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The Third Man Factor

In his book The Third Man Factor (Amazon US and Amazon UK), author John Geiger goes in search of an extraordinary phenomenon that has previously received little coverage: the oft-repeated experience of people at the very edge of death who feel the presence of an incorporeal being who encourages them and guides them to safety. Geiger tells the stories of 9-11 survivors, mountaineers, astronauts, explorers and prisoners of war who have reported the ‘third man factor’. One of those who Geiger talked to is climber James Sevigny, who was caught in an avalanche which killed his friend Richard Whitmire, and left him with a broken back in two places, a broken arm, internal injuries and more. In the video below, Sevigny himself tells of what happened next:

The name of the phenomenon – “the third man factor” – may seem odd, given experiences like Sevigny’s in which the presence was more a ‘second man’. But Geiger explains that the label arose in the wake of the experience of the famed polar explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton, who reported the same phenomenon as Sevigny and many others. Geiger’s retelling of Shackleton’s experience makes plain the harrowing nature of the explorer’s failed expedition, and is worth a read. Here’s the abridged version:

What, exactly, Sir Ernest Shackleton and his men encountered on their harrowing crossing of the south polar island of South Georgia is a question that has confounded historians and inspired Sunday sermons ever since. The apparition impressed Shackleton as being not of this world, a manifestation of some greater power. It made its appearance near the end of the explorer’s grandly named Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-16, at the very point when Shackleton stood to ensure his survival and that of his men – or to lose everything in the attempt.

…The expedition’s ship Endurance had threaded its way through the freezing Weddell Sea, becoming trapped by ice even before Shackleton could disembark for his attempt to traverse the Antarctic continent.

After being carried in the ice for nearly ten months, the ship was abandoned on October 27, 1915. Shackleton wrote: “She was doomed: no ship built by human hands could have withstood the strain. I ordered all hands out on the floe”… As the retreating crew picked their way for five months across the rotting ice, dragging the Endurance’s small boats, some were overwhelmed by their predicament: ‘The men were not normal; some of them wanted to commit suicide and [Shackleton] had to force them to live’.

On April 9, 1916, fifteen months after the ship first became trapped, the men made an escape from the ice, launching the small boats on the open sea. Huddled in the boats, they were now tormented by the surging seas… Having spent three nights in the boats, Shackleton doubted all the men would survive a fourth. Then they saw the rugged cliffs of Elephant Island, a desolate outcrop off the Antarctic Peninsula, and landed, staggering to shore like a band of drunkards…

Knowing there was no chance a relief expedition would find them, Shackleton decided to leave the majority of his crew behind on Elephant Island and take five men with him in one of the small boats… His goal was a whaling station on the British possession of South Georgia, more than eleven hundred kilometres away.

In an astounding feat of navigation, the small team made it to South Georgia, battling severe dehydration, starvation, frostbite, and eventually having to land their boat in the midst of hurricane-like conditions. And yet at this point, they still found themselves on the opposite side of the island from the whaling station, and so faced a further journey of 38 kilometres (as the crow flies) traversing the island’s two previously uncrossed mountain ranges.

A month after leaving Elephant Island, Shackleton and two others (Frank Worsley and Tom Crean) set out for the whaling station across the ice fields and glaciers, with just fifteen metres of rope and a carpenter’s adze substituting for an ice axe. And somehow, against all odds, they made it across – and all of the Endurance’s crew survived.

The odd part of it all is that afterwards, all three men claimed to have felt that there was someone else with them on that journey. When Shackleton came to tell the story of the crossing of South Georgia he revealed

…that he had a pervasive sense, during that last and worst of his struggles, that something out of the ordinary had accompanied them:

“When I look back at those days I have no doubt that Providence guided us, not only across those snow-fields, but across the storm-white sea that separated Elephant Island from our landing-pace 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.”

He had said nothing to the others, but then, three weeks later Worsley offered without prompting: “Boss, I had a curious feeling on the march that there was another person with us.” Crean later confessed to the same strange sensation. Each of the three men had come to the same conclusion independently of the others: that they had been in company with another being.

…Strangely, history remembers Shackleton’s visitor on South Georgia not as a fourth – Shackleton, Worsley, Crean and one mysterious other – but as ‘the third man’. This is because T.S. Eliot referred to the phenomenon in ‘The Waste Land’, written in 1922 and arguably the most famous English-language poem of the twentieth century, but used poetic licence to alter the number.

You can read a more detailed excerpt from the book at John Geiger’s website, or better yet just purchase the book itself from Amazon US (as of this writing, an absolute steal at $5.98) or Amazon UK.

  1. Truly gritty dudes. While
    Truly gritty dudes. While reading “Edurance” about the voyage my jaw was dropped most of the time. These were amazingly tough and “together” men. If they collectively felt another presence I suspect there was indeed another presence.These guys had their heads screwed on way tighter than most mortals.

