At 2.00 am on Monday 19th August 1996, Malcolm Imhoff and a climbing partner set off to reach the summit of Mount Blanc. “As a mountaineer I really wanted to climb Mt Blanc. You have to start off it in the dark because that’s when the snow is frozen hard. Once the sun gets onto the snow it starts melting and it all gets very dangerous.”
“After about two hours we’d stopped for our first rest and I was aware of a guy standing near us, and I thought, ‘This is odd,’ because we’d not seen anyone else before, and you just don’t go up Mt Blanc on your own.”
They never saw the man again. Malcolm climbed on and found the climb tested his abilities to their absolute limit. But throughout Malcolm felt strangely serene: “I had this overpowering feeling that there was someone with us, helping us.”
Looking back, Malcolm felt that ‘someone’ was the silhouetted figure he’d seen in the dark, hours earlier. “I’d like to think it might have been my guardian angel. I know I couldn’t have done this on my own: I just wasn’t strong enough. I definitely had some help.”
The 1990s was the final decade before the ubiquity of the mobile phone. Most people, Malcolm included, still relied on letters and landlines. “A week later, when I got home, the first thing I did was phone my mum to tell her I’d climbed Mt Blanc…she had to tell me that they’d been trying to get in touch with us, because my brother, Trev, had died at 43, on the very same time I was on the mountain. Sorry, but nobody is going to tell me that this isn’t a coincidence – there was something going on that day.”
According to neurologist Allan J Hamilton, this kind of experience is very typical among mountaineers. It even has a name: The Third Man.
In 1933 Colonel Frank Smythe, one of the greatest mountaineers of the era, was attempting to be the first person to conquer Everest. At 28,100 feet, exhausted from a climb up a sheer cliff face, his party admitted defeated and turned back down the mountain, but Smythe recklessly pushed on alone for the summit. Darkness fell, a storm blew up, and Frank was in a desperate dilemma. If he tried to descend the cliff wall alone he was sure to fall to his death as he didn’t have enough rope, but if he remained where he was overnight, he would freeze to death. Reasoning that hypothermia would be the less painful way to die, Frank decided to stay put. He lay down in the snow, closed his eyes and prepared himself for death. A little time thereafter he heard movement. A climber emerged from below, and said to Frank, “Youve got to get up or you’re going to die here. Get up, we can make it together, I’ve got the rope!” And indeed he had, coiled around his shoulder.
Together they achieved one of the great mountaineering feats, descending Everest in total darkness. At dawn they arrived on the glacial sheet and knew that somehow they’d finally reached safety. To celebrate, Frank reached into his coat and pulled out some Kendal mint cake which he broke in two. He went to give half to his companion only to find there was no-one there. Looking back up the mountain, Frank saw there was only one pair of footprints in the snow.