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.