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The Third Man factor- new book by John Geiger



Well-known member
Nov 24, 2008
Fascinating article
See the full article on this link here

Liz Porter

June 28, 2009
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


Well-known member
Nov 24, 2008
Here is the website for the book, where you can read an excerpt.

Here is an excerpt that was printed in the Sunday Star Times today in New Zealand.
"During Peter Hillary's tough trek across the Antarctica in 1998, he was kept company by the presence of his dead Mother.

It was an excruciating ordeal from the outset. Peter Hillary, whose summit of Everest made him and Sir edmund the first father-and-son team to accomplish the feat, set off from Scott Base on November 4 1998, for the long haul, pulling 200kg. Hillary, with Australians Jon Muir and Eric Philips, intended to complete Scott's final journey. Their goal was to get to the South Pole on foot, first crossing the the Ross Ice Shelf, then dragging their sledges up the Shackleton Glacier to the Polar Plateau. Rather than fly out, they planned to turn around at the Pole and return by roughly the same route, the round trip totalling 2900km.

But the cold already bit at their fingers and toes. Storms pinned the men in their tiny tent. Winds pounded on them relelntlessly. They were slowly starving as the brutal march and the weight of their heavily laden sledges, burned more calories each day that they could replenish. The loads were heavy but so was the company. Early in the trek, Hillary overheard Phillips complaining about him into a satellite phone, and he suspected that both were talking about him as a problem. The burden of these supspicions weighed heavily on their subsequent endeavour. Hillary felt that they began to exclude him from their social interaction. Hillary's response was to pull back, allowing the others to go ahead as he sought solitude.

The unchanging nature of the landscape only aggravated the situation. At one point he described life on the Ross ice Shelf as a "monochrome of misery".

Everything was white, and his mind had nothing to read. Nothing was coming in, beacuse everything was white... with nothing coming in, I beleive now everything comes out of you, everything is leached out of you like salt from soil by fresh water."

In such an environment, he wrote in his diary," Your sustenance is all from the thoughts in your head."

Then on day 18, November 21, he became aware of a presence close to him and recognised her immediately: It was his mother, who had died with his sister in an airplane crash hear Kathmandu in 1975. In his rich account of the South Pole expedition, In The Ghost Country (Written with John Elder) Hillary described the phenomenon, which went beyond simply living a memory." It was like she'd come out there to keep me company. It was like she was really there. Right there. In a way that was almost scary. Yet it seemed natural as anything to walk along talking to her."

He told me that his expedition was, in a sense, a 21st equivalent of "what the monks of old had done. They had gone off, lived in isolation under an overhanging rock; they had vows not to speak or not to interact with people. Perhaps they had those sorts of experiences. I beleive it is like that. You are isolated, very often with varying degrees of sensory deprivation."

The presence left Hillary in the early afternoon. Late in the afternoon she returned and remained through that evening. He felt it possible that the other two of the expeditition had seen him smiling.

The tension among the men only seemed to deepen in tsubsequent days. Hillary felt the implication was always that he was slowing them down. He had been struggling with one of his boots, which kept coming apart. Phillips at one point insisted that he would carry some of Hillarys load, but Hillary refused. he recognised that he was slower, but not significantly so. The difference would not affect their chances of success.

On November 24, the presence returned. There was no conversation, only a long walk taken in the most comfortable silence. Then days later, in a tent, when he was half awake, he again felt the presence sitting close by.

On December 1, there was a break in the tension. Phillips apolgised to Hillary for complaining about him, and they shook hands. Muir mumbled: Thank you fellows." Hillary wrote in his diary that things should get better now. But he later thought that he would have been less lonely had he made the journey solo.

On day 36 he was joined by other visitors. Presences were peopling the tent with him and he recognised them as two dead climbing friends. Then late in the afternoon on day 39, as he fought his way through a blizzard, the winds like a freight train and clouds sweeping his face, he felt the presence of his mother again. He noticed that the clouds passed through her where she stood. He described the Polar plateau as a high, cold ice plain of raging winds, spindrift that flows like sand from one side of Antarctica to another. There was no sky, no landscape, only cloud and snow merged an environment without definition.

The blizzard left them tent bound, the fumes from the stove burned their eyes, their food supply dwindled."


Active member
Jul 8, 2009
Fascinating! My own personal biases gravitated me towards this possible explanation:

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."
While probably not compelling to everyone here, that sort of thing is just my cup of tea for further research. Good find!



Right up my street.

Thanks for this

Just ordered it on line through my local library. They have copies on order.



Well-known member
Nov 24, 2008
Isnt it great.
It just goes to show, that many people have these experiences, it is just often framed in another way.

I will have to see if our library has it also.