June 1st 1933, and the British Everest Expedition to climb the highest mountain in the world, which had started out as a large scale, well organised military-style operation was coming to a desperate end. High up above 26,000ft, in the death zone, where there is not enough oxygen in the air for human life to survive for very long, just one solitary mountaineer continues up. All of the other members of the expedition team had turned back from exhaustion or cold. Frank Smythe,
Smythe was ‘overcome by a feeling of hopelessness and weariness. His limbs trembled and he felt like he was suffocating’. However he decided to press on, with the summit just 1,000 feet away, he would give it one last push. He soon realised the error in his decision, acknowledging his lack of energy and his hopeless situation. He remembers at this point, weak and desperately hungry, he reached into his pocket for a slab of Kendal mint cake. ‘This I took out of my pocket and, carefully dividing it into two halves, turned round with one half in my hand to offer to my “companion”.’
He was utterly alone up there in the death zone, yet amazingly, throughout this solo climbing effort, Smythe had felt that he was accompanied by another person. So real that he felt that person would also need something to eat for energy. It was at that moment when he turned to offer the piece of mint cake that he realised, with profound shock, that there was no-one there to take the mint cake.
After returning to the safety of basecamp, he was embarrassed to share his experience at first, until he finally confided in the expedition leader who insisted that the experience be recorded in the expedition report. Later, when sharing his experience, Smythe revealed that this ‘presence’ joined him at around the same time his last companions had turned back. ‘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. It even seemed that I was tied to my “companion” by a rope, and if I slipped “he” would hold me. I remember constantly glancing back over my shoulder.’ This sensation remained until he was in sight of
It has been experienced by others. T.S.Elliot asked in his poem The Waste Land, ‘who is the third who walks always beside you?’ which refers to the experience of Sir Ernest Shackleton. Whilst trying to reach safety in the Antarctic during their famous expedition of 1914-1916 after their ship had become icebound. Shackleton and two of the team attempted to walk for 36 hours through the ice storm across the glaciers to a whaling station on South Georgia to get help. Recounting the experience, Shackleton confided, ‘it seemed to me that we were four, not three.’ His companions later shared that they too had experienced; that ‘there was another person with us’ willing them on.
Others recount similar experiences.
Henry Stoker, a submarine commander, recounts how he escaped a Turkish prisoner-of-war camp and with two others, attempted to cross 350 miles of rugged terrain to reach the coast. They all experienced the phenomenon of another presence accompanying them during their ordeal.
Peter Hilary, son of Edmund, shared
Stephanie Schwabe, diving in an underwater cave, ‘escaped certain death when the voice of her late husband. In a desperate situation, having lost her
Then there is the story of Ron DiFrancesco, who was working on the 84th floor of the South Tower of the World Trade Centre on 11th September 2001. He shared in detail
These experiences seem to take place on the edge of survival, where extreme physical and psychological stress is experienced. It is thought that these became more prolific amongst explorers during the 20th century. Due to development in technology and equipment allowing for more small or solo expeditions. And whether a heavenly presence, sent to provide help at a time of immense need or something created by the human mind to provide comfort, the Third Man Factor is very real.
We would be interested to hear your thoughts and experiences on this intriguing topic. Have you read other examples?
The Third Man Factor: True Stories of Survival in Extreme Environments, John Geiger (2009)