Friday, March 10, 2017

Third Man Syndrome

I guess I haven't posted for awhile, mostly due to some deteriorating weather over the last week or so as March began by bringing a strong blast of winter back just when it seemed like spring was just around the corner.  It has been a rather difficult winter this year as it has been below freezing much more than usual and has been very windy.  We have had a lot of clear and cold sunny days but those days were also fairly cold and usually came with quite a bit of even colder winds which made boating unpleasant at best if not dangerous and while we haven't had a lot of snow, we have had enough to make driving off the unplowed roads mostly impossible.  This winter has been a cycle of two or three weeks of clear and freezing weather broken up by a day or two of warmer temperatures with several inches of snowfall followed by another clear and freezing stretch which then freezes the snow into a useless crust as it slowly sublimates into the unusally dry air.  This winter seems to have brought on more grumbling and longings for spring from a lot of us here as we got a lot of the worst of winter without a balance of the best of winter to make it fun and tolerable.  But, spring will come and there have been some signs of it lately giving hope to us poor vitamin D deprived Alaskan souls!

I recently saw a flock of Varied Thrushes flying around town and a Red Winged Blackbird singing from a power line outside of our library and heard Robins singing this morning which are some very early signs of spring's approach.  I also watched the courtship displays of a male and female Barrow's Goldeneye which is a type of sea duck.  It was a very interesting display but too far away for the lens I had on my camera to get any photos.  The wintry weather (and a serious back strain) have kept me mostly indoors lately but I did do some indoor photography some of which is following for your viewing pleasure!

That is the dog of a friend of mine.  He's a mutt but a handsome mutt although he didn't quite grow into his ears!  He is a blue heeler, Australian Shepherd, Pit Bull mix ball of energy and muscle!  He only stayed still enough to get one quick photo at a time.

A pretty house plant.

Since I haven't had much interesting and new to talk about, I thought I'd talk about a personal survival story experienced way back in 1997 (how I miss the 90s!) when I was an invincible 20 something living to be in the backcountry of Montana on foot or on bike.  Since 1997 was 20 years ago, I'll do my best to dredge up accurate memories of the experience I had experiencing the Third Man Syndrome.
If memory serves accurately, it was late in the fall or early in the winter and I had set out to do a solo mountaineering trip in the Bitterroot Mountains south of Missoula, Montana.  I don't remember the particular trail and drainage I traveled up or even what mountain or ridge I had hoped to explore, I just remember the weather being somewhat cold and wet in the lower elevations with some of the first snow falling up higher.  I had hiked in several miles on the trail before leaving the trail and bushwacking up the north side of the valley to gain the high ridge.  I was only planning on being out for one night so had packed very light with only a sleeping bag and bivy sack to sleep in, some food and water, extra clothes, etc. and wanted to cover a fair bit of ground in a short time.   So, minimal gear, solo trip, cold and wet weather, rugged and hard hike, sounds like one of any number of trips I've done in my life but it is also a set up for potential problems if something didn't go well.  At that point in my life I had a lot of outdoor experience and skill and had had a fair amount of wilderness survival and medicine training including a 6 week course in Conway, New Hampshire at SOLO wilderness medicine school.  I had left my trip plan with some friends back in Missoula and as there was nothing about the trip in particular that concerned me, I was excited for another challenging exploration of a new mountain. 
The error in my decision making that led to my experience with the Third Man Syndrome was my decision on where to bivy for the night. 
So, the Third Man Syndrome was something that I had never heard of until I came across a book called The Third Man Factor. by John Geiger in the Wrangell library about 8 years ago.  The book had a photo of a person with a large pack on a snow slope, head down, laboring upwards with a ghostly, semi-transparent climbing partner beside him and the subtitle of "Surviving the Impossible".  This caught my attention so I read the jacket cover and instantly knew that the author was describing exactly what had happened to me that night in Montana.  It was fascinating!  The term Third Man Factor comes from the account of Ernest Shackleton's superhuman trek across Elephant Island in the Antarctic.  If you have never read about this, do!  Those guys were something special!  Anyway, there were 3 men on this trek trying to reach a whaling station and thereby save their entire crew.  They were successful and weeks later they all related a story of feeling that there was a fourth person on the trek with them, a real felt presence by all of them that then left once they reached the whaling station.  The poet T.S. Eliot later referenced this experience in his poem "The Wasteland" but mistakenly referred to this spectral fourth man as the third man, hence Third Man Syndrome.