  2. Angel? Other dimensional
    Angel? Other dimensional being – or whatever definition you prefer? Sevigny’s account seems sincere – as far as he seems to be genuinely conveying what he believes he experienced. I had one “angelic” experience in my 45 years. It was around 25 years ago – I was emotionally terrified of the finality of death and my logical side overwhelmed any faith I had of life beyond death. Yet in my deepest despair I dropped to my knees and prayed for a sign of something more. The following day I had 3 experiences: at college while eating in an open area a stranger/”student” walked up to me, I did not hear or see him approach when he said, “can I help you?” I looked up and said “excuse me?” He repeated and then explained “each day that when he leaves class he asks God to send him to the person who needs him the most and today God sent him to me.” Clearly I was startled. He talked to me for a few minutes and gave me a little pamphlet on Jesus Christ. That was number 1.

    Later that day I went to the bank and parked my car in an empty parking lot with my windows cracked about a half inch – it was a hot day. When I returned about 5 minutes later and opened my door another pamphlet was resting on my drivers seat – a different one with flames on it that said ”is there a hell.” I looked around and the lot was still empty with no-one around. Inside the pamphlet again it said to be saved through Christ…that was number 2.

    That evening I was greeting members at the front desk of the health club I managed and as a member left he called out my name and put out his hand. I put out my hand in response and he slapped it as he walked by and left. When I looked in my hand he had placed a 3rd pamphlet in it – again saying eternal life through Christ. That was number 3.

    Do angels exist? Does God exist? I have no idea. But this experience brings me comfort and helps to counter my rational side and encourage my faith side. Is the 3rd man an angel or messenger from a dimension related to our experience here on Earth? Or merely random coincidences shaped into meaning through our need to believe…

  3. The ‘Third Man’ as the Holy Ghost & Lujan Matus’ ‘Creator’
    Greg like a lot of people John Geiger takes the position T.S. Eliot was using poetic license when he referred to the numinous fourth being the three explorers experienced as ‘the third man’.

    My suspicion though’s he was alluding not just to the mystic trinity found in most if not all religions but also demonstrating a higher insight into to something alluded to in say Lujan Matus’s work by a diagram he calls the Completion Hieroglyph [details are online] which consists of just such a trinity: i) that part of ourselves which’s the architect of our existences as constructions of energy interwoven with ii) that part of ourselves which’s the architect of our existences as constructions of matter.

    These two overseen by a third part of ourselves iii) the Creator which coordinates or “witnesses” the activities of the other two aspects as it were.

    I suspect the experience of the likes of Shackleton and his cohorts is also closely related to that of people like myself who periodically undergo the peculiar experience their lives are stories being told or staged for the benefit of unknown parties (although my own periodic run-ins with the likes of what seems to be the Triple Hags found in most mythologies not to mention various ‘old’ and ‘new’ ‘gods’ tells me this ‘psychosis’ isn’t at all a product of living in the media age as at least one ‘explanation’ goes).

  4. I read Geiger’s book about a
    I read Geiger’s book about a year ago. If I remember correctly he steered clear of paranormal explanations, preferring to suggest explanations that encompass human physiology & neurology pushed to extremes. If these “3rd man factors” were examples of “guardian angels” etc., it would make one wonder why mountains & oceans are littered with so many dead bodies. Are some people give guardian angels while others are given big lumps of lead? At best, one is left with the inescapable conclusion that “Providence” is a capricious & fickle bitch.

      1. from the Thou-Art-G_d-Dept.
        Nice interview — it seems that the good Dr. has become kinda ‘Buddhist’ in outlook. Totally cool that she was assessing when she was caught drowning :3

        I’m glad that she is able to grok that there are no bad things…

        from September 11…to lionesses killing to feed her young…to the death of stars…

        there is beauty and meaning in everything

        I’m glad of that even though she stole essential nutrients from the dwellers in that river that would have feasted on her body…

      2. That’s nice emlong. Proves
        That’s nice emlong. Proves nothing though. Peter Fonda tells a story about dying 3 times after being shot when he was a kid. I don’t remember the exact quote but it was something like “No white light…no tunnel…no loved ones waiting to greet me…nothing…zip…nada…just black…”

        Personally I’m pulling for complete oblivion. Being turned out like a light sounds peaceful.

        I do understand why some people need to cling to these banal & repetitive survival stories though.

        But I also understand why some people don’t.

        Either way, the scythe is heading our way. Arrival time to be determined at a later date.

        1. Notable is how people tend to
          Notable is how people tend to look for a “formula.” If not everyone has the same experience then it fails some test of verification, or it is regarded as a “loophole” or a “fluke.” Of course, the best verification is one’s own experience. There is nothing quite like that.

          And the doctor’s NDE did not yield a “there are no bad things” result. The real lesson was that ultimately there is no good/evil dichotomy. There are things of transient badness for certain, but from the perspective of the departed these are very much temporary or from time.

          1. Emlong, you’re making an
            Emlong, you’re making an incredibly large assumption by believing the “departed” have a “perspective.”

            How do you know that these experiences aren’t hallucinations brought on by a massive endorphin/DMT chemical dump? Not to mention all the other toxins that might not be properly filtered out by a body consumed with crisis.

