WHEN John Geiger read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s memoir of his 1914-1917 Antarctic expedition, he was transfixed by the legendary polar explorer’s tale of his battle for survival after the team’s ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice.
In the final weeks of the expedition, Shackleton and two companions had made a heroic, last-ditch attempt to reach a British whaling station, so they could get help to the other members of the expedition who were sick, exhausted and waiting 1100 kilometres away at Elephant Island. Filthy, ragged, dehydrated and ill-equipped, the trio trekked 38 kilometres across glaciers and icy mountain ranges on the island of South Georgia, reaching the British settlement 36 hours later.
The Toronto-based writer was in awe of Shackleton’s powers of physical endurance. But it was the metaphysical aspect of the story that stayed with him — the “unseen presence” that, according to the explorer, had accompanied the three men on the last harrowing stage of their journey.
“It seemed to me often that we were four not three,” Shackleton wrote in his memoir, South. Later, in his public lectures about the expedition, he referred to this presence as his “divine companion”.
Geiger, 49, is chairman of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s expeditions committee, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the legendary New York-based Explorers Club. Five years ago, when he first opened the Shackleton memoir, the four non-fiction books on his CV included two about failed polar expeditions. But Geiger had never heard of the phenomenon that Shackleton described. “It seemed like an odd admission to appear in this heroic survival story,” he says. Wondering if other explorers might have had similar experiences, he started looking for examples.
He says the “miracle of Google” provided a cluster of leads on the phenomenon that 1975 Mount Everest climber Doug Scott described as “the third man syndrome: imagining there is someone else walking beside you, a comforting presence telling you what to do next”.
Geiger discovered aviator Charles Lindbergh’s account of on-board “phantoms” during his 1927 attempt to make the first solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. As the pilot struggled to stay awake during the 33-hour flight, he felt that his companions were friendly and helpful. “(They were) conversing and advising on my flight … reassuring me,” he wrote about them later.
Geiger started to think he might have another book on his hands. “There was something interesting going on. Not just a fluke hallucination. I soon reached a dozen (cases). Then 25. And in the end I had 100-plus.
“I felt it was important that people understand just how common this experience is. It’s not highly unusual and freakish. It’s an experience that people have in all sorts of environments and conditions — and that lends it a lot of power.”
Meantime, the writer had discovered that the syndrome was endemic among climbers, from Peter Hillary, to Lincoln Hall and Reinhold Messner. But discussion of it had remained secret climbers’ business — quarantined to the kind of books and magazines mostly read by other climbers.
Geiger emphasises that he is laying no claims to discovering the “third man factor”. British neurologist MacDonald Critchley, for example, had alluded to the concept in his 1955 essay The Idea of a Presence, which drew on the scientist’s 1943 study of 279 shipwrecked sailors and airmen. It included statements from a pilot and his observer who had both kept imagining a third person adrift with them in their rubber dinghy in the North Atlantic.
“But nobody in the scientific realm was pursuing (the idea),” says Geiger. “And nobody in the popular realm was attempting to pull it together and tell the story of what I think is a very important survival mechanism.”
If the “third man factor” had been confined to climbers, the writer concedes, he might have been less intrigued by it because a clear and logical explanation for the phenomenon — altitude sickness-induced brain malfunction — seemed so readily at hand. Once he started to discover more examples of “third man syndrome” — at sea-level, in the jungles of New Guinea, in space capsules — he felt he was facing a phenomenon that was both universally appealing and perplexing.
His conviction that the topic merited a book-length study was underlined when he heard examples of the “third man” appearing in urban environments as well as in the wilderness. After a department store collapsed in Seoul, Korea, in 1995, killing more than 300 people, a 19-year-old clerk, Park Seung-hyung, survived for 16 days in an air pocket beneath a crushed lift shaft. When rescued, she reported that a monk had appeared to her several times during her ordeal, giving her an apple and keeping her hope alive.
On September 11, 2001, trader Ron DiFrancesco was the last person out of the south tower of the World Trade Centre before it collapsed. Fighting his way down stairs he felt he was being “guided”, with “an angel” urging him not to recoil from flames in a stairwell, but to run through them. DiFrancesco was a man of deep religious beliefs who explained his experience as “divine intervention”. But religious people are a minority among the many cases that Geiger presents in The Third Man Factor.
The book chronicles the history of the phenomenon, recording early references to it in classical writing, in the Bible, and describing the first modern instance in 1895, when Nova Scotia-born Joshua Slocum’s 12-metre sloop, Spray, was caught in a cataclysmic storm on the first leg of his attempt to become the first person to circumnavigate the world. Ill and delirious, Slocum was visited by a “strange guest” who took the helm for 48 hours as he lay incapacitated on the floor of his cabin.
“Third man” experiences have happened to adventurers who have voluntarily sought adventures that ended in ghastly ordeals, trapped in underwater caves or on snow-topped mountains.
But they have also touched the lives of prisoners, such as Israeli army medical officer Avi Ohri, captured by Egyptian soldiers in 1973. Kept awake for long periods, he endured beatings and mock executions. Sitting alone in his cell, blindfolded and with his arms tied behind his back, he had “visits” from “presences”. One was his wife, then in Geneva. Another was an old friend from medical school.
He spoke to them, urging each visitor to save him. But each time the presence vanished as soon as he heard the approaching steps of his interrogators. Despite this, the visits encouraged him, he said later, and gave him hope that he would soon be released.
The book also surveys the theories advanced to explain the syndrome. The author quotes Dr Griffith Pugh, the physiologist on Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1953 Everest expedition, who dismissed it as a “decay of the brain functions”.
Geiger then points out the many cases where climbers claim that their “third man” helped them compensate for altitude-related impairment. He includes the views of psychologist Woodburn Heron, who explained it as a reaction by the brain in the state of pathological boredom created in isolated and monotonous environments. He cites the “principle of multiple triggers” — the combination of extreme fatigue, pain and deprivation suffered by Antarctic explorers — as a cause.
Geiger refers to the “widow effect”, in which widows and widowers regularly sense the presence of a departed loved one. He also quotes recent research in Switzerland, in which doctors testing a patient with epilepsy found that she reported a sense of “a presence” when they stimulated a particular area of the brain. But in this case there was none of the usual “third man” sense of the presence being helpful. Instead, the feeling was “vaguely creepy”.
To Geiger, the suggestion of a neurological basis to the “third man” raises the notion that the capacity to conjure up a third man might have been a useful evolutionary adaptation. “You can imagine if primitive man had this ability to call upon help it would improve a person’s odds of survival over others who don’t have it.”
Ultimately, the author feels most comfortable describing the “third man factor” as a “coping mechanism”. “It is a way for people who are under great physical and psychological duress to cope with their situation. There is nothing more helpful to people undergoing hardship than a sense that there is another person there, helping them.”
The Third Man Factor is published by Text Publishing along with reviews of the book.
A website for the book itself can be found here which allows you to see excerpts of the book.
It can be purchased in NZ for $40.00