This paragraph is the book description from Amazon:

The Third Man Factor is an extraordinary account of how people at the very edge of death often sense an unseen presence beside them who encourages them to make one final effort to survive. This incorporeal being offers a feeling of hope, protection, and guidance, and leaves the person convinced he or she is not alone. There is a name for this phenomenon: it’s called the Third Man Factor.
If only a handful of people had ever encountered the Third Man, it might be dismissed as an unusual delusion shared by a few overstressed minds. But over the years, the experience has occurred again and again, to 9/11 survivors, mountaineers, divers, polar explorers, prisoners of war, sailors, shipwreck survivors, aviators, and astronauts. All have escaped traumatic events only to tell strikingly similar stories of having sensed the close presence of a helper or guardian. The force has been explained as everything from hallucination to divine intervention. Recent neurological research suggests something else.

I had begun to run out of daylight somewhere on the side of the mountain right at the elevation where the rain was almost snow and the snow was almost rain and there were only a few scrubby trees for cover. I found a somewhat uncomfortable sleeping spot under the tallest of these trees as a light rain and snow mix fell.  I anticipated an uncomfortable, cold night but felt sure that I could suffer through it until daybreak so I crawled into the bag and bivy and started out the night dry and warm and fell asleep only to wake up sometime later feeling colder and wet.  The rain/snow mix had increased, my tree shelter wasn't adequate, neither was my bivy sack as it turned out.  I put on my spare clothes and settled back in determined that I could still suffer through it until morning and fell asleep again despite the fact that I had started shivering. 
I was very knowledgeable about hypothermia, knew the signs and symptoms, causes, treatments, had had winter survival training, etc so was able to monitor myself and make what I thought at the time were okay decisions.
The next time I woke up, I was very cold and soaked through and was shivering uncontrollably.  Very obvious signs of decreasing body temperature and environmental conditions, the time when I should have re-evaluated my situation and decisions and done something different.  It is likely that my mental function was already somewhat compromised which may be the reason why I decided that I could still suffer through it until daybreak when I could get up and get moving and get warm through muscle action.  I laid there in a half sleep telling myself I could make it a few more hours until I finally felt warm and stopped shivering.  Perfect!  Now I could go to sleep and had every intention to do so until the Third Man spoke to me from very close by somewhere near my head to my left.  From my perspective, the voice was male, very close, and spoke very sternly and clearly said "You have to get up."  I heard it as a stern voice but not yelling or scolding, more of a statement.  My thoughts of going to sleep didn't go away after hearing this command but they did move farther back in my mind, my thoughts had switched to thinking about what I needed to do to "get up" like I was told to do.  Once I had begun to think about getting up, I quickly realized that this was not going to be an easy thing to do, I couldn't make my hands function and my legs weren't responding very well either.  My memories of exactly how I got out of my sleeping bag and bivy and packed my gear are hazy (I think I remember working the zippers by pressing together with the knuckles of both hands with the zipper pull in between).  I do remember shoving things into my backpack with my fists and elbows as my fingers and hands couldn't do anything other than make a fist.  I also clearly remember thinking to myself, "just leave your stuff and get moving" but the Third Man voice told me to pack my gear in case I needed it again.  Strangely, this time the voice seemed to be inside my head rather than from close by, it was the same voice in the same tone though and was not the same voice as my own "voice in my head".
I don't remember anything about the journey back down to the trail in the valley bottom, nothing.  I had to descend a couple thousand feet to get to the trail over steep and rough country but remember none of that.  I do remember some of the hike out once I reached the trail, I remember intense relief once I was back on the trail but also realizing I still had several miles to go, and I remember having hallucinations as I was hiking.  At one point a black bear was walking on its hind legs beside me and small fairy like figures kept darting in and out of the darker and lighter shadows and crossing the trail ahead of me.  Trees along the trail morphed into various creatures as I passed by and I think I remember moonlight. I guess I was pretty bad off as I don't remember any more than that.
I have no doubt that I would have gone to sleep on that mountain once I felt warm and stopped shivering if the Third Man had not told me to get up.  I was warm and comfortable and thought I could make it until morning but had I slept, I would not have woken up, I was in the beginning stages of severe hypothermia which would have quickly led to death.  An interesting takeaway I got from this experience is that dying from hypothermia seems like it would be peaceful, once I got passed the suffering from the cold I was warm and comfortable and relaxed and ready to drift off to the long sleep.

I highly recommend reading about Shackleton and the Third Man book whether or not you have ever experienced something like it yourself.

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