Sunday, 27 September 2009

The third man factor

In 1953, Austrian mountaineer Herman Buhl (left)became the first person to climb Nanga Parbat in the ¬Himalayas—at 26,660 feet, the ninth tallest peak in the world. He climbed by himself and not far from the summit was forced to spend the night out in the open without a sleeping bag or tent. It was an agonizing ¬bivouac, but Buhl survived—in part, he later wrote, ¬because he sensed that he shared the ordeal with a ¬companion. "I had an extraordinary feeling," he wrote, "that I was not alone."

Chris Timms on the East Ridge of Mount Cook Aoraki, Christmas Day 1971. Later that day we felt the third man factor. Photo: Bob McKerrow

On Christmas Day 1971, I climbed the East Ridge of Mount Cook Aoraki, with Chris Timms, (who later went on to win a gold medal in yatching in the 1984 Olympics). As we climbed the ridge, we could see the weather closing in, but continued on. Approaching the summit ridge, just below the middle peak, we struck gale force winds and white out/ blizzard conditions. We had planned to climb back over the middle and high peaks, and descend by the Linda Ice Shelf route to Plateau Hut, where we had commenced the climb fifteen hours before. Once we crested the summit ridge the wind almost lifted us off our feet. We found a small hole to shelter in while we discussed our predicament. To continue over the high peak would have been suicidal as the wind would have ripped us off the ridge.To retrace our route, would have been very difficult as the east ridge is very exposed and not an easy descent route. As we didn’t have adequate bivouac gear, we decided to descend down into the Empress ice shelf, to Empress Hut. Neither of us knew this route, or precisely where the hut was situated, but it appeared to be the quickest and safest way off the mountain. In virtual white out conditions we moved 50 to 100 metres down the ridge towards the low peak of Mt. Cook Aoraki. Then we started descending a very steep face. Chris took a fall and I managed to hold him and half an hour later, I took a tumble and Chris arrested me. We were lost, freezing in the blizzard conditions, but knew the only way out was to keep climbing or fumbling our way down to the Empress ice shelf. Chris was ahead of me and I was frightened, and struggled to concerntrate. I felt someone was behind me on the rope, but knew Chris was below me. The presence cheered me and I felt in control again. After descending for two hours, we were both exhausted. There was a third person with us. I could feel him encouraging me on. We felt we were not far from the ice shelf. Thirty minutes later the steep slopes lessened, and we couldn’t see more than 3 or 4 metres. We were lost. Again I felt the strong presence of a third person urging us on.

Mount Cook Aoraki. The East Ridge is on the skyline left of the photo: Photo: Bob McKerrow

Chris and I started to argue over where Empress Hut would likely to be. Suddenly in the midst of a gale, the storm and clouds parted showing a fresh pair of footprints. “Who made them” I said as I looked Chris in the eye. It became quiet. We didn’t hesitate a minute and followed the tracks to Empress Hut which was about 300 metres away. The tracks stopped there. There was only one set of footprints from us to the hut. Looking down valley there were no footprints. We checked the hut book and no one had been in the hut for five days. I went outside again to check down valley, but there were no foot prints. It was clear to me that the third man had made the footprints and saved us from possible death.

Accounts of experiencing a supportive presence in extreme situations—sometimes called the "third-man phenomenon"—are common in mountaineering ¬literature. In 1933, Frank Smythe made it to within a 1,000 feet of the summit of Mount Everest before ¬turning around. On the way down, he stopped to eat a mint cake, cutting it in half to share with . . . someone who wasn't there but who had seemed to be his ¬partner all day. Again on Nanga Parbat, on a 1970 climb during which his brother died, Reinhold Messner ¬recalled being accompanied by a companion who ¬offered ¬wordless comfort and encouragement.
To research further on this fascinating topic, the third man factor, I have just read The Third Man Factor by John Geiger, a fellow at the University of Toronto. He presents many accounts of such experiences, and not only from climbers. Among those who have felt a ghostly companionship he cites Charles Lindbergh on his solo flight across the -Atlantic in 1927 and the last man to walk out of the South Tower of the World Trade ¬Center before it ¬collapsed on 9/11. "Over the years," Geiger writes, "the ¬experience has ¬occurred again and again, not only to 9/11 survivors, mountaineers, and ¬divers, but also to ¬polar explorers, -prisoners of war, solo sailors, shipwreck ¬survivors, aviators, and -astronauts. All have ¬escaped ¬traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a companion and helper." .

