The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible by John Geiger

We’re proud to present a book excerpt from:  The Third Man Factor:  Surviving the Impossible by John Geiger. From the publisher,  “If only a handful of people had ever encountered the Third Man, it might be dismissed as an unusual delusion shared by a few overstressed minds. But over the years, the experience has occurred again and again, to 9/11 survivors, mountaineers, divers, polar explorers, prisoners of war, sailors, shipwreck survivors, aviators, and astronauts.

All have escaped traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having sensed the close presence of a helper or guardian. The force has been explained as everything from hallucination to divine intervention.”

Shackleton’s Angel

Four members of the Transglobe Expedition, under the
leadership of Sir Ranulph Fiennes, pitched their camp at the foot
of Ryvingen mountain on the south polar ice cap and braced for
the desolation of an Antarctic winter. They set up their prefabri-
cated huts, insulated with nothing more than cardboard. They
erected their radio hut about fifty yards from the generator hut,
which itself was twenty-five yards from the main hut that would
serve as the expedition’s winter home. They secured radio masts
against the blasts of wind, and by the following month, February
1980, were ready for the onset of the Antarctic winter, with its
twenty-four-hour night and temperatures that plunged to minus
thirteen degrees Fahrenheit. Here, at the edge of the Antarctic
plateau, some three hundred miles inland, they would have to
withstand winter’s assaults for eight months before Fiennes could
attempt what had been done only once before-by the British polar
explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs in 1957-58-and cross the continent of

Antarctica, part of a longer journey around the world on its polar
axis using surface transport only.

As base commander and radio operator, Fiennes’s wife,
Virginia, Lady Fiennes-called “Ginnie”-was the expedition’s
conduit to the outside world. She was slightly built, spirited, and
resourceful, and had the ability to “make big men quake in their
boots with a flash of her bright blue eyes.”  When ice buildup on
the antennas, coupled with the fierce winds, tore the two-foot-
long metal screws from the ground, allowing the antennas to flap
freel¡ Ginnie Fiennes was the team member responsible for the
repair. She struggled tirelessly and without complaint in the
blizzards, a flashlight in her mouth, untangling wires. ‘With time,
the constant demands caused her to get overtired, and the hours
spent alone, outside in the darkness, and inside her cramped radio
hut, contributed to a general feeling of unease. In the frequent
blizzards, she often had to drag a sledge loaded with recharged
batteries to the hut from their living quarters, while clipped to a
safety line. The relentless cold and wind, and the uninterrupted
polar night, either pitch-black, or lit faintly by the aurora or by
moonlight, over the many months, compounded the agitation
and introversion that accompanied their profound geographic

In May, another team member, Oliver Shepard, mentioned
casually to Ginnie that he had heard footsteps following him from
the generator hut. He attributed this to his imagination, but he was
not the only one who experienced a sensation of unseen company.
At one point Fiennes herself came into the main hut and told her
husband, “There’s something there.” He protested, but she insisted,

“I don’t mean a danger but , . . a strong presence.”‘The sense abated,
and the situation returned to its routine, but then, during a storm
in June, she again felt something close at hand: ” It came round
behind the radio shack and followed me back down the tunnel.”
The entity v/as not menacing, but it was unsettling. Ranulph
Fiennes believed his wife was “frightened that she might see it.” He
started accompanying her, hauling the sledge, and would stay in the
radio hut with her. He never encountered anything, and she never
felt the presence when he was with her. However, the stresses were
only compounded as the Antarctic winter wore on. In October,
Fiennes described Ginnie as “dog-tired and hallucinating. . . . From
time to time she heard babies crying in the darkness and someone
whispering incoherently from close behind her.”

