In September 1992, six people in three separate parties happen upon a refurbished city bus off the Stampede Trail in Denali National Park. Moose hunters, Ken Thompson, Gordon Samel and Ferdie Swanson ford the Teklanika river in their all-terrain vehicles to arrive at the bus, where they spot a frightened looking Anchorage couple. Horrified by a rotting smell emanating from the bus and a disturbing SOS note from Chris McCandless attached to its door, they refuse to enter, but Samel ventures in, uncovering McCandless’s body. Butch Killian also happens on the scene and radios for troopers to recover the body. A camera with five rolls of exposed film, the SOS note, and a diary, written on the pages of a field guide to edible plants, are recovered along with the remains.
The discovery of Chris’ body illustrates the convergence of luck, chance and circumstance. Though rarely visited and very remote, the bus site is miraculously encountered by six individuals, on the exact same day. Tragically and ironically, this happenstance occurrence does not occur during Chris’ time of dire need, (indicated by the emergency S.O.S. note), but only after his death. The coincidental nature of the discovery of Chris’ body creates the sense that had these hunters and hikers found the bus sooner, Chris could have been saved.
McCandless’s body is taken to a crime lab in Anchorage. From the body’s badly decomposed remains, it is difficult to determine the cause of death, but its thinness indicates starvation.
The signs of starvation on Chris’ body are a physical expression of his deep desire to live under extreme conditions, but they also highlight his body’s limitations and fragility.
Though Chris signed the SOS note with his full name and took many self-portraits with the camera discovered, no identification is found on his person, mystifying the authorities as to who Chris was, where he was from and why he was there.
Chris’ identity is as much a mystery as the cause of his death. Though clues to his identity abound, the essence of his character—to both the people who find him and to Krakauer—remains a complex conundrum.