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Mystery of the third man

Liz Porter, The Age, June 28, 2009
WHEN John Geiger read Sir Ernest Shackleton’s memoir of his 1914-1917 Antarctic expedition, he was transfixed by the legendary polar explorer’s tale of his battle for survival after the team’s ship, Endurance, became trapped in ice.
In the final weeks of the expedition, Shackleton and two companions had made a heroic, last-ditch attempt to reach a British whaling station, so they could get help to the other members of the expedition who were sick, exhausted and waiting 1100 kilometres away at Elephant Island. Filthy, ragged, dehydrated and ill-equipped, the trio trekked 38 kilometres across glaciers and icy mountain ranges on the island of South Georgia, reaching the British settlement 36 hours later.
The Toronto-based writer was in awe of Shackleton’s powers of physical endurance. But it was the metaphysical aspect of the story that stayed with him–the “unseen presence” that, according to the explorer, had accompanied the three men on the last harrowing stage of their journey.
“It seemed to me often that we were four not three,” Shackleton wrote in his memoir, South. Later, in his public lectures about the expedition, he referred to this presence as his “divine companion”.
Geiger, 49, is chairman of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society’s expeditions committee, a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and a member of the legendary New York-based Explorers Club. Five years ago, when he first opened the Shackleton memoir, the four non-fiction books on his CV included two about failed polar expeditions. But Geiger had never heard of the phenomenon that Shackleton described. “It seemed like an odd admission to appear in this heroic survival story,” he says. Wondering if other explorers might have had similar experiences, he started looking for examples.
He says the “miracle of Google” provided a cluster of leads on the phenomenon that 1975 Mount Everest climber Doug Scott described as “the third man syndrome: imagining there is someone else walking beside you, a comforting presence telling you what to do next”.
Geiger discovered aviator Charles Lindbergh’s account of on-board “phantoms” during his 1927 attempt to make the first solo non-stop trans-Atlantic flight from New York to Paris. As the pilot struggled to stay awake during the 33-hour flight, he felt that his companions were friendly and helpful. “(They were) conversing and advising on my flight … reassuring me,” he wrote about them later.
Geiger started to think he might have another book on his hands. “There was something interesting going on. Not just a fluke hallucination. I soon reached a dozen (cases). Then 25. And in the end I had 100-plus.
“I felt it was important that people understand just how common this experience is. It’s not highly unusual and freakish. It’s an experience that people have in all sorts of environments and conditions–and that lends it a lot of power.”
Meantime, the writer had discovered that the syndrome was endemic among climbers, from Peter Hillary, to Lincoln Hall and Reinhold Messner. But discussion of it had remained secret climbers’ business–quarantined to the kind of books and magazines mostly read by other climbers.
Geiger emphasises that he is laying no claims to discovering the “third man factor”. British neurologist MacDonald Critchley, for example, had alluded to the concept in his 1955 essay The Idea of a Presence, which drew on the scientist’s 1943 study of 279 shipwrecked sailors and airmen. It included statements from a pilot and his observer who had both kept imagining a third person adrift with them in their rubber dinghy in the North Atlantic.
“But nobody in the scientific realm was pursuing (the idea),” says Geiger. “And nobody in the popular realm was attempting to pull it together and tell the story.”
Once he started to discover more examples of “third man syndrome”–at sea-level, in the jungles of New Guinea, in space capsules–he felt he was facing a phenomenon that was both universally appealing and perplexing.
His conviction that the topic merited a book-length study was underlined when he heard examples of the “third man” appearing in urban environments as well as in the wilderness. After a department store collapsed in Seoul, Korea, in 1995, killing more than 300 people, a 19-year-old clerk, Park Seung-hyung, survived for 16 days in an air pocket beneath a crushed lift shaft. When rescued, she reported that a monk had appeared to her several times during her ordeal, giving her an apple and keeping her hope alive.
On September 11, 2001, trader Ron DiFrancesco was the last person out of the south tower of the World Trade Centre before it collapsed. Fighting his way down stairs he felt he was being “guided”, with “an angel” urging him not to recoil from flames in a stairwell, but to run through them. DiFrancesco was a man of deep religious beliefs who explained his experience as “divine intervention”.
The book chronicles the history of the phenomenon, recording early references to it in classical writing, in the Bible, and describing the first modern instance in 1895, when Nova Scotia-born Joshua Slocum’s 12-metre sloop, Spray, was caught in a cataclysmic storm on the first leg of his attempt to become the first person to circumnavigate the world. Ill and delirious, Slocum was visited by a “strange guest” who took the helm for 48 hours as he lay incapacitated on the floor of his cabin.
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