The ghosts that accompany solo explorers

No one in their right mind would go to a place where they induce a condition akin to schizophrenia, but it turns out this is what I have been doing. By riding a bicycle.

As a long-time devotee of endurance sport, be it hiking, mountaineering, running or adventure racing, I know that the attraction is at the edge, the interplay between a body ready to quit and a mind that will not let it.

In the case of the long-distance cyclist, a double-wheeled tool is used that dramatically augments the capacity of the athlete. Fed and watered, the cyclist can seemingly ride forever. Except for the need for sleep.

But endurance riders find that they can get by on very little sleep, some even bragging that, as sleep deprivation sets in and the accompanying sleep monsters emerge, they can continue to ride, ignoring the hallucinations.

I have in recent years been keen to discover my own limitations and started doing longer and longer rides, for example, riding 300km in 24 hours on no sleep and then 600km in 63 hours on two hours of sleep. I did a 1 000km ride over four-and-a-half days on limited sleep and a 1 500km ride over eight-and-a-half days on about four or five hours sleep a night.

But odder than hallucinations is the strong sense I have had on some rides that I am not alone even though I am riding solo. This can be a tad disorienting. I am more likely to think of “we” than “I”, so real are the presences who appear to be accompanying me.

On my most recent ride, attempting 600km nonstop on back roads from Johannesburg to the coast, I was about 250km and 16 hours in. It was hot, more than 30°C, I was fighting a headwind, the climbs were steeper than I had expected and I had been out of water for 50km.

I have a set of aero bars on the handlebars of my bike that allow me to change my back (and backside) position and reduce the pressure on my hands. These aero bars also allow a less wind-resistant profile against headwinds.

But the job of riding the aero bars was not mine. A young man with a shock of dark hair had this job, he being one of a number of presences who had joined me. I sensed the other presences but they were ill-defined, unlike the young man who I would say was present for a few hours that afternoon.

He did not communicate with me, threatened me in no way, but if anything was reassuring as he focused on the job at hand: moving forward.

This experience may sound a bit odd but, it is, as I have come to find out, well documented. Accounts of presences joining adventurers and explorers, usually in distress, number in the hundreds.

Frank Smythe offered food to a nonexistent companion on Everest. (

Many are famous, such as the case of Frank Smythe who, in 1933, almost got to the top of Everest. His fellow climbers had turned back, but he persevered in arduous conditions. Writing later in his diary, he recounted how on the way up he took out a slab of mint cake and broke it in half to give to his companion, but there was no one there.

“All the time I was climbing alone, I had the strong feeling I was accompanied by a second person. The feeling was so strong that it completely eliminated all loneliness I might otherwise have felt,” he wrote.

Then there’s the case of the trader Ron DiFrancesco, the last person to leave the south tower of the World Trade Centre on 9/11 before it collapsed.

DiFrancesco was on the 84th floor when the second plane struck between the 79th and 82nd floor. He tried to make his way down the stairwell but had to lie down because of the raging fire and thick smoke. He then felt something grab his hand and lead him out, says John Geiger, the author of The Third Man Factor: Surviving the Impossible.

The term the Third Man was coined by American poet TS Eliot, in the poem The Waste Land, which is based on the experiences of the polar adventurer Ernest Shackleton and his two companions during a tortuous traverse across the Antarctic wilderness.

Shackleton wrote: “I know that during that long and racking march of 36 hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.”

Eliot, confusing the numbers involved, wrote:

Who is the third who walks always besides 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?

The presence is often given a spiritual explanation such as a guardian angel. But, says Geiger, interviewed by National Public Radio in the United States: “If we understand that the Third Man factor is part of us, the way adrenalin is … then we can start to access it more easily. It’s not a hallucination in the sense that hallucinations are disordering. This is a very helpful and orderly guide.”

This description could apply to my Third Man, the young man. I had a strong impression of him, but did not know him from real life. He is certainly not a younger version of myself. At a stretch, when I thought about him afterwards, if I had to suggest a person I know who he might be, I would say he could have been a younger version of my deceased father.

He never showed his face and had a function-specific role: driving us forward while down on the aero bars.

Geiger, interviewed by Canada AM, described the experience as perceiving the presence of a companion, a friend, to help or assist out of a life-and-death struggle.

I, though, while marginally stressed and out of water, was in no way in a life-threatening situation.

Ernest Shackleton, the Antarctic explorer who made an epic journey on a lifeboat from Elephant Island to South Georgia, recorded the presence of an unknown traveller during a gruelling march. (Supplied)

A team of researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, led by Olaf Blanke, have been studying felt presences (the feeling of presence, or FoP), as they are called. In November 2014 they published a paper in Current Biology describing FoP demonstrated under laboratory conditions.

