In 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.