The “third man” phenomena—proof of guardian angels or something else?

Paul Frances McDonald via

Paul Frances McDonald via

Have you heard the story of “the third man” encountered by Ernest Shackleton during his legendary Antarctic expedition? You may already know the tale of how Shackleton’s boat The Endurance became trapped in the ice and how he and his crew narrowly escaped with their lives—but one fascinating fact that drew less attention was the otherworldly presence that accompanied him during the final leg of his journey.

After a harrowing 800-mile open water voyage, Shackleton and two crewmen then made an exhausting 23-mile trek over ice-covered mountain ranges to reach a British whaling station on the island of South Georgia. In his memoir, Shackleton reported that he and his two traveling companions were joined by a fourth person—an “unseen presence”:

I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three. I said nothing to my companions on the point, but afterwards Worsley said to me, ‘Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.’ Crean confessed to the same idea.

While Shackleton later referred to this presence as his “divine companion”, in other circles the phenomenon became known as the third man. And when I read The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible by John Geiger, I discovered that this presence has been encountered countless times, on land and at sea, by men and women who were in crisis situations and facing the real possibility of death.

Geiger has uncovered over 100 instances where those in duress have been accompanied by the “presence of some ineffable good”. Sometimes plainly visible, sometimes off in the shadows, sometimes talking, sometimes silent, the presence has been perceived as a ghost-like apparition, a guardian angel or a visitor from another realm. The author recounts how the stories have a common theme.

All have escaped traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a companion and helper. This presence offered a sense of protection, relief, guidance, and hope, and left the person convinced he or she was not alone but that there was some other being at his or her side, when there was none.

One explorer, Frank Smythe, was lost high on a mountain in near-blizzard conditions. He described the presence he found alongside him as an old man who whispered advice and offered him suggestions. The climber explained it this way: “He seems to have been acting as a guardian angel—a wiser self prompting caution and perhaps, stimulating instinctive self-preservation”. Among other notable cases where the third man has made himself known:

  • During the 9/11 attacks, Ron DeFrancisco was trapped high above the impact zone when a plane hit his building. He was overcome by smoke and began to fall into unconsciousness. At that point, according to DiFrancesco, “someone called me and told me to get up”. Only it did not belong to a person around him, but what he calls “a presence”. The voice encouraged him and directed him to “run through the fire” as it was his best means of escape. The voice encouraged him to keep moving until he reached safety, when “it let me go”.
  • While on his historic flight from the U.S. to England aboard The Spirit of St. Louis, Charles Lindbergh had an odd encounter that he did not report until almost 20 years later. He said there were “disembodied beings” in the cockpit with him. According to Lindbergh, “I’ve never believed in apparitions, but how can I explain the forms I carried with me through so many hours…transparent forms in human outline—voices that spoke with authority and clearness”.
  • After a difficult night struck on the side of an ice-covered mountain with an injured companion, the famed climber Reinhold Messner found he was not alone. In his words, “Suddenly, there was a third climber next to me. He was descending with us, keeping a little to my right and a few steps away, just out of my field of vision”. He felt a renewed sense of calm. “The mere presence somehow helped me regain my composure”. He made his way to safety.

The Third Man has been termed many things by medical professionals who try to explain it rationally: “A sensory illusion caused by extreme physical exertion or monotony”. “A condition attributable to low blood glucose or cerebral edema”. But there seems to be something more there.

Some have referred to it as the “angel switch”, an otherworldly mechanism that kicks in when we reach our limits of endurance. Peter Hilary, a noted adventurer who has witnessed the third man himself, believes that there is “a benevolent being assigned to each of us on a permanent basis, who sometimes works in the background like a discreet servant” and in times of emergency makes itself known in the physical realm.

For me, the third man brings up more questions than answers. Is it possible that some part of the self actually leaves the body at those moments when death may be imminent, much like those who leave their body while on the operating table? Are we viewing and aiding ourselves from a different plane of existence? And if we can call up this guiding force in times of great need, might we also be able to use this resource for comfort and guidance in everyday life?

This post originally appeared on my Wake Up Call column at Patheos, July 15, 2015.


3 responses to “The “third man” phenomena—proof of guardian angels or something else?

  1. Ruby M. Shelton

    Dear Tom:

    Thank you for your message on “The Third Man Phenomena.”

    It is a blessing to know that ships can be saved and that an unknown (unseen) presence is available to men like Shackleton. In answer to your concluding question: OF COURSE! He is our resource everyday. Sometimes we function in a different level of existence but it is important to not lose touch with reality. I believe that we feel His presence then.

    Allow me to introduce myself:

    I am a member of the Catholic church and have practiced Contemplative prayer since 2009. Got my high school education from a private Christian school in Peru. Recently I started a project, OUR GOD WITHIN, (please see attachment) with the desire to share my messages, receive, etc. with friends and persons who may have a serious interest in honoring our Savior’s words, “The Kingdom of Heaven is in You” via meditation, Christian,or a Contemplative approach. I invite you to join, if at all possible.

    I’d like to invite you to visit my facebook page, too. Like you, I support, Ralph Waldo Emerson, William Wardsworth, John Milton, William Blake and Thomas Merton.and have posted a couple of their poems. I plan to add one about Contemplative prayer soon.

    Hoping to hear from you soon I remain,

    Sincerely, Ruby M. Shelton

    • Thanks for your comments, Ruby. It sounds like we share many of the same spiritual points of view! The attachment did not come through, I will send a message to your e-mail account and hopefully you can send it that way. ~Tom

  2. OUR GOD WITHIN Reaching Our Inner Mountain – Meditation

    Dear friends:

    Fall is almost here and with it times for quietness, embracing nature. I am sending my message for next month early. I hope you don’t mind.

    It is not easy to be in touch with our feelings. It would be nice if along with our efforts we would have self-mastery. An answer might be to look into our inner world, (feelings, emotions, dreams, goals, etc.) After we focus in these, let our “self” guide us through:

    *What we perceive we might achieve.*

    SINCE When I see a leaf fall from a tree gravitate to the ground via the law of gravity-steady, I wish to do the same: for my “self” to equally follow that in this I would find my needs met.

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