The third man – help in times of crisis

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Daniel Loveless
  • 71st Medical Operations Squadron commander

VANCE AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- “Falling ice!”

James Sevigny looked up the couloir he and his climbing partner, Richard Whitmire, were ascending on Mount Deltaform and watched as a large chunk of ice tumbled down the mountain.

Fixed to the mountain with ice screws, there was only so much distance they could move to get out of the way of the falling ice. Thankfully it fell wide of the climbers. The air was still, save the sound of the ice bounding down.

Both climbers heard an intense rumble. Cascading snow and ice ripped Sevigny and Whitmire off the couloir and carried them down 2,000 feet to the base of the mountain.

Sevigny opened his eyes and at first wasn’t sure where he was. He had been unconscious for about an hour. During the fall he sustained fractures in his vertebrae, several ribs, a shoulder blade and one of his arms. He had also broken his nose and ruptured ligaments in both of his knees.

It was immediately apparent Whitmire had not survived the avalanche. Sevigny curled up near Whitmire and decided to let the elements take him.

He laid there for a while trying to fall asleep when suddenly he noticed a presence. He couldn’t see the presence, but he knew it was there. Wordlessly the presence told him, “You can’t give up, you have to try.”

At this point, Sevigny gained the strength to try to make it back to his camp, about one mile away, where he might get help from others. He began to walk and crawl with the encouragement of this unseen presence.

This unseen presence has been dubbed the third-man factor. Beliefs as to what this third man is range from a guardian angel to a built in coping mechanism.

There are some common trends to when the third man appears. The most common are situations that encompass social isolation, extreme cold and high altitudes.

The one factor that is always present is a time of great need where the outcome is life or death.

Most of the time this presence does not communicate, but just walks along with the individual in distress.

Even if the presence does not say one word, those individuals that have witnessed the third man all report feeling a great sense of comfort and generally feel that they would not have survived without the third man.

Where does all this come into play for you? Simply put, you don’t have to be an expert to help someone in crisis. Literally, you don’t even have to say a word.

All you have to do is be there. You can be the third man. By just being there you bring comfort and encouragement. You might just save a life.

Certainly words of encouragement are powerful, but the third man illustrates that just the presence of other people can be enough to make a difference. So, don’t be afraid to get involved.

Sevigny finally reached camp at dusk. While he laid in the snow, he thought he heard some people. He screamed to get their attention.

At that moment the unseen presence disappeared. Sevigny feared that meant he would soon be dying. The next thing he knew, some skiers were there helping evacuate him to medical care.

Sevigny believes the unseen presence left when it did because once the skiers found him, he was safe. Sevigny feels that he would not have survived without the third man’s presence.

(Editor’s note: James Sevigny’s story is taken from “The Third Man Factor,” a book by John Geiger.)