask is Found
Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 11 on 5/30/2017 11:32 AM >
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Zen Canadian: Thanks for your post about our son, Daniel Trask. I justs came across this site now. Know that each missing person case is unique and individual. Although there are similarities between Chris and Daniel, there are also many differences. The one thing they had in common was their love of nature.

We will never know all the answers about Daniel's demise, but we at least know he is where he would want to be, with the spirits in the Temagami backcountry.

We are now finding peace thanks to the Michigan Backcountry Search and Rescue (MibSAR) team led by Michael Neiger, who searched for Daniel over a 3 year period.

Daniel Trask is Found FB Page:
https://www.facebo...d-141269306065266/

In Memory of Daniel:
http://henrywalser...l/view-stories.php

With gratitude,
Maureen and Don Trask (Daniel's Parents), Waterloo, Ontario Canada



406976.jpg (72 kb, 480x360)
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[last edit 5/30/2017 12:20 PM by Maureen Trask - edited 1 times]

DawnPatrol 


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Re: How Chris McCandless Died
< Reply # 12 on 11/13/2017 3:10 PM >
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That was an incredibly interesting read. Thank you for sharing. Personally, I enjoy reading stories of extreme situations like this. They often offer valuable information to help others on the community avoid the same mistakes.

I've been listening to a podcast called 'The Sharp End'. The hostess interviews people who have been in extreme situations like these and lived to tell about it, or in some instances, SAR members who can tell their stories for them. The stories are always intense and they make you think of situations you'd normally prefer not to. I've personally already modified some of my rock climbing techniques and the gear I bring because of it. I'd highly recommend checking out the podcast.




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