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The mystery of the third man: for decades, explorers and adventurers who've found themselves at the very edge of death have described experiencing a benevolent presence who encouraged them to make one final effort to survive. John Geiger goes in search of the enigmatic Third Man.

It was something that a local guide said 'never happens' in that part of the world, At 4am one morning, a thunderstorm hit with breathtaking fury.

Lightning rained down on our team of archaeologists and historians encamped on Marble island, off the northwest coast of Hudson Bay, Canada. As the interval between flash and thunderclap practically disappeared, everyone began collapsing their tents, some of which had been unwisely propped up with rebar, for fear that they would be struck.

When the storm subsided, team members began to emerge, ashen-faced, knees knocking together. 'Someone's not happy that we're here,' quipped one. I took that to be a reference to something an Inuit elder had said before we boarded a fishing yawl in the closest community, Rankin Inlet, and began our expedition to Marble Island: 'You must crawl.'

Inuit tradition requires visitors to Marble Island to crawl up its rocky beaches on elbows and knees, to honour--or assuage--unquiet spirits. We had respected that tradition, but the freak storm did leave the impression that we were unwanted intruders. The atmosphere was set for another unusual event.

We were experiencing the usual inventory of Arctic plagues--clouds of mosquitoes, sleet, bouts of hypothermia and marauding polar bears. I was in my tent, and had been for hours, shivering almost rhythmically, undoubtedly hypothermic, unable to get dry or warm on the sodden ground. I then experienced a psychological shift of perspective. I suddenly saw the scene from a different, impossible angle, removed from myself. I thought I was losing it, except that I felt better. I wasn't shivering--he was.

UNSEEN BEING

It was my experience on Marble Island that piqued my interest in Sir Ernest Shackleton's 1916 encounter with an unseen presence on the British possession of South Georgia. It came at the end of his harrowing escape from Antarctica after his ship, Endurance, was trapped and crushed by the ice. Shackleton and two other men all had the sense that they were joined by an unseen being, someone or something Shackleton referred to as a 'Divine Companion'.

He included mention of it in his famous narrative South: 'I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.'

TS Eliot seized on the account of a presence on a polar expedition for The Waste Land, arguably the most famous English-language poem of the 20th century. In the poem, he asked: 'Who is the third who walks always beside you?/When I count, there are only you and I together ...' This is the origin of the name for the phenomenon, the Third Man Factor, or sometimes the Third Man Syndrome.

When I began to investigate Shackleton's report of an incorporeal being, I quickly began to find others. The legendary climber Frank Smythe wrote famously of sharing his Kendal mint cake with an unseen companion on Mount Everest in June 1933 (see Mint cake on Mount Everest). 'Strange,' wrote Maurice Wilson, an Englishman who perished on Everest on 1934, in one of his final diary entries, 'but I feel that there is somebody with me in tent all the time.' And Austrian mountaineer Hermann Buhl repeatedly found himself 'in the act of turning around to address my [non-existent] companion' after being separated from his climbing partner on Nanga Parbat.

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It's even more common today than during Shackleton's and Smythe's time. I have spent the past five years pursuing the Third Man. In the process, I have documented scores of example, among them Britons Stephen Venables on Everest, Robert Swan in Antarctica and Bill King while in the Drake Passage. The total number is now into the low hundreds, each very much like the other: a presence, to some an 'angel', a Third Man, joined them during their extreme struggles, a being who, in the words of the legendary Italian climber Reinhold Messner, 'leads you out of the impossible'.

They have occurred on every continent and on all the world's oceans. I've even found a report from space. Not a few, then, but many, and not all of them explorers, either. Escaped prisoners of war, Vietnamese boat people, survivors of mine and building collapses, and perhaps most striking, the case of Ron DiFrancesco, a money market trader, who was helped by a Third Man during his escape from the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.

DiFrancesco was trapped in a smoke-filled staircase in the midst of the impact zone. People looked at him with panic in their eyes. Some cried. Others were collapsed on the floor, apparently unconscious. Then he felt a presence, and a voice encouraged him on. He had the sensation that 'somebody lifted me up'. He felt that he was being guided: 'I was led to the stairs. I don't think something grabbed my hand, but I was definitely led.' He saw a pinhole of light and fought his way down, through debris that obstructed his way, through smoke and flames.

