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Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

British explorer Frank Smyth almost became the first person to reach the summit of Mount Everest in 1933. He missed it by 1,000 feet, as he described it, at the very boundary of life and death.

At 26,000 feet, climbers reach what they call the dead zone. There's not enough oxygen to keep humans alive, and during that expedition, almost all the other climbers never made it past the summit's base camp, but Frank Smyth carried on alone.

In his diary, he recounted how at one point on the ascent, he reached into his pocket to pull out a slab of Kendal mint cake. He broke it in half and turned around to give the other half to a companion, but there was no one there. Here's what he wrote.

Unidentified Man: (Reading) 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.

RAZ: This is a phenomenon scientists call the third man factor. John Geiger spent five years tracking down the stories of people who've experienced it. His new book is called "The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible." And he joins us from Toronto. John Geiger, welcome to the program.

Mr. JOHN GEIGER (Author, "The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible"): It's great to be here, thank you.

RAZ: First, can you give us a clear definition of what the third man phenomenon is?

Mr. GEIGER: It's a sense of an unseen being, a presence that intervenes at critical moments, when people are under great stress or in life-and-death-type struggles, to provide companionship, a sense of help, aid, encouragement, just a generalized benevolent intervention from a seemingly outside source, a being that's not seen but is felt.

RAZ: You trace the term third man factor to Ernest Shackleton's almost disastrous expedition in Antarctica that began in 1914.

Mr. GEIGER: Yes. I mean, it's one of the great survival stories in history. Shackleton and his men were trapped in the ice in the Weddell Sea and were forced to abandon their ship, Endurance, which was crushed by the ice. They dragged their small boats across rotting ice for many months, and some of the men became suicidal. It was just an absolutely horrific ordeal.

They finally were able to launch those boats in the South Polar Sea, and they made it to Elephant Island. Most of the men remained behind, and Shackleton took a small party and crossed over hundreds of miles to South Georgia, which is a British possession in the South Atlantic, and there was a whaling station there.

He reached the island in the midst of a hurricane, this absolutely horrific crossing. They then had to cross this mountain range, which was uncharted. And it was during that final part of this absolutely unbelievable escape from Antarctica that Shackleton and two other men each felt that there was actually fourth presence, that there was what Shackleton termed a divine companion, who accompanied them on that last leg of that journey, when they really were at the point of collapse.

And later on, T.S. Eliot, the great, American poet, altered the number for some reason - poetic license - altered the number from four to three in "The Wasteland," you know, probably the greatest poem of the 20th century. And in "The Wasteland," so it becomes: Who is the third who walks beside you?

So that's where the term the third man factor comes from. It's really originally Shackleton via T.S. Eliot.

RAZ: You collected stories from mountain climbers, explorers, prisoners of war, and there's one story from a survivor from the World Trade Center on 9/11, Ron DiFrancesco. He was the last one to leave the south tower, I believe, before it collapsed. Can you tell us the story?

Mr. GEIGER: Well, yeah, Ron was a money-market trader, and he was above, you know, working above the point of impact, you know, found himself, like many other people, trapped above that point. Initially, he tried to go down, but the stairwell he found himself in was blocked by debris, and there was a tremendous amount of smoke coming up.

So he got to this landing just above the impact point, and people were collapsed on that landing, some of them apparently unconscious. Others were sobbing, had kind of given up, I guess, and Ron was there. And he suddenly felt an intervention. He felt there was someone else joined him on the landing.

He heard a voice, which gave him very specific directions. You know, Ron, you can survive this. You know, you'll get out of this. You've got to keep going down. And he literally felt like he was led, and he was led towards the flames and towards the smoke and ended up fighting his way through debris, covering his head as best he could with his arms against the flames, and fought his way down and got through this after a few minutes and found himself in a lit stairwell. Everything appeared to, like, resume to normal below the impact point. And he carried on down and was able to get past some firefighters coming down, was able to get out just before the building or just as the building was collapsing.

You know, he felt very strongly that an angel - he's a practicing Roman Catholic, and he felt that an angel had intervened to save his life.

RAZ: And this idea of a guardian angel, is there a sort of a religious aspect to this phenomenon?

Mr. GEIGER: Oh, yes. I mean, I think that really what we're talking about is the same thing. I think that the third man factor is a manifestation of what historically and for people of faith would be a guardian angel.

So there are a number of places in the Bible, of course, where guardian angels make their appearance, and often they're in very similar situations to some of the, you know, harrowing survival stories that I include in the book.

So clearly, there is a religious or spiritual explanation to this phenomenon. And you know, either this book, I think, is proof of the existence of guardian angels or, you know, if you're a religious person, or if you're not, I think it shows that the guardian angel experience is based on mental processes and that, in fact, many skeptics and non-believers have also had this experience, and they attribute it to other explanations. And there certainly is some very interesting science behind this, as well.

RAZ: There is actually research being done, looking at this, that it may actually be a necessary human instinct, a survival instinct.

Mr. GEIGER: It certainly is looking like that. There has been some very interesting work done in Switzerland by neurologists who, using electrical stimulus, have actually provoked a third-man-type response, at least a sense of a presence. And they removed the electrical stimulus, and the presence would disappear and then, you know, place it back, and suddenly the presence returned.

But in that case, what was interesting is the patient didn't feel that it was a helpful or benevolent presence. It was simply there's someone here with me now, but no sort of sense that this person had any agenda to help, and that's what's interesting.

That's a difference. And certainly, you know, no science has yet been able to explain how that kind of - that sense of presence. So there is a part of our brain that seems to be involved in our self-perception, where we are in our environment, may have a role in this. But it doesn't explain how that transforms into this absolutely compelling, benevolent, you know, force for survival, and that's the part of the puzzle that's critical, I think.

RAZ: John Geiger's new book is called "The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible." John Geiger, thanks for being with us.

Mr. GEIGER: Thank you very much.

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