By October 28, the worst weather had passed, and Ranulph
Fiennes’s three-man team set off using snowmobiles on their
Antarctic crossing. Ginnie Fiennes and Simon Grimes, who had
flown in to the Ryvingen camp, remained behind temporarily to
maintain the vital communication link until a planned relocation.
The camp now also served as a base from which air support could
haul fuel for the snowmobiles as the expedition neared the South
Pole. At one point, Grimes went alone to visit the radio hut, which
was then in the process of being closed up. He wrote in his journal:
“No sign of Ginnie’s ghost, â presence which she . . . felt during the
winter. . . . A youngish man, I gather. . . . Not malevolent, just
there. The long solo nights in the hut must have enhanced her
perception.” Grimes described it now as “an empty hut with an
aura, I sealed it up as I knew I would not want to go back up
there.” Before he left, he noticed some graffìti that Ginnie had

scratched on the wall, using three different pens-at different
times, he presumed. He found the words “rather scaring in a way”:
fu whistlers’ and gibbons’ cries
Screech in the ears
The ghost of Ryvingen
Burst into tears,
“‘Why have you come to disturb me
after these many years
I will haunt and will taunt you
And drive you away.”
Ginnie Fiennes experienced a phenomenon not uncommon on the
Antarctic continent. The first south polar expeditions described
cases of sailors who, “working in the dark have incontinently flung
down their picks and shovels and have refused to leave the ship
again without companions,” wrote Raymond Priestly in his
pioneering examination of the psychology of exploration. Studies
have shown that the extreme cold experienced in polar regions itself
has a limited impact on the psychological state of those who winter
over. Instead, the research shows it is monotony-coupled with
isolation and solitude-that accounts for much of the stress
encountered at Antarctic stations. This is not unexpected. Human
beings are a social species-so social that solitary confinement is
considered the cruelest punishment, so social also that even in
solitude, “we address our thoughts and acts to some infinite Socius
[companion] who will understand and approve.”

Antarctic winters are spent in conditions of being alone
together, that is, in a small group in acute social isolation. Studies

have revealed the existence of a “third-quarter phenomenon” experi-
enced by people working in such environments. There is a quantifi-
able drop in mood and morale after the midway point of a
prolonged stay in isolated places, such as high arctic weather
stations and Antarctic scientific stations. This low ebb occurs
during the third quarter of a stay, regardless of whether the stay is
five months, a year, or some other period.  While not generally
severe enough to cause psychiatric disorders, some people do
develop symptoms of what’s called “winter-over syndrome.”
Typically, this includes mild to severe depression, avoidance, apathy,
irritability developing sometimes into angeç chronic insomnia,
difficulty concentrating, and in some cases the “Antarctic stare,” a
dissociative state not unlike that triggered in victims of disaster or
waç7 in which “thoughts drift from current reality into a vague
absence that even the individual cannot always recollect.” Such
conditions also invite experiences like that of Virginia Fiennes.

In May 1986, a young psychologist, Jane Mocellin, inter-
viewed men living at the Argentine Antarctic base of Esperanza, as
part of a study of human responses to living in polar and other
extreme environments. Her research took an unusual turn when,
through informal talks, she learned that some of the men had
encountered a presence at the base, a fact subsequendy confirmed
by the resident medical officer. These incidents had occurred over
the four months immediately preceding her interviews. One after
another, the men revealed how they had become convinced of the
presence of an unseen being at the base. This always occurred in
the building that housed the power plant, which they staffed on a
rotating basis for twenty-four-hour shifts. The building was the

most isolated of the structures on the base. The encounters usually
occurred at night. One soldier described being overwhelmed by a
“strong sensation of being observed by somebody” despite being
alone in the building. Another, a twenty-seven-year-old mechan-
ical technician, felt certain that he was being watched through a
window. “I was alone, and this perception was so strong that I went
outside of the building to check if somebody was there.” No one
was. On another occasion, however, he did actually see something,
fleetingly, a “human form and he was male.”‘ Another man had a
similar experience. “I saw somebody watching me. When I
stood up myself to go there the image moved and disappeared out
of my visual field.” None described being afraid, just aware that
they had company.