DiFrancesco Was the last person out of the South Tower before it collapsed. He said he would not have survived without this intervention. In his case, as with the rest, the incorporeal being presented itself as a benevolent companion, offering hope, encouragement and guidance, not at all the disordering experience you might expect to result from hallucinations produced by overstressed minds.

STILL OUT THERE

Despite all of the eyewitness accounts I collected, the object of my search, the Third Man, remained elusive. The Australian climber Greg Child said that trying to solve the mystery of the Third Man is like a 'detective stalking the invisible man; there is no fingerprint, no solid evidence at all. The clues lie deep within us.' But since Child said that, a series of scholarly studies have produced solid evidence. The Third Man has been explained as everything from hallucination to divine intervention, but recent neurological research suggests something else.

A presence (called a 'shadow person') was accidentally evoked in a clinical setting by Swiss neurologists when they used electrical stimulation to probe the brain of an epileptic patient, looking for evidence of organic brain damage. It was a presence, an unseen being felt by the patient to be close at hand. But it was not the Third Man. Its most important feature, its powerful beneficence, that critical attribute that has helped people to survive and transcend extreme conditions, was missing.

Make no mistake, however, the Third Man walks beside us. As the New Zealand explorer Peter Hillary wrote of his own experience with the phenomenon in Antarctica, 'Oh yes. They're still out there.'

Mint cake on Mount Everest

On 1 June 1933, Frank Smythe (right) and Eric Shipton emerged from their canvas tent at 8,531 metres on Mount Everest. A blizzard had forced them to spend two nights at Camp VI in the 'death zone'--above 8,000 metres. After the second night, the weather had eased and they were about to make their attempt at the summit, despite being so enfeebled that Smythe felt that anyone watching them leave the camp would have concluded that they 'ought to be in hospital'.

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They climbed slowly, but as they reached a formation now known as the First Step, Shipton slumped down and announced that he was unable to go on.

Smythe continued, but soon encountered a fresh accumulation of deep powder snow. He persisted, reaching the Great Couloir, just 300 metres below the summit, but was 'overcome by a feeling of hopelessness and weariness'. At one point, he slipped, losing his footing so quickly that 'my sluggish brain had no time to register the thrill of fear'. He was saved only because his ice axe was jammed in a crack and held his weight.

He tried to continue, shovelling away floury snow with his gloves in order to gain each foothold. It was a laborious task, and it proved to be his undoing. Finally, Smythe determined: 'It was the limit: He stood for some time alone at the 'very boundaries of life and death', at an elevation as high as any man had ever reached. As he put it later: 'The last 1,000 feet of Everest are not for mere flesh and blood"

Smythe then climbed down to a broad ledge and halted for a rest:

'When I reached the ledge I felt I ought to eat something in order to keep up my strength. All I brought with me was a slab of Kendal mint cake. This I took out of my pocket and, carefully dividing it into two halves, turned round with one half in my hand to offer to my "companion".'

At the moment he held out the piece of mint cake, Smythe said the presence was 'so near and strong' that it was 'almost a shock to find no one to whom to give it'.

'All the time that I was climbing, alone I had a strong feeling that I was accompanied by a second person. This feeling was so strong that it completely eliminated all loneliness I might otherwise have tilt. It even seemed that I was tied to my "companion" by a rope, and that if I slipped "he" would hold me. I remember constantly glancing back over my shoulder.

'It seemed to me that this "presence" was a strong, helpful and friendly one, and it was trot until Camp VI was sighted that tire link connecting me, as it seemed at the time to the beyond, was snapped, and although Shipton and the camp were but a few yards away, I suddenly felt alone.'

This is an edited extract from The Third Man Factor by John Geiger

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Title Annotation:exploration: THE THIRD MAN
Comment:The mystery of the third man: for decades, explorers and adventurers who've found themselves at the very edge of death have described experiencing a benevolent presence who encouraged them to make one final effort to survive.
Author:Geiger, John
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 1, 2009
Words:1686
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