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.