Mocellin collected similar accounts of “presence hallucina-
tions” from members of a Chilean Antarctic crew, as well as
Brazilian meteorological personnel stationed on a remote tropical
island. Later, in collaboration with Peter Suedfeld, a professor of
psychology at the University of British Columbia, she produced a
landmark study of the Third Man phenomenon in the academic
journal Environment and Behavior. ln their paper, “The ‘Sensed
Presence’ in Unusual Environments,” Suedfeld and Mocellin
observed an important distinction between reports like that of
Ginnie Fiennes, of an aloof presence experienced at the Antarctic
bases, and those reported by people in life-threatening situations:
“In no case was there any communication between the observer
and the entity, not any feeling of receiving help.”

In fact, what happened at the Antarctic stations is not all that
unusual. The sense of a presence is far more commonly encountered

than most people would care to admit. Graham Reed, a psychology
professor at York University in Toronto, wrote that sensing an
unseen presence is “frequently experienced by normal, healthy
people under certain conditions.” Almost everyone has had the
sensation that somebody is nearby when they are alone. Reed noted
that the occurrence is most common in unusual surroundings. Yet
it can also happen in everyday situations where there is an absence
of meaningful stimuli.  When walking alone at night, people often
develop a feeling that someone might be following them, They try
to reassure themselves, and resist the idea, concluding that their
imagination has gotten the better of them, but the sense is vivid
enough that they almost invariably look around anyway, just to
make sure. In one published account, a woman whose job required
that she come home late in the evening was walking up her quiet
street when she “experienced a feeling of fear that she might be
attacked by somebody. Then it seemed to her that somebody was
really walking behind her. She walked quickly and didn’t turn her
head around for fear of slowing her pace and being caught by the
pursuer.” This happened even though, all along, the woman “was
convinced there was not anybody behind her.” Silence and darkness
often play a role. Both offer an “unstructured field which may act
as a screen” upon which an individual can project his or her state of
mind. Thus a mental state produced by such surroundings will
infuse natural phenomena, such as a draft, mist, cloud, shadows, or
an echo with meaning.

It happens even where faint stimuli have been removed.
Scientists have suspended subjects in a tank of body-temperature
water and removed all sensory stimulation. After a relatively short

period of time, usually about three-quarters of an hour, “quite
normal persons, robbed in the tank of all sensory cues, begin to do
a strange thing. With the screen of consciousness not filled with
sensory images from the environment, the individual himself
begins to fill the screen projectively with his own inner uncorrected
fantasies.” Sensory deprivation research has often produced
examples of subjects becoming convinced that “someone else was
in the cubicle.”‘

There is little doubt that, as one writer put it, “strange and
uninvited gu€sts are likely to intrude on any protracted human
solitude.”‘ The result is that companionship, no matter the form,
is often cultivated. Children are loath to go to bed without being
able to hear their parents’ voices, a television, or music player. They
often request that a light remain on or a door be left ajar. The
consequences of not doing so can be startling, as one girl recalled:
. . , at a certain time after the evening meal she was sent to bed
alone while the adults stayed in the dining room. To get to her
room, she had to go through a dark corridor. Fear seized her
and she had the impression that someone was behind her ready
‘ to reach out to touch her shoulder with his hand.”

Adults retain some of this behavior in certain situations, such as
when a spouse goes on a business trip. Suddenly dogs that are
normally banished to the mudroom are welcomed into the master
bedroom. People who are alone at night seek to occupy the silence
by humming, whistling, talking aloud, watching television, or
playing music. These actions “mask slight stimuli that otherwise
might be interpreted as signs of somebody’s being present.”

In the wilderness, such effects can be compounded, “especially
in areas where the stimulus environment is relatively unchanging
and homogeneous: mountains, jungles, deserts, ice fields, and the
ocean.” While in some cases travelers, such as climbers, trekkers,
and explorers, are not truly alone, they are, like Antarctic workers,
“alone together” in a small group in a remote location separated,
often by great distances, from other people.’ Here, as at polar
outposts, the sense of presence does not involve any communica-
tion or assistance. It is simply a subtle, sometimes vaguely disqui-
eting, awareness of someone nearby. What all these situations have
in common is a low level of stimulation: monotony, isolation, and,
often, what Graham Reed termed “loneliness in the face of
Nature.” Of the natural places on Earth, the polar regions are
among the loneliest.

