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Third Man Syndrome: The weird phenomenon extreme mountain climbers experience

Mountain climbers have long reported a presence that has helped them during challenging times

” … during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over unnamed mountains and glaciers, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

Ernest Shackleton’s experience came at the end of two years of hardship. Survival on ice in the Weddell Sea, a crossing to a tiny island, and the sailing of some of the world’s most treacherous seas in a boat just 22 feet long. It was the ultimate feat of endurance, the true tale of survival, and perhaps the first recorded incidence of Third Man Syndrome.

Mountain photo

I’ll come clean: I’m a complete cynic. I don’t believe in the paranormal, apparitions, or any of that side of things. But even I struggle to explain away the phenomenon that so many mountain climbers have experienced — notably Frank Smythe, who was tantalizingly close to being the first person to climb Mount Everest, and Joe Simpson, the man who wrote Touching the Void. So is Third Man Syndrome some sort of guardian angel, or perhaps a shared hallucination brought about by stress?

Well, the truth is that no one really knows. Science might explain this phenomenon away as the two halves of your brain conversing, proving the two-brain theory — the idea that the two hemispheres of your brain are separate and may talk to one another. Others may put it down to a guardian angel or a guiding spirit. But while we’re not sure what causes it, there are stories from all around the world of the Third Man Factor aiding people in their hour of need.

So why is the Third Man Syndrome so well documented among adventurers? Well, when it comes to stressful situations, mountain climbing accidents certainly qualify. But then there’s the time frame. Take Joe Simpson, for example. After  — spoiler alert, if you’ve not read Touching the Void — plummeting to what should have been his death, Simpson recalls hearing a voice helping him and guiding him along the way as he dragged his battered body the 5 miles back to base camp, and to safety.

It’s this element that is consistent — the Third Man is always there to help you and offer guidance.

Sometimes, all you need is a companion, as in the case of Frank Smythe, who had set out alone for the summit of Everest after the rest of his team abandoned the attempt due to poor weather and a lack of supplies. He came up short by a mere 1,000 feet. Deep in a snowstorm and severely short on oxygen, Smythe relied on the most unlikely companion, the Third Man. Perhaps that lack of oxygen may have played a part, but at one point, he was so convinced of the presence of this figure that Smythe pulled out his rations and broke them in two, preferring the spare half.

Whatever it is, and we may never know, the Third Man has saved the lives of countless mountain climbers and explorers. Cynic or not, it’s comforting to know that there’s always a friendly voice out there to help you when things get as tough as they possibly can.

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Tom Kilpatrick
A London-born outdoor enthusiast, Tom took the first ticket out of suburban life. What followed was a twelve-year career as…
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