One of the most famous stories involves polar ¬explorer Ernest Shackleton, who set off with two ¬volunteers, in January 1915, to fetch help for the crew of his ship the Endurance, then sunk under Antarctic ice. ¬After navigating perilous seas and crossing glaciers and mountains on foot, Shackleton recalled feeling that someone else was among them. "It seemed to me often that we were four, not three," he wrote. -Shackleton's ¬actual companions told him that they, too, felt the ¬presence of another person. T.S. Eliot used the incident for a passage in "The Waste Land." ("Who is the third who walks always beside you?" Eliot wrote. "When I count, there are only you and I together.")

In 1970 I was one of four men who wintered over at Vanda Station, a remote base in Antarctica. I was 21 at the start of winter. We were the smallest party to winter over in the history of Antarctica. Fire was our biggest risk and every four weeks. I would be alone from 9pm to 6am on fire watch. I would have to walk every three hours 100 metres in the pitch black to the meteorological screen to take readings. Every hour I would walk from the main building to the science lab. The temperatures were as low as -40 to -50 o C, and the stones on the ground would crunch loudly as I stood on them. Initially I was a little on edge as I began feeling something unusual. By late April, when it became dark for 24 hours a day. I gradually felt someone was with me as I walked between buildings and to take weather readings. It was a comforting presence, and I never felt afraid or lonely from then on.

Men behave strangely in the long winter Antarctic night. Here Gary Lewis, washing in a tin bath, with a sailing ship in one hand, a whiskey in the other. I wintered over with Gary at Vanda Station in 1970. Photo: Bob McKerrow

The theories for explaining the third-man ¬experience vary widely. Ron DiFrancesco, the 9/11 survivor who walked out of the South Tower, is convinced that a divine being was by his side, and indeed a spiritual interpretation is common. Scientists, by contrast, have discovered how to evoke the sensation of a shared ¬presence by stimulating the brain with -electricity. Messner, the mountaineer, leans toward the idea that the third-man phenomenon is a survival strategy hard-wired into the brain. "The body is ¬inventing ways to provide company," he says.
Although Geiger never shoots down any specific theory, he seems to endorse a biochemical ¬explanation. "It is possibly even an evolutionary -adaption," he writes. "Imagine the advantage for ¬primitive man, ¬perhaps -separated during a hunt, alone far from his tribal group, to have the guiding hand of a companion pointing the way home." But the -phenomenon is not limited to ¬people in extremis. Geiger notes that children often experience ¬real-seeming "imaginary friends," while -widows and widowers say that they feel the presence of a ¬deceased spouse.
"The Third Man represents a real and potent force for survival," Geiger writes, "and the ability to ¬access this power is a factor, perhaps the most -important factor, in determining who will succeed against seemingly insurmountable odds, and who will not." Geiger, however, is at a loss to explain why some can access this power and others can't.

He recounts the example of Maurice Wilson,(left) an ¬Englishman who most historians consider slightly ¬unhinged. In 1934, Wilson decided to climb his first mountain: Everest. He actually made it to almost 22,000 feet (more than two-thirds of the way to the top). "I feel there is somebody with me in tent all the time," he wrote in his diary. He pressed on alone in ¬terrible ¬conditions, leaving his Sherpa porters behind. Soon ¬after, he died. "It is unknown," Geiger writes, "if his invisible companion stayed with him during his final hours." The lesson? "There is no saving the life of one who will not be saved. The Third Man requires a willing partner."
Of course there may be many others who, like ¬Wilson, ¬experienced a third man and died ¬anyway—but who left no account, never wanes.
"Imagine the impact on our lives if we could learn to access this feeling at will," Geiger says. "There could be no loneliness with so constant a companion. There could be no stress in life that we would ever again have to ¬confront alone."
From experiencing this third man factor myself and having read other people’s account extensively, I tend to agree with DiFrancesco, the 9/11 survivor who walked out of the South Tower, that a divine being was with me.


