Third Man Syndrome

By: Nick Swafford

In 1916, Ernest Shackleton and his two-man expedition team were exploring the unknown landscape of Antarctica when their boat became encased in ice. They had two options: stay there in hopes that someone would find them, or start trekking to the nearest whaling station, Stromness Bay. They decided to set out to find Stromness Bay, and, in order to get there, they had to hike many miles across glaciers and mountain ranges. It took a total of 36 hours, but Shackleton and his crew surprisingly survived the perilous journey. Shackleton later wrote in his journal, “I know that during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three”. And in a poem later documenting Shackleton’s journey, he wrote;


Who is the third who walks always beside you?

When I count, there are only you and I together

But when I look ahead up the white road

There is always another one walking beside you

Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded

I do not know whether a man or a woman

But who is that on the other side of you?


According to the journal entry and poem, Shackleton saw an apparition of a person along with his two crew members. Could this have been an actual guardian angel, watching over the stranded explorers? Or was it just a misfiring of brain activity and chemical reactions in the brain due to stress and fatigue?

Today, this “guardian angel” phenomenon is known as Third Man Syndrome, named after Shackleton’s apparition during his journey. Third Man Syndrome is used by psychologists as a diagnosis for trauma victims, as in intense or traumatic events. In times like these, people sometimes feel a presence beside them or watching over them. There are plenty of accounts of this phenomenon, and John Geiger, author of The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible, spent five years accumulating stories of people experiencing this phenomenon.

One story features Frank Smyth, who almost became the first person to conquer Mount Everest. Due to the snow, wind, ice, and low oxygen, Frank was the only one left trekking up the mountain, as his hiking group couldn’t push any longer and stopped. Just 1,000 feet from the peak, he was forced to head back down the mountain in defeat. Along the way down, Frank remembers taking a Kendal mint cake from his pocket and holding it out for his hiking partner—except Frank had been alone for hours by then. “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.” Frank thought he had someone hiking right along with him, but it was just him and whatever the wilderness had to offer.

Another story focuses on Ron DiFrancesco who worked in the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001. Ron was on the 84th floor of the South Tower when the second plane hit. In a panic, Ron frantically tried to make his way to the stairs, but the fire and smoke was too intense, causing him to lie down. Ron then recalls a hand grabbing him and leading him to the exit and out the building. He was the very last person to exit the building before it fell and was only one of four people to escape from above the 81st floor. No one ever helped Ron, and no one ever led him to safety; the only thing leading him was himself.

James Sevigny was 28 when he and his friend, Richard Whitmire, set out to climb Deltaform, a mountain in the Canadian Rockies. Roped together, they were using ice picks to traverse an ice gully when an avalanche of snow and ice came crashing down onto them. James was knocked unconscious almost immediately, and Richard could have escaped the avalanche if not for the rope keeping them together. An hour later, James woke up to a broken back, ribs, scapula, arm, and nose along with torn ligaments on both knees and several internal and external wounds. James, dazed and with a mild case of amnesia, found Richard dead on the ground. In defeat, James laid next to his friend and waited for death to take him as well. After half-an-hour, James felt a presence approach him and tell him to get up and keep going, even giving him tips on how to survive. With the advice from this spirit, James miraculously almost made it to his campsite, stopping short due to exhaustion. It was then that James knew the apparition left him, and an unsettling sense of loneliness overtook him. That didn’t last long, however, as a group of skiers found him and called 911. He was quickly picked up by a helicopter and sent to a hospital.

Have you ever experienced something similar? Leave your experience in the comment section!

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