Blanke writes: “Tales of ghosts, wraiths and other apparitions have been reported in virtually all cultures. The strange sensation that somebody is nearby when no one is actually present and cannot be seen is a fascinating feat of the human mind, and this apparition is often covered in the literature of divinity, occultism and fiction. Although it is described by neurological and psychiatric patients and healthy individuals in different situations, it is not yet understood how the phenomenon is triggered by the brain.”

The team used a master-slave robotic system with two arms, one in front of a subject, the other behind. The blindfolded subject puts his finger into the arm of the master robot, using it to prod and point. These actions are captured by the slave, the prodding and pointing being felt on the subject’s back.

The slave action can be slightly delayed, some subjects experiencing the prodding as something external to themselves even though they know they are its source.

Blanke says the master-slave system “generated specific sensorimotor conflicts and enabled us to induce the FoP and related illusory own-body perceptions experimentally in normal participants. The data show that the illusion of feeling another person nearby is caused by misperceiving the source and identity of sensorimotor (tactile, proprioceptive, and motor) signals of one’s own body.” This causes the confusion between “self” and “other”.

This research includes studies of 12 neurological patients, who report this secondary representation of the body, using lesion analysis over a 15-year period. “Our data show that the FoP is an illusory own-body perception associated with sensorimotor loss and caused by lesions in three distinct brain regions: temporoparietal, insular, and especially frontoparietal cortex,” Blanke writes, adding that such abnormalities have been described in schizophrenic patients.

He speculates that such disintegration of signals may explain the mis-perceptions of mountaineers who are fatigued and at high altitude in a sensory-deprived landscape of white and grey.

“You don’t see other human beings, you don’t see animals, you don’t see colours. The brain is probably in a situation in which it is prone to induce altered states of consciousness; if this comes together with physical fatigue due to continuous motor activity, the potential to have multisensory motor errors is probably increased.”

I mailed Blanke a draft of this story and he responded by saying that seeing the presence in front of you is quite rare, but has been reported, adding that “your feeling of a presence is unique and nicely fits with the importance of the motor system, which is one of my main hypotheses”.

I have done several sleep-deprived rides and have had Third Man experiences on two of them, always while riding solo. Sleep deprived, but riding with friends, I hallucinated continually throughout one night, but never sensed the third presence. Equally, riding long hours alone has not in itself brought on the experience, such as was the case with the solo 1 500km ride.

In long-distance cycling, the normal motor patterns of walking are interrupted. I sometimes make a point of walking hills just to normalise muscle activity. Otherwise the whole day can be spent in the unusual activity of cycling with only short walking breaks when getting supplies at a supermarket.

Even with the “help” of the young man, the sun, headwind, dehydration, sleep deprivation and distance had taken their toll. I needed to reset. I lay down on the side of the track and relaxed. Short rests are often called catnaps under these conditions, but there was too much adrenalin coursing through my body and my heart rate was too high to sleep.

I was conscious, then drifted into semiconsciousness and immediately had powerful dreams. I was dreaming but not fully asleep. The dreams reordered my brain. In a few minutes, rested, I got up and carried on.

When I thought about the experience later and tried to put it into words, it was as though the universe had entered my consciousness and recalibrated my being. Dreaming reset the stress of the contradictory and competing stimuli the brain was dealing with.

I didn’t realise it as I continued my ride, but when I came to write up the experience a little more than a week later, I remembered that after this reset the young man did not reappear.

I rode on, for another 200km or so, taking three rest-sleep breaks, one of about 30 minutes and the other two of about five minutes. During the night I saw a giant shongololo (millipede), at least a foot long, which turned out to be a harmless stick.

In the morning a snake suddenly appeared on the grass verge about two metres away from me. It moved around the area near me in a confusing pattern with blinding speed and then, about four metres from me, raised its head about half a metre from the ground, moving it rapidly from side to side in a way that was in equal parts menacing and threatening.

I made sure it knew I had no intention of even looking at it any longer than necessary: I stared ahead and kept pedalling, my heart racing.

Later I wondered whether the snake was real or an apparition because it had moved so fast that it could instantly position itself almost anywhere it wanted to be. It also did not show a hood when it raised its head. All snakes that raised themselves had hoods, I thought.

But some internet research quickly came up with a snake that perfectly matched what I had seen. This is the black mamba (which is not black, but brown) and is reckoned to be the fastest snake in Africa, achieving speeds of 5m a second. My snake easily moved that fast.

Out of time and behind schedule, I ended my ride at 435km after 35 hours.

If you have read this far, you may want to know why. Why ride such long hours?

I can think of two reasons.

One, to ride near the edge, to glimpse perhaps what is beyond.

Two, to know a little better what is within.

Kevin Davie

Kevin Davie is M&G's business editor. A journalist for more than 30 years, he has worked in senior positions at most major titles in the country. Davie is a Nieman Fellow (1995-1996) and cyberspace innovator, having co-founded SA's first online-only news portal, Woza, and the first online stockbroking operation. He is a lecturer at Wits Journalism. In his spare time he can be found riding a bicycle, usually somewhere remote.


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