Shackleton and Trungpa - The Escape in History
How to assess Chögyam Trungpa’s 1959 escape in the light of history? One approach is to compare his journey to a more famous one. Among the best known of these is Ernest Shackleton’s famous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, described as “history’s greatest story of survival and adventure.”
A dozen or so movies and TV versions have been made on the Shackleton expedition – including a 2001 iMax version – with upwards of 18 books on the journey and its leader still in print.
The stories are in many ways profoundly different, but they share major themes.
First and most basically, they were both escapes -- Shackleton's coming after his ship Endurance was crushed by ice, followed by the expedition's desperate attempt to escape the Antarctic wasteland, Trungpa's after the decision to flee the violence in his homeland.
And, strikingly, both journeys of escape unfolded in three major, parallel stages:
- After the groups’ home bases were destroyed – Shackleton’s ship by Antarctic ice, the Tibetans’ world by Communist violence – they were forced to undertake challenging, sometimes perilous, treks in search of safety
- The second stage involved exceptionally dangerous and harrowing journeys involving huge navigational challenges,
- The final, climactic stage played out in life-or-death crossings of high snow mountains.
Comparing the Shackleton and Trungpa Epics
- Shackleton: 40-year-old naval officer, experienced leader of Antarctic expeditions.
- Chogyam Trungpa: 19-year-old Buddhist lama, no prior relevant experience.
- The Expedition's men were highly selected volunteers. Seasoned, fit and disciplined, many had military backgrounds.
- The Tibetans were refugees: monastics and ordinary people of all ages, from babies to the elderly. Most had little relevant experience or sense of discipline.
- Shackleton and team: mostly camping while adrift on ice, then dangerous week-long voyage to Elephant Island. 5 ½ months.
- Trungpa and refugees: arduous flight from East Tibet, including sometimes terrifying challenges. 5 months.
- Shackleton's epic boat voyage across stormy, treacherous seas to South Georgia Island. Regular hot meals. 17 days.
- Refugees' trek across immense, trackless mountain wilderness. By the end food had run out and the survivors were starving, eating leather bags to survive. 3 months.
- Shackleton's challenging crossing of South Georgia Island's 4,000' mountains and glaciers to whaling station. Hot food and drink throughout. 36 hours.
- After heavy Communist gunfire attack during Brahmaputra crossing, Trungpa and survivors climb 19,000' over midwinter Himalayas. Food: leather scraps. 10 days.
(For a brief discussion of the respective outcomes, see below*)
Even a brief overview leaves little doubt about the Tibetan story’s place in history. Those who undertook the escape accomplished something truly monumental. Their story is a shining human saga, ranking with history's greatest.
We might be tempted to go further, to try to judge which journey was the longer or more arduous, which reflected more profound depths of courage, determination and fortitude, ask which was the greater. But such comparisons can be invidious. Every story of human heroism and endurance in the face of deadly challenge is unique, each to be valued for itself – maybe even more so when a leader puts his own life on the line for his followers, as was the case with both leaders.
Still, a few aspects of the Tibetan story have no parallel in the Antarctic one. From start to end, the three hundred Tibetans were being hunted by China’s People’s Liberation Army. More than the rigours of appalling weather and fearsome terrain, more than the daunting challenges of navigation and provisions, a ruthless enemy shaped everything -- precipitating the refugees’ escape altogether, dictating the desperately arduous routes they took, decreeing the very clothes they wore. If the refugees were caught, the people would likely be interned, at least for a while, the monks subject to hard labour, the leaders almost certainly executed. The threat was all too real: the fierce Communist gunfire attack at the Brahmaputra River greatly reduced the survivors’ numbers.
Shackleton's group were ultimately sustained by meat from the seals, penguins and seabirds they encountered; in the end they resorted to eating their sled dogs, their killing described by Shackleton as the "worst job we had to do." The Tibetans had taken Buddhist vows not to kill, and this they observed right to the end, even at the cost of their own lives. Near the end, when at the Brahmaputra two desperate men slaughtered a stolen bull for food, it brought down catastrophe.
Unlike the Antarctic explorers, the escapees were ordinary folk, happy in their homes and entirely unprepared for the journey they were forced upon. They, like many millions before and since, had been hurled out into the world by the forces of history. Alone and adrift in a harsh and alien land, surviving on what little they could carry on their backs, they were on their own; they could call on only their own resources, could rely only on their own hearts and minds, find their own way.
* Comparing the two escapes’ final outcomes is less straightforward. With generous outside help – ships, crews, food, fuel – Shackleton was able to rescue all the expedition’s marooned men; without that help, probably none would have survived. Similarly, Trungpa was able to lead all the original escapees, plus a few dozen more, safely over the Himalayas and into India; however, with no outside help, indeed with everything – terrain, weather, lack of food and, overwhelmingly, the PLA – against them, most of those who joined the journey en route did not escape.