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The third man

A third man on the ridge? Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography
Shaun Barnett investigates an unusual phenomenon experienced by those in extreme hardship

In 1933 mountaineer Frank Smythe found himself high on Mt Everest, higher than anyone had ever been before, and he stopped to rest. Unconsciously he offered half his Kendal Mint Cake to his companion, but then realised he was climbing alone. Afterwards Smythe recalled: ‘All the time I was climbing alone I had a strong feeling that I was accompanied by a second person. That feeling was so strong that it completely eliminated all loneliness I might otherwise have felt.’

Some might easily write off Smythe’s delusion as the result of altitude-induced exhaustion or lack of oxygen, but the English mountaineer is by no means the only person to have experienced an unseen companion.

In his fascinating 2009 book, The Third Man Factor, American writer John Geiger details many encounters with imaginary companions experienced by climbers, polar adventurers, sailors and explorers.

One of Smythe’s contemporaries, British mountaineer Eric Shipton, reported a similar encounter when on Mt Kenya with Bill Tilman in 1930, and later admitted he ‘had this experience regularly on arduous mountain journeys’.

In July 1953, just weeks after the successful Everest climb by Edmund Hillary, Austrian mountaineer Hermann Buhl first climbed the formidable 8126m Nanga Parbat – a mountain that had already claimed 31 lives. Buhl took 17 hours on his ascent, without supplementary oxygen, with ‘every step…a battle’ and he reached the summit at 7pm only after ‘an indescribable effort of will power’ that at one point involved crawling on all fours. After bivvying near the summit, he resumed his descent, having inexplicably left his ice-axe behind. Exhausted and nearing collapse, Buhl moved in a ‘self-induced hypnosis’. It seemed he would become another victim to the mountain. But then he sensed an unseen companion, one which somehow provided calmness, security and advice.

‘During those hours of extreme tension I had an extraordinary feeling that I was not alone,’ he later recalled. ‘I had a partner with me, looking after me, taking care of me, belaying me. I knew it was imagination; but the feeling persisted.’

Miraculously, Buhl reached his fellow climbers at their lower camp after 41 hours in the so-called death zone.

Joshua Slocum, first to sail solo around the world, experienced the presence of a shipmate who manned the helm during a dangerous storm when Slocum was lying seriously ill on his cabin floor. He came through the storm unscathed, on course, and – alone.

Most famous of all is, of course, Ernest Shackleton’s encounter when crossing South Georgia Island in 1916. In his book South, the Antarctic explorer wrote: ‘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.’ His two companions, Tom Crean and New Zealander Frank Worsley, also reported the presence.

Writer T S Eliot later immortalised the event in his famous poem ‘The Waste Land’.

‘Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you’

Poetic licence reduced the number of actual men to two, and the phenomenon has been known ever since as ‘The Third Man’. Those with religious beliefs are almost certain to call the third man, as Shackleton did, ‘Providence’ and attribute it to the presence of God, or guardian angels.

New Zealand sailor Adrian Hayter was another who experienced almost miraculous intervention during a solo yacht voyage to New Zealand from England in the 1950s. During a monsoon storm, Hayter suffered three weeks of near continual soaking, bad salt-water boils all over his body, and then lacerations to his inner thighs while he saved the mast from breaking. The pain and desperation caused him to sink into a deep depression, and he felt that ‘the end of endurance was near’.

But then, a mysterious blue-eyed companion appeared on deck, began to issue instructions, provided moral support and even asked if there were any eggs for breakfast. The intervention snapped Hayter out of his depression, enabling him to carry on. He later put down the experience to his spiritual belief that ‘something else came in’ when you were nearly beaten.

Mt Everest, scene of Frank Smythe’s Kendal mint cake offer. Photo: Darryn Pegram/Black Robin Photography

In The Third Man Factor John Geiger thoroughly examines the phenomena, which seems to be common not only among mountaineers, but to anyone in an extreme environment or situation; astronauts, sailors in storms, polar explorers, even those who survived the collapse of the Twin Towers during 9/11.

Some researchers, Geiger says, have explained away the phenomena as the effects of cold, exhaustion and hypoxia. But Geiger counters with the question: how could a decay of brain function account for the odd sense of comfort and support, even guidance, commonly experienced in these situations? The third man factor seems at odds with the unreality normally associated with hallucinations.

In successive chapters titled ‘The Pathology of Boredom’, ‘The Guardian Angel’, and the ‘Widow Effect’, Geiger examines possible explanations for the third man. He asks ‘When failure – even death – seems inevitable, an unseen being joins those at risk. What changes?’

One researcher quoted by Geiger points out that even in everyday life, ‘unseen’ companions are quite normal, particularly among children – up to a third of kids experience imaginary playmates. Another study found about half of widows or widowers reported sensing the presence of their dead spouse. So one possible explanation for the third man seems to be, as Geiger puts it, ‘the body invents ways to provide company’.

