Book Review: ‘The Third Man Factor’

By | August 26, 2009

book082409In 1953, Austrian mountaineer Herman Buhl became the first person to climb Nanga Parbat in the ­Himalayas—at 26,660 feet, the ninth tallest peak in the world. He climbed by himself and not far from the summit was forced to spend the night out in the open without a sleeping bag or tent. It was an agonizing ­bivouac, but Buhl survived—in part, he later wrote, ­because he sensed that he shared the ordeal with a ­companion. “I had an extraordinary feeling,” he wrote, “that I was not alone.”

Accounts of experiencing a supportive presence in extreme situations—sometimes called the “third-man phenomenon”—are common in mountaineering ­literature. In 1933, Frank Smythe made it to within a 1,000 feet of the summit of Mount Everest before ­turning around. On the way down, he stopped to eat a mint cake, cutting it in half to share with . . . someone who wasn’t there but who had seemed to be his ­partner all day. Again on Nanga Parbat, on a 1970 climb during which his brother died, Reinhold Messner ­recalled being accompanied by a companion who ­offered ­wordless comfort and encouragement.

In “The Third Man Factor,” John Geiger, a fellow at the University of Toronto, presents many accounts of such experiences, and not only from climbers. Among those who have felt a ghostly companionship he cites Charles Lindbergh on his solo flight across the ­Atlantic in 1927 and the last man to walk out of the South Tower of the World Trade ­Center before it ­collapsed on 9/11. “Over the years,” Mr. Geiger writes, “the ­experience has ­occurred again and again, not only to 9/11 survivors, mountaineers, and ­divers, but also to ­polar explorers, ­prisoners of war, solo sailors, shipwreck ­survivors, aviators, and ­astronauts. All have ­escaped ­traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having experienced the close presence of a companion and helper.” Mr. ­Geiger’s book is a highly readable, often gripping, ­collection of survival stories, alongside a survey of theories that attempt to explain the third-man phenomenon.

via Book Review: ‘The Third Man Factor’ – WSJ.com.

Leave a Reply