What exactly, Sir Edward 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 7914-76,
at the very point when Shackleton stood to ensure his survival and
that of his men-or to lose everything in the attempt.
In August 1914, only days before the First World War
unleashed its fury on Europe, Shackleton had set sail to claim for
Britain a polar prize by crossing the Antarctic continent on

foot. The expedition came perilously close to ending in mass
disaster; the fact that it did not is the foundation of Shackleton’s
legend. He was the right man for the job. A self-made explorer,
Shackleton was possessed of resilience, will, and good humor. He
was also an unabashed romantic, and said he had not thought of
becoming an explorer until, as a twenty-two-year-old sailor in the
merchant marine, it came to him in a dream: “I seemed to vow to
myself that some day I would go to the region of ice and snow and
go on and on til I came to one of the poles of the earth.” But this,
his third aftempt at the South Pole, ended prematurely. 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.” The noise of the
pressure against the hull sounded “like the cries of a living
creature.” With time, the ship was reduced to a wreck. The
twenty-eight men stood a hundred yards off provisions and
supplies piled around them, the ice cracking beneath their feet.
They were a thousand miles and a vast ocean from the nearest
human settlement. Shackleton gathered the crew together and
said, quietly and without emotion: “Ship and stores have gone-
so now we’ll go home.” It was a desperate situation. 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. They were already greatly reduced in health
and spirit. Huddled in the boats, they were now tormented by the
surging seas. Salt from the sea spray reddened their eyes, bloodied
their lips, and gave their faces the pallor of death. Some were
suffering from dysentery from eating uncooked dog pemmican. At
night, temperatures dipped well below freezing. They faced
constant rain and snow squalls. 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. However, their faces were sullen
and haunted. Frank Hurley the expedition photographer, wrote:
“Many suffered from temporary aberration, walking aimlessly
about; others shivering as with palsy.”
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, a whaler he named the James Cøird, to risk the extreme perils
of the ocean south of Cape Horn, “the most tempestuous area of
water in the world.” His goal was a whaling station on the British
possession of South Georgia, more than 680 miles away, yet still
within the Antarctic Convergence, and so in the thrall of deep
atmospheric depressions coming through the Drake Passage, which

produce extreme and unpredictable weather. He announced his
decision on April 19. Shackleton wrote: ‘A boat journey in search
of relief was necessary and must not be delayed. That conclusion
was forced upon me. . . . The hazards . . . were obvious.”

The six men endured gales, snow squalls, and heavy seas for
seventeen days. Their existence was miserable. Most were seasick,
soaked, and chilled to the marrow. After the third day they were
aheady showing signs of superficial frostbite; their feet and legs
assumed a “dead-white colour and lost surface feeling.” The only
respite from the cold came when they crawled into their sleeping
compartment, a “dungeon cell” roughly two yards long by one and
a half yards wide, into which three men would cram at a time,
bundled in damp reindeer-hide sleeping bags. They lay atop cases
of supplies and bags of stone shingles used as ballast, sleeping
fitfull¡ as their “unfortunate bodies” were “swung up and banged
down on mountainous seas.” Commander Frank Worsley who
had captained the Endurance, once awoke in the compartment
gasping in fear that he had been buried alive.

To cap it all, one keg of drinking water was lost, and the
absence of adequate fluid left them severely dehydrated. As their
journey continued, they each were reduced to a small amount of
brackish water per day. On the sixth day Worsley noted, “Our poor
fellows lit their pipes-their only solace-for raging thirst
prevented us from eating.” Shackleton wrote: “Thirst took posses-
sion of us. . . . Lack of water is always the most severe privation that
men can be condemned to endure.” He was right; while people can
survive for weeks without food, it is estimated that about four days
is the maximum anyone can survive without water. “All very thirsty

