The third man factor: a saviour within?

By Alasdair McGregor 21 December 2012
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Pushed to the brink of exhaustion, lone adventurers have been known to seek solace from a surprising source.

SOUTH GEORGIA, IN THE South Atlantic Ocean near Antarctica, is a wild place, no less wild today than it was back in 1916 when Sir Ernest Shackleton, Frank Worsley and Tom Crean set out to penetrate the island’s unexplored and mountainous interior. Theirs was no casual mountaineering excursion, but a desperate bid to cross from coast to coast – south to north – in the hope of reaching one of the island’s Norwegian-run whaling stations.

The saga of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition is rightly famous; the crossing of the island was just one dramatic chapter in that most stirring of all survival stories.

In South, Shackleton’s account of the expedition, he wrote: “I have no doubt that Providence guided us…it seemed to me there were four and not three.”

Worsley and Crean concurred; they too had sensed the company of another on the South Georgia crossing. Shackleton’s admission of this benevolent presence was taken up in church sermons and revivalist meetings at the time and proved the inspiration for the haunting lines in The Wasteland, T.S. Eliot’s epic poem:

Who is the third that walks 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…

The third man factor

Shackleton’s experience is perhaps the most celebrated example of what has been dubbed the ‘third man’ factor, or syndrome.

Soldiers, sailors and airmen in time of war; solo yachtsmen, astronauts, mountaineers and explorers; survivors of horrendous accidents or atrocities such as the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre – these are people pushed beyond the normal limits of endurance.

In response to their overwhelming circumstances some may sense the presence of ‘another’ – perhaps as a vague awareness, or a definable stranger, or even a loved one – there to guide them out of danger or simply to offer comfort. For those of a religious persuasion, a guardian angel or God might be invoked.

In his book The Third Man Factor, Toronto-based author John Geiger outlines numerous experiences of this intriguing syndrome: from Joshua Slocum, the first person to sail solo around the world; to Charles Lindbergh on his epic flight across the Atlantic in 1927; to mountaineer Reinhold Messner on his desperate descent from the Himalayan peak Nanga Parbat in 1970.

Supernatural or a delusion?

“If only a handful of people had ever experienced the Third Man,” writes Geiger, “it might be dismissed as an unusual delusion shared by a few overstressed minds.”

But numerous survivors over the decades all tell strikingly similar stories. For Messner, whose brother Gunter was killed on the Nanga Parbat descent, there was no doubt of a third climber always being a few steps away. “I could sense his presence. I needed no proof.”

Since the syndrome was first clinically documented in the 1940s, psychologists have postulated various triggers and explanations ranging from sensory deprivation, extreme fatigue and boredom, to an evolutionary adaptation. If one person can summon up a benevolent presence while others are incapable of such a thing, then the psychological comfort may give a boost in the survival stakes.

Sydney-based clinical psychologist Dr Lissa Johnson has successfully encouraged trauma victims to “cultivate inner characters”, lending imagined support and comfort through internal dialogue in times of need.

She says she finds it “very powerful in therapy”, but also sees a parallel with the third man syndrome, where the “psyche could rise to the occasion and fulfil a need for external assistance”. Instead of talking to oneself, Dr Johnson believes, “imagery is emotionally more powerful than language”. 

“Monochrome of misery”

In 1998 New Zealand mountaineer and adventurer Peter Hillary and Australians Jon Muir and Eric Philips made an attempt at completing Robert Falcon Scott’s tragic 1911-12 journey from Ross Island to the South Pole and back. The trek did not fare well and the trio eventually abandoned their journey at the Pole itself.

On the brutal southward journey across the Ross Ice Shelf, a vast expanse that Hillary described as a “monochrome of misery”, the New Zealander was convinced that he was joined from time to time either by his late mother or dead climbing friends. Looking back on the ordeal, Hillary reflected: “When you are under stress in a sensory deprived environment they come to the surface – not as metaphysics but as the unravelling of the mind, really.”

In the end, as John Geiger points out, the third man factor may be nothing more than a coping mechanism for those under extreme physical or psychological strain. We may be by ourselves, but perhaps we are never quite alone.