Unknown said...

Hey Bob,

Interesting thoughts. Theres certainly more out there than we currently "understand". Love reading your blog!


Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Hi Jamie

Yes there is a bit more there than sometimes we think. I am sure you have had a few third man experiences !


Ruahines said...

Kia ora Bob,
A very fascinating subject. i recall being on a somewhat hairy journey alone in the Pohangina valley a few years back, flooded rivers, windy and obscured tops, and felt very strongly the feeling of not being alone, not in a scary way at all, but rather a presence to bounce thoughts off of, to verify decisions. The most interesting part is that days later after returning from the mountains we began hearing footsteps walking up and down our porch outside, never inside, but certainly the sound of boots trodding on wood, and usually at the same time each night. And always nothing there. After a week or so I went out and calmly spoke, had a feeling that whoever was with me in the mountains also needed to get out but was now uncertain about where to go. After that night we never heard the footsteps again. Some may scoff, but I was there. Interesting topic indeed. Great post Bob.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Kia Ora Robb

Indeed, a fascinating topic. Interesting that you have felt the presence. Yours is an intriquing story in the fact he/she followed you home. Yoyu should read the book, nothing short of gripping.


pohanginapete said...

Bob, this is great. I've been fascinated by this for many years and have collected a few stories from the literature; however, I didn't know of Geiger's book. Mountaineer (and excellent writer) Greg Child had a very good chapter about it in Mixed Emotions, but one of the best recent accounts and discussions I've come across is in Aat Vervoorn's Mountain Solitudes.

I haven't experienced this myself — not yet, anyway — but thanks for rekindling my interest

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Pete

Ah well I remember Aat Vervoorn's lucid conversation with the ghost of Charlie Douglas in the welcome Flat hot pools. Aat is a master story teller.

It is a fascinating phenonena and one many of us who tred in remote places, feels soemething akin to a 'presence.'

I must re-read Greg Child's book and thanks for reminding me.

Look after yourself and all those rocks Pete.


Nigel Roberts said...

Bob: Congratulations on your two most recent posts -- i.e., about the Third Man phenomenon (and I don't mean Orson Welles) and about the Scott Base huskies. Both pieces were of particular interest to me. Your photo of a young Arnold Heine -- without a flowing white beard: help, I thought he'd always had one! -- was a classic, as was the picture of Gary Lewis in the Vanda bath tub. I first met Gary when he was summer leader at Vanda in 1979-80 and have lost touch with him. I was wondering if you could help me get back in touch with Gary? My email address is: Very many thanks, Nigel.

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Nige

You can contact Gary on:,

Gary used to like drinking whiskey in the bath while sailing boats.

Appreciate your feedback on the last two postings, especially the one on the dogs. It took a long time and a lot of research to get that together so I am always happy that other people find it of use.

Yes Arnild looks quite handsome without a beard.

Good to have contact.

Best regards


Marja said...

Exciting interesting story Science wants to explain everything but can't I surely know we are not alone I am not very often in danger but have other stories. The last one is that on a blog of Christchurch based woman I read this story
in which she asked her guardian angel to leave a feather.
I did the same and early next morning my house was covered in feathers which came from a boa of my daughter who went that night to a dress up party dressed up as an angel. I had no idea
Coincedence? Maybe not

Bob McKerrow - Wayfarer said...

Dear Marja

I believe in Guardian Angels or something like that. This is why the concept of the third man or third person factor is so believeable. When we are alone, we desire companionship, and someone to talk to, so it is understandable that someone answers our plea for help.

I like the story about the feather.

Many thanks.


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