and badly in need of sleep,” ‘Worsley wrote in his navigation book.
“Some of our people, in fact, seem just about played out.”
Outside the conditions were even worse: the ice grew so thick
on the boat that they were in danger of capsizing and had to take
turns chopping it off with a carpenter’s adze. Once, when it
appeared there was a break in the weather, Shackleton shouted,
“It’s clearing, boys!” Then immediately after, “For God’s sake, hold
on! It’s got us!” What Shackleton took to be a line of white sky
signaling improved weather, was, in fact, the foaming crest of an
enormous wave, possibly caused by the overturning of an iceberg.
They were very nearly swamped and had to bail for their lives.
They not only overcame the immediate crisis, but also, in an
astounding feat of navigation by Worsley succeeded in reaching
South Georgia in the midst of a hurricane that threatened to drive
them onto the rocks. They fought the storm for nine hours before
finally making landfall. “We were about done,” said Henry
McNeish, the carpenter. Sleep deprived, their mouths dry and
tongues swollen from thirst, they were also in a state approaching
starvation. As soon as they beached the boat, they fell down into
pools of fresh running water and lapped it up like wild beasts. They
had to unload their sleeping bags and could barely even accom-
plish that task, having pertly lost control of their extremities,
which were numb from having been soaked in cold seawater for
more than two weeks.
Their ordeal was still not over. They were on the opposite
end of the island from their destination, the whaling station at
Stromness. However, the severe weather and treacherous conditions
made a further boat journey out of the question. So Shackleton

opted to cross overland, a distance of about twenty-four miles as
the crow flies, thereby attempting to become the first to penetrate
South Georgia’s mountainous interior. The island’s backbone is
formed by two ranges with more than a dozen peaks exceeding
sixry-five hundred feet, all surrounded by ice fields and vast
glaciers. For several days they did not move, however, the severe
weather forcing them to sit and wait. They used the time to recover
from the boat journey. They drank fresh water and ate the tender
meat of albatross chicks.
Finally at 3 A.M. on May 19,1916, Shackleton, Worsly and
Tom Crean, second officer, left McNeish in charge of the others
and the boat, and began their arduous crossing of the ranges and
glaciers of the island. Duncan Carse, an explorer who retraced their
crossing in the 1950s, was in awe of their courage: “They travelled
under headlong duress, reduced by long privation to exhausted
starvelings destitute of all but their own worn out clothing.” They
had virtually none of the equipment needed for climbing, except
fifteen yards of rope and the carpenter’s adze substituting for an
ice ax. Said Carse: “Their only safety lay in speed and the short-cut
regardless of danger; they could not fail because ’22 men were
waiting for the relief that we alone could secure for them.”‘

They marched in moonlight and in fog. They ascended
carefully, roped together, stepping around crevasses and crossing
snowfields. They had slender rations and went virtually without
sleep. They confronted the Trident, a giant ridge, and twice were
rebuffed when they found the descent impossible. Finally they
stood on an ice ridge, uncertain of what was over the other side
because of a sharp incline. When a heavy bank of fog threatened to

overtake them, they opted to jump into the unknown. As
Shackleton wrote, “there could be no turning back now.” Worsley
later said: “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 darkness.” At that point, only they knew the
whereabouts of all the other expedition members. Had they
dropped to their deaths, the entire expedition might have been
doomed. Instead, they tested fate and survived, shooting down
three hundred yards in a couple of minutes. At the end, they dusted
the snow off themselves and shook hands. Looking back, they saw
gray fingers of fog appearing on the ridge, “as though reaching after
the intruders into untrodden wilds. But we had escaped.”

They had walked all day, and they continued through the
night, for a time in near absolute darkness, until a full moon
rose and a silver pathway lay before them. They reached Fortuna
Bay, at first believing it to be their destination, Stromness, but
soon realized their mistake. At five o’clock in the morning on
May 20, exhausted and cold-one of the men now suffering
from frostbite-they stopped to rest. They had no tent, and
their clothes were in tatters, so they put their arms around each
other for warmth. Within minutes, Worsley and Crean were
asleep.  Wrote Shackleton: “I realized that it would be disastrous
if we all slumbered together, for sleep under such conditions
merges into death.” He waited five minutes then shook the
others awake, telling them they had slept for half an hour. He
then ordered a fresh start. As they trekked on, Shackleton later
reflected: “We three fellows drew very close to each other, mostly
in silence.”