            When my mom was dying, my young son gave her one of his drawings of Godzilla & his Kaiju kin. We all sat and watched my mother “pick up” the 2 dimensional drawing off the page and examine it as if it were a 3 dimensional object, even turning it around and viewing it from the back. She then replaced the invisible(to us) 3 dimensional object on the 2 dimensional page as she told him how beautiful it was.

            Have you ever read any of Anthony Peake’s books?

            By the way “good” & “bad” & “expectations of a formula” have absolutely nothing to do with my post. Fonda “died” 3 times & saw nothing. The doctor died & saw something. In my mind they just cancel each other out & leave us with a big fat zero. Is Fonda less credible than the doctor? Was Fonda less dead?

            I do agree that there’s no substitute for experience but since my experience of it means I’ll be dead, I’m content to save my “belief” on the matter until I spit out my last breath. Anything else looks surprisingly like a “transient” human furiously refusing to believe that it’s “very much temporary.”

          2. We are all making
            We are all making assumptions. May I suggest you watch the “I Survived – Beyond and Back” series. Therein are many tales of the Near Dead witnessing and reporting things they could not have known about even when conscious. Particularly compelling is the report of the neurosurgeon whose near death experience radically rejiggered his thoughts on the subject.
            The Neurosurgeons’s tale:

            “I Survived – Beyond and Back”

            I find that a lot of the people who are the most vocal skeptics are also the poorest informed about others’ experiences. Whether this is from sheer laziness or a defense mechanism I am not sure – maybe both. I am not trying to “prove” anything to you – only asking that you open yourself up to more experience. There really isn’t any excuse for ignoring the vast trove of experiencer reports available to us via the internet these days.

          3. I agree completely Emlong.
            I agree completely Emlong. The more one tries to put their finger on “it” the more it squirms away. Personal experience is a great tool if one is fortunate enough to have experiences. I had many of varying types that helped to fuel my interest in understanding not just life and death but reality itself. After half a lifetime I’m still only a baby step closer to actually knowing anything, but one thing I do know is to keep an open and inquiring mind, and that those the most sure of themselves are really the ones most in doubt.

          4. My gig lately is just to
            My gig lately is just to direct people to the large trove of experiencer reports now available on the internet. I often run into highly opinionated skeptics who have obviously not really kept up at all. They are still basing their opinions on all the old ectoplasmic hoaxes from the early 20th century or the cherry picked hoaxes that people like The Amazing Randi focus on to bolster their preconceptions. I am not trying to “prove” anything. I just want people to branch out and absorb the stories now easily available to us. They can then come to whatever conclusion suits them, but they have to be better informed.

          5. Emlong, I’m 50 years old. I
            Emlong, I’m 50 years old. I really don’t think that it will be long before I experience it all for myself. Personally I’m content to wait.

            The simple fact that these experiences are culture specific, where people see what they’re culturally led to expect to see, leads me to suspect that they have nothing at all to do with an afterlife.
            For example Christians expecting to see Jesus often do, while Hindus see something else entirely, and those with no particular religious affiliation have reported filing past a bureaucrat who ticks their name off a checklist as they are poised to enter eternity.

            People experience all manner of things that aren’t necessarily true. I’ve been involved in situations where all participants had to recount their perceptions of the situation & no 2 descriptions matched.
            I have a buddy who was involved, many years ago, in a drug deal that had gone bad. Both he & his partner were shot in the back of the head by the buyer. He survived but his buddy shed the mortal coil. He’s convinced God saved him. That’s fine as far as it goes. But his buddy is pushing up daisies. From my perspective it looks like random chance. Maybe his skull was slightly denser than his buddies. Maybe the gun was slightly off target when it discharged.
            To say that “God” saved him while He/She simultaneously abandoned his buddy isn’t the least bit comforting. It makes God look awfully capricious.

            The media loves to recount stories of survivors who are “saved by God” yet few in the media ever go back to those stories 30 years later to find out why God saved them. In the end, I suspect that the answer, if there would be an answer, would be something utterly banal & leave one with more questions than answers.

            By the way, the ectoplasma bit was a nice obfuscation on your part.
            I’ve found that it’s always best to make stuff up when one’s philosophical gun doesn’t have any ammo left. I’m also impressed with your “I’m not out to prove anything” tactic, which allows you to dodge criticism while you dish out your own criticism.


          6. “The simple fact that these
            “The simple fact that these experiences are culture specific, where people see what they’re culturally led to expect to see.”

            You haven’t kept up. Educate yourself more widely. You can’t just sit their and fulminate all day long while not paying any attention to what is developing. You are just working yourself up into a state that is not necessary. Relax and look more widely.

          7. “Educate myself more
            “Educate myself more widely?”

            Don’t “fulminate” myself “into a state?”


            Are you serious?

            Y’know, I’ve had some pointless discussions on the Internut, but this one definitely has moved into the top 10.

            Let’s just move along & forget we wasted each others time.


          8. Yeah, I am talking to you.
            Yeah, I am talking to you. Examine why you are so haughty and angry about a subject that is still very much up for grabs. Try to lighten up and have more fun with this. That includes not self censoring what you absorb in the way of knowledge and experience.

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