Third Man Factor

Who is the third who walks always 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
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
—But who is that on the other side of you?

–T.S. Eliot, from Section V, What the Thunder Said, of The Waste Land

Ernest Shackleton’s Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition had produced nothing but extreme terror. The ship Endurance, stuck in pack ice for nearly a year, shattered and sank; the men camped on ice floes for months, waiting for a clear ocean; when the mass finally disassembled they tossed in the dangerous ocean on lifeboats until they stumbled upon a deserted island; Shackleton and five others hopped in one of the boats to sail over 700 miles to a whaling outpost on South Georgia, persisting through monster waves, hurricanes, lack of water, salt ice, and psychic damage. More than two weeks in the small vessel, the six men, barely alive, arrived on the isle of their potential salvation, only to realize they were on the wrong part of it.

Standing between the lives of all the humans of the expedition and survival was over 25 miles of uncharted mountain range. Only three of the six retained enough strength to attempt a crossing. On 19 May 1916, Shackleton, Frank Worsley, and Tom Crean pushed into the unknown.

The mountains of South Georgia, as photographed by Frank Hurley

With no supplies other than 50 feet of rope and a carpenter’s adze, the three became woefully unprepared mountaineers. They encountered giant snow and icefields. They had to avoid deadly crevasses. With no guide, they climbed ridges that ultimately became dead ends, as the descents were impassable in their condition and with their gear. They trekked through the night, knowing sleep brought only death. On one apex, the group found their visibility worsening, as a fog rolled in. At night, they could not stay exposed on this rise, yet they could not spy the necessary drop. With almost no other choice, the men roped together and decided to slide down the slope.

Worsely wrote, “I was never more scared in my life than for the first thirty seconds. The speed was terrific. I think we all gasped at that hair-raising shoot into the darkness.”

For 36 hours straight, they plodded, climbed, descended, and endeavored to ascertain their positions. Somehow the trio teetered into the outpost. They were so disheveled, emaciated, and ragged that the people in the camp could not recognize the famous Shackleton. They raised rescue efforts and brought, miraculously, every human home alive across two islands. Such ended one of history’s most incredible odysseys 

A mountain and glacier on South Georgia - photo by Frank Hurley

They had triumphed temporarily over death, but something about the last part of the journey troubled Ernest Shackleton. As he attempted to relate the story to his confidantes, a process which would ultimately produce a memoir, called South, he struggled to express something. He seemed hesitant to reveal an occurrence until Worsley approached him several weeks after the ordeal ended.

Whether concerned about seeming hysterical or simply finding the situation ineffable, Shackleton had struggled to admit the following:

“When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snowfields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-place on South Georgia. I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia 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. One feels “the dearth of human words, the roughness of mortal speech” in trying to describe things intangible, but a record of our journeys would be incomplete without a reference to a subject very near to our hearts.”

Shackleton had just provided the first known record of what we now call Third Man Factor.

T.S. Eliot's immortal poem The Waste Land

The Third Man Factor, sometimes also called Third Man Syndrome, is an experience where a human feels an unseen presence during extreme or traumatic circumstances. These presences sometimes lead people to safety, offer advice, or help to calm nerves.

Since Shackleton wrote about his experience, thousands of people have shared similar stories. A large portion of those who report a Third Man experience happen to be explorers, climbers, sailors, or people in the midst of extreme weather conditions.

Each of the trio on South Georgia conveyed he had seen a fourth member walking with them, yet none talked about it at the time. You might wonder why researchers refer to the phenomenon as the “Third Man” when it stemmed from a foursome. T.S. Eliot, taken with the Shackleton story, added it to his classic 1922 poem The Waste Land. In the work, Eliot trims the group from three to two, making the new addition the Third Man. The name stuck.

Ernest Shackleton after recuperating in 1916

What causes this experience?

Ernest Shackleton believed the fourth man who walked along with them in South Georgia was sent from God. Many who extricate themselves from deadly situations after experiencing the phenomenon believe the incorporeal entity to be akin to a guardian angel.

Some researchers consider the beings to be hallucinations. John Geiger, who wrote a book compiling historical occurrences and studied potential reasons behind the happening, disputes the notion of the hallucination. He said, “It’s not a hallucination in the sense that hallucinations are disordering. This is a very helpful and orderly guide.” A hallucination seems individual in nature. Though reports of mass hallucinations exist, my hallucination is highly unlikely to be your hallucination. That many people would experience an unseen presence that also happens to lead them to safety seems to be more than a random hallucination.

A few scientists have attributed the phenomenon to the theory of the bicameral mind or bicameral mentality. The theory states that the two halves of a human brain once functioned in a manner such that cognitive uses were split over the halves. One part would “speak” to the second part, which would listen and carry out the orders. Those who adhere to this idea believe humans could have functioned in this way as recently as 3,000 years ago. Some posit that, when faced with extraordinary circumstances, the human brain might “revert” to a bicameral situation, where part of the brain is screaming a way for the body to survive. Perhaps because of a weakened physical and mental condition, the mind projects a Third Man, instead of simply whispering orders to the rest of the bicameral brain. This theory basically states the brain misfires and the result is an unseen presence.

Still, many psychiatrists and researchers believe the factor could be created by the mind in another way. Reinhold Messner, the legendary mountain climber, who had a Third Man experience of his own, subscribes to the idea that the Third Man Factor could be a result of evolution, the brain’s safety net. Instead of a hallucination or a misfiring brain, perhaps the mind creates a presence that can lead one from extreme danger. The knowledge of where to go or how to survive is usually present in experienced adventurers, but, in moments of high stress or across extreme physical limits, the conscious brain can turn to fog. Maybe the unseen presence is a last-ditch effort by the mind to cajole a body to follow the information it already knows. In times of mental distress, following someone who knows what to do is often far easier than putting all the puzzle pieces together.

Reinhold Messner in 1985 - photo by Jaan Künnap

In 1933, Frank Smythe nearly became the first human to ascend Everest. He missed the peak by 1,000 feet, driven back by terrible conditions. He wrote in his diary that on the way up, he reached into his pocket to pull out a hunk of mint cake and turned around to give it to his companion. Smythe, at that moment, climbed Everest solo. He wrote, “All the time that I was climbing alone, I had a strong feeling that I was accompanied by a second person. The feeling was so strong that it completely eliminated all loneliness I might otherwise have felt.”

Whether the ultimate answer to the Third Man Factor’s cause is spiritual, chemical, broken biology, evolution, or something else entirely, thousands of humans, if not more, extended their lives thanks to the phenomenon, lending a lot of credibility to its existence. From the World Trade Center to Mount Everest to Antarctica, humans under duress have sensed an incorporeal being at their sides and have followed the entity. As Messner put it, the being “leads you out of the impossible.”

The lives of dozens of people rested on the success of three men crossing previously unmapped mountains in South Georgia. If at any point they perished, the locations of the other parties would have never reached rescue ships. Their cunning and endurance border on otherworldly. How did they manage to pull it off? However they did it, the three men completed the journey, capping one of the world’s toughest survival quandaries.

Or, should we say, four men completed the journey?

Further Reading and Exploration


South by Sir Ernest Shackleton

The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot at the Poetry Foundation

The Third Man Factor by John Geiger

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