At 6:30 A.M., Shackleton thought he heard the sound of a steam-
whistle, and half an hour later, they all heard it. Wrote Shackleton:
“Never had any one of us heard sweeter music.” They marched on,
eventually reaching a final ridge, before, at last, they had a view of
Stromness Bay. A whaling boat hove into view in the distance, and
tiny figures could be seen moving around the buildings. They
stopped and shook each other’s hands. They eventually shambled
into the whaling station, barely recognizable as civilized men. Their
beards were long and their hair was matted. Their faces were black
and their clothes, filthy rags. The first three people they encountered
recoiled in fear. Finally, a foreman took them to the house of the
manager, whom Shackleton knew. “Well?” the manager said. “Don’t
you know me?” Shackleton asked. The manager replied doubtfully
that he recognized the voice, but guessed wrongly at the identity of
the hirsute and malodorous visitor standing on his doorstep. “I am
Shackleton,” the stranger said at last.

Rescuers were dispatched to collect the others across the island,
and eventually to Elephant Island. All of the Endurance’s crew
survived the ordeal. One of the men left behind on Elephant
Island, Thomas Hans Orde-Lees, an experienced climber, later
wrote: “Shackleton admitted frequently that he was no
mountaineer. How later, he, Worsley, and Crean managed to cross
South Georgia is an everlasting puzzle to me.” They were not
untouched by the experience. Shackleton, paraphrasing a passage
from a poem by Robert Service, wrote in his narrative South,
published in 1919: “‘We had pierced the veneer of outside things.
We had ‘suffered, starved and triumphed, grovelled down yet
grasped at glory, grown bigger in the bigness of the whole. We had

seen God in His splendours, heard the text that Nature renders. We had reached the naked soul of man.”
Shackleton came to regard the desperate journey from Elephant
Island to the whaling station on South Georgia as the supreme event
of his life, surpassing even his greatest geographic achievement, the
1909 record for Farthest South. On that earlier expedition, he got to
within ninety-seven miles of the South Pole and earned a knight-
hood for his efforts. In the case of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic
Expedition, Shackleton failed to achieve any polar prize, but he had
attained something greater: he had led others to overcome seemingly
insurmountable obstacles in order to survive. The crossing of South
Georgia was the final act of the expedition’s deliverance.

Shackleton took great pains to write his account of the journey,
all the while cautioning, “There is much that can never be told.”‘
In preparing his narrative, he struggled with something unspoken.
In the house of Leonard Tlipp, a friend and confidant, at
Heretaunga, near ‘Wellington, New Zealand, the explorer tried to
come to terms with it. Tripp listened as Shackleton dictated his
story to Edward Saunders, a journalist who acted as his amanu-
ensis, and was amazed by what he heard. Shackleton paced up and
down the room as he spoke, and he seldom hesitated, but every
now and then he would tell Saunders to make a mark because he
had not found the right word. Said Tripp of Shackleton:
“I watched him, and his whole face seemed to swell-you know
what a big face he had.” With tears in his eyes, Shackleton then
said, “Tripp you don’t know what l,ve been through, and I am
going through it all again, and I cant do it.” He walked out of the
room as if he intended to go away, and lit a cigarette, but then he

returned. This happened on several occasions. Tripp recalled, “You
could see that the man was suffering, and then he came to this
mention of the fourth man.”

Shackleton, reciting Keats explained his struggle in South:

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 refer-
ence to a subject very near to our hearts.”

He revealed in the narrative 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 whose snow-fields, 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.”
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.