This effect can be exacerbated in times of sadness, in unforgiving environments, or in extremely monotonous terrain like deserts or the interior of Antarctica. On his 1998-1999 trek to the South Pole, adventurer Peter Hillary found himself estranged from his two Australian companions and often skiing alone. In such a blank, inhospitable environment he experienced the comforting presence of his mother, who had died in a 1975 plane crash. Hillary’s book on the trek, In the Ghost Country, offers this description: ‘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.’

Geiger’s book got me thinking about other New Zealand examples, aside from Peter Hillary, Frank Worsley and Adrian Hayter. Were there any? In a search of mountain literature, I found three.

Mountaineer Aat Vervoorn wrote in his 2000 book Mountain Solitudes about getting into difficulty while solo climbing Eagle Peak in the Mt Cook area. Near the summit, on an unstable slope threatened with a bluff below, two minor wet snow avalanches hissed over him. Vervoorn narrowly escaped falling. Soaked and trembling, he began climbing out of danger towards the summit rocks.

Then something out of the ordinary happened. ‘I began to sense a presence, something external that was accompanying me and communicating wordlessly. It soothed and supported me; it sought to calm me, to help me regain control over myself and the situation. There was no illusion of a physical companion or the presence of an identifiable individual, nevertheless I had a clear sense that this was a consciousness separate from my own, something independent of me that was unbidden, whose calming reassuring effect was direct and immediate.’

The second example comes from hunting literature. Joff Thomson wrote of deer culling life in his well-regarded book Deer Hunter (1952) and the follow-up Deer Shooting Days (1964). In the latter, Thomson devoted a whole chapter to unusual incidents. He wrote ‘…I have occasionally discussed…“That Third Man”…with climbers, hunters, musterers and various past associates. I’ve asked if they have ever experienced any such thing as the following. When in dire peril, has it been due entirely to their own effort that they’ve been extracted out of danger to safety, or has it been through the help of some unknown hand?’

Thomson relates the story of a time he was determined to cross the flooded Rakaia River to reach his base camp. He searched for a good ford, but there were none. He was about to attempt a doubtful crossing point, when he heard the distinctive voice of a child behind him saying ‘No, Dad, don’t do it’. Thomson says his hair stood on end, but upon turning to look, he found no one there. When he made a second fording attempt, the voice came again and – unnerved – he backed out of the river.

He recalled: ‘Over a day later I returned to this place to find that had I attempted to cross that day, well, I wouldn’t have been telling the story now. My daughter at the time was only three; but it makes one wonder what does go on “behind the lines”.’

John Geiger, author of The Third Man Factor

The last New Zealand example I found of the ‘third man factor’ was in a biography of missionary explorer William Colenso. During the 1840s and 1850s, Colenso became the first Pakeha to cross the Ruahine Range. Many decades later, in 1913, three trampers, B C Aston, Frank Hutchison and R A Wilson retraced Colenso’s route, which was overgrown and largely unused.

Hutchison later wrote: ‘It was at this first camp of ours, by the Makaroro [River], that I fell into a strange trick of numbers that haunted us all the days we had together in those high, lonely hills. It was that there were four of us instead of three. Else why need I plan our bedding as I did, for the greater number that night, and count again for four victualling together in the morning…I had only to look away from my companions to know that there was another with them. But I could never see his face.’

Perhaps an overly active imagination can conjure historical figures back from the mists of time. But before sceptics write off these experiences as wholly imaginary, a question begs. Most of these people are well-known or famous, and often make a living through adventuring. Why would they want to undermine their credibility if what they experienced did not seem entirely genuine?

If you don’t want to risk doubt or derision, better to shut up than fess up. Joff Thomson was clearly nervous about this when he wrote: ‘Perhaps…those who know me well will think I have taken leave of my senses…’

I can only conclude that the experiences of these New Zealanders, along with the many examples given by Geiger, were so compelling they could not honestly deny them – and felt obliged to record them.

In the final chapter of The Third Man Factor, Geiger comes to a quite stunning conclusion: when all seems lost, a switch or trigger in the human brain can somehow conjure psychological help. To some, this will be God. To others it will be friends or family, and yet others, a stranger.

Of course the third man does not always appear. Herman Buhl died in the Karakoram mountains just four years after his success on Nanga Parbat. Providence did not intervene when a cornice collapsed beneath him. No third man held the rope, and Buhl plunged to his death. His body was never recovered.

But, as Geiger articulates, a thread runs through all these accounts. ‘The Third Man represents something extraordinary. His appearance has always signalled a moment of transcendence over an explorer’s, adventurer’s, or survivor’s immediate, dire situation. The Third Man is an instrument of hope, a hope achieved by a recognition that is fundamental to human nature: the belief – the understanding – that we are not alone.’

– The author would like to thank John Geiger for permission to use quotes from his book.