The escape in history: Chögyam Trungpa and Ernest Shackleton.
How to assess Chögyam Trungpa’s 1959 escape in the light of history? Maybe the simplest approach is to compare his journey to a more famous and well-documented one. Among the best known of these is Shackleton’s famous Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition of 1914-17, described as “history’s greatest story of survival and adventure.” Around 10 movies and TV versions have been made on the Shackleton expedition – including a 2001 iMax version narrated by Kevin Spacey – with around 18 books on the journey and its leader still in print.
Both journeys unfolded in three major, parallel stages: the first after the groups’ home bases were destroyed – Shackleton’s ship Endurance by Antarctic ice, the Tibetans’ world by Communist violence – forcing them to undertake challenging treks in search of safety; the second consisted of exceptionally dangerous and harrowing journeys involving huge navigational challenges; the final, climactic stage played out in life-or-death crossings of high snow mountains.
Shackleton's Antarctic Expedition and Chögyam Trungpa’s Escape
- 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 volunteers, highly selected, seasoned men. Hardened, fit and disciplined, many had military backgrounds.
- The Tibetans were desperate refugees: monastics and ordinary people of all ages, from babies to the elderly, most with little relevant experience or sense of discipline.
- Expedition: camping while adrift on ice, then hard journey, voyage to Elephant Island. 4 ½ months.
- Escape: arduous flight from East Tibet, including sometimes terrifying challenges. 5 months.
- Shackleton's boat voyage across stormy, treacherous seas to South Georgia Island. Adequate food. 16 days.
- Refugees' exhausting trek across immense, trackless mountain wilderness. Near the end many were starving, eating their leather bags. 3 months.
- Shackleton's climb over 3,000' mountain terrain to whaling station. Adequate food. 36 hours.
- After deadly gunfire Communist attack, exhausted, starving survivors climb 19,000' over midwinter Himalayas to Pema Ko. Food: boiled leather scraps. 10 days.
Even this brief overview leaves little doubt about the Tibetan story’s place in history: those who undertook the escape accomplished something truly monumental, their story a great, shining human saga.
We might be tempted to go further – seeking to judge which journey was the longer or more arduous, which called on more profound depths of courage, determination and fortitude, which was the greater. But competitive comparisons can be invidious. Every great story of human heroism and fortitude 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 fierce rigours of weather and 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 be interned, at least for a while, the monks likely subject to hard labour, the leaders almost certainly executed. The threat was all too real: the Communist gunfire attack at the Brahmaputra River greatly reduced the survivors’ numbers.
And, 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 millons of others 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.