Shackleton at first did not mention the fourth presence to
anyone else, and the passage alluding to it, which Tripp heard

Shackleton dictate to Saunders, was omitted in the original draft of
South, written in 1917. Because of this, and since it was not
mentioned in any original document, the possibility has been
raised that the encounter with the presence was a “fabrication in
order to add a dash of spirituality to the story before it went to
press.”uo Indeed, one Shackleton biography suggested the presence
represented nothing more than “an attempt on Shackleton’s part to
court publicity, at a time of national emotion, by producing his
own Angel of Mons.”‘

This is a reference to a First World War report that angels had
appeared to safeguard the British army during its retreat from
Mons in August 1914. The historian A.J. P Taylor wrote of Mons
being the only battlefield where “supernatural intervention was
observed, more or less reliably, on the British side.” Lance
Corporal A. Johnstone, who had served with the Royal Engineers,
wrote to the London Evening News on August  11, 1915, to affirm
that angelic horsemen had appeared to the retreating troops:

I remember turning to my chums in the ranks and saying:
“Thank God!  We are not far off Paris now. Look at the
French cavalry,” They, too, saw them quite plainly, but on
getting closer, to our surprise the horsemen vanished and
gave place to banks of white mist, with clumps of trees and
bushes dimly showing through them. . . .

Johnstone said that he and his fellow soldiers had marched all day
and night with only a half-hour break. They were in extreme
danger, imperiled by the enemy and exposed to hunger, sleep
deprivation, and exhaustion. As Johnstone wrote, they were all

“absolutely worn out with fatigue-both bodily and mental,
marching quite mechanically along the road and babbling all sorts
of nonsense in sheer delirium.” On the basis of this, it has been
argued that they were, consequently, “subject to a sensory illusion
due to extreme fatigue.”  The burden of stress and exhaustion
suffered by the British soldiers at Mons bears a strong similarity to
that endured by Shackleton’s party, suggesting that far from being
a fictional embellishment, South simply documents a similar
response to extreme conditions.

In fact, the unseen companion does appear on a separate sheet
of paper labeled “Note” in another typescript of Shackleton’s
original manuscript. Apparently he initially withheld the passage,
before deciding to include it in the final draft. Shackleton said,
“One couldn’t write this sort of thing . . . about the mystery of that
Fourth in our journey; but it was the heart of it, all the same.” He
may have regretted that he ever allowed so deeply personal a feeling
to be made public “On occasions he would speak of it lightly, or
with embarrassment.” He did, nevertheless, subsequently allude to
it during some of his public lectures, and always with tremendous
effect. One person who attended a banquet in Shackleton’s honor
recalled, “You could hear a pin drop when Sir Ernest spoke of his
consciousness of a Divine Companion in his journeyings.” This
caused a sensation on the pulpit at the time. Frank W. Boreham, a
Baptist minister and popular writer, v¡as one of many clergymen
who linked Shackleton’s fourth presence to a passage from the
Bible, Daniel 3:24-5:
And Nebuchadnezzar the king was astonished, and rose up in
haste, and spake, and said undo his counselors, Did we not

cast three men bound into the midst of the fire? They
answered and said unto the king, Tiue, O king.
He answered and said, Lo, I see four men loose,
walking in the midst of the fire, and they have no hurt; and
the form of the fourth is like the Son of God.

Boreham’s views are unsurprising. “Flame or frost; it makes no
difference. A truth that, in one age, can hold its own in a burning
fiery furnace can, in another, vindicate itself just as readily amidst
fields of ice and snow,” wrote Boreham, adding, “The form of the
fourth is like the Son of God!”

Was the presence on South Georgia the guiding, protective
hand of the Divine Companion, or as Boreham declared, “the Son
of God”? Did the Almighty intervene to guide the ragged trio of
polar explorers to their rescue? Or was it something else?
Historians, in their accounts of Shackleton’s expedition, have
surmised that it was some form of shared hallucination, as one put
it, that the “toil [was] enough to cloud their consciousness.”  Or
that “this was probably a hallucination due to their common
dehydration.” Shackleton biographer Roland Huntford wrote:
“They were suffering from dehydration, and that was pushing
them over into the half world where physical and mental
phenomena meet. . . . Delusion hovered in the air. Shadows seemed
like ghosts. They imagined unseen companions by their side.”

A writer, Harold Begbie, recorded a conversation with
Shackleton in the London Daily Telegraph:

“In your book you speak of a Fourth Presence.”
He nodded his head.

“Do you care to speak about that?”
At once he was restless and ill at ease. “No,” he said,
“None of us cares to speak about that. There are some things
which never can be spoken of. Almost to hint about them
comes perilously near to sacrilege. This experience was
eminently one of those things.”
Shackleton returned to South Georgia on January 4, 1922, in the
converted Quest. The new expedition’s goal was ill-defined
but had the general objective of circumnavigating Antarctica in
search of undiscovered islands. His crew included eight of the men
from the Endurance, Worsley among them. As the Quest sailed
along the coast of South Georgia, Shackleton and Worsley “like a
pair of excitable kids,” pointed out geographic features from their
üek over the mountains. The Questfinally came to anchor offKing
Edward Point, to the east of Stromness. “It is a strange and curious
place,” Shackleton wrote in his journal that night, adding: “In the
darkening rwilight I saw a lone star hover, gemJike above the bay.”
In the early hours of January 5, Shackleton, just forty-seven years
old, suffered a fatal heart attack. He was laid to rest in the whalers’
cemetery at Grywiken, on South Georgia, the place where he had
been touched by Providence.

Strangely history remembers Shackleton’s visitor on South
Georgia not as a fourth-Shackleton, Vorsle¡ 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 n¡¡entieth century, but used poetic license to alter the number.
In the poem, he wrote:

Who is the third who walls always beside youl
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.
In his notes on The Waste Land, Eliot said that the lines were
inspired by an account of an Antarctic expedition, “I forget which,
but I think one of Shackleton’s.” The Anglo-American poet was
impressed by the idea that a”patry of explorers, at the extremity of
their strength, had the constant delusion that there was one more
member than could actually be counted.” This, then, is the name
that has become attached to the unseen being at the core of this
book-the Third Man. Scientific researchers call it variously the
“sensed presence,” a “vivid physical awareness,” or the “illusory
shadow person.” But manifestations of this benevolent force have
become much more widely known as the Third Man. Climber
Doug Scott, who partnered with Dougal Haston in 1975 to make
the first recorded ascent of Everestt southwest face, explained it this
way: “It’s the third man syndrome: imagining there is someone else
walking beside you, a comforting presence telling you what to do
next, and it can be as strong as a voice in your chest.”

Sir Ernest Shackleton felt an existence every bit as real and
vivid as a flesh-and-blood person. And it was not just any person.
At a point in their lives when he and his two colleagues were most
in need of the help and encouragement of a friend, they were able
to conjure one up apparendy out of thin air. Just how they and a
great many others before them and since, have managed to do this
is the mysterv of the Third Man.

‘What was it, then, that transformed a sense of presence, like
that reported at the Antarctic stations, into an instrument of hope
embodied by the Third Man?  Why is it that some encounters with
a presence in polar regions, like that of Ginnie Fiennes and the
Argentinians, produced no sense of help or guidance, while in
Shackleton’s case it did? The basic conditions – extreme isolation
and monotonous polar surroundings-were similar, but
Shackleton’s situation was more complicated. For him, these
factors were joined by acute stress. He was in a desperate situation,
where the risk of death was obvious. This additional factor dramat-
ically altered the nature of the experience, intensifying the effect.

Shackleton felt his encounter with a presence was infused with
spiritual significance, that it was a manifestation of Divine
Providence. tVhen he referred to it, he did so with reverence.’What
he experienced was much more profound than the vague sensation
of a presence that is common to so many of us, such as the fleeting
anxiery we feel when we walk down a deserted street at night. It
seems that the impression of a presence is much stronger when the
background affective state itself is more powerful. The Third Man
seems to grow in power in direct proportion to the intensiry of the
emotional state of the individual who experiences him.  Why did
Shackleton encounter a great and benevolent helper, when others
have not? Because, unlike Ginnie Fiennes and the Argentinians, he
desperately needed one.


From John Geiger’s THE THIRD MAN FACTOR: SURVIVING THE IMPOSSIBLE (Weinstein Books). Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

About the Author: JOHN GEIGER is the award-winning author of four nonfiction books, including the international bestseller Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition. He is the editorial board editor at the Globe and Mail and a fellow of the Explorer’s Club, New York. He lives in Toronto.

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