The Escape in History - Shackleton and Trungpa

Shackleton after the loss of the  Endurance  (Wiki)

Shackleton after the loss of the Endurance (Wiki)

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 naturally different in many ways -- but they share major themes which are sometimes hauntingly alike.

They were fundamentally both escapes -- Shackleton's coming after his ship was crushed by ice, triggering the expedition's escape from the Antarctic wasteland, Trungpa's after the decision to flee his homeland.

And, strikingly, both journeys of escape unfolded in three major, parallel stages:

  1. 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 treks in search of safety

  2. The second stage involved exceptionally harrowing journeys that involved huge navigational challenges,

  3. 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 final dangerous week's voyage to Elephant Island. 5 ½ months.

  • Trungpa and refugees: arduous flight from East Tibet including weeks-long periods of camping; final stretch involved most terrifying challenges; . 5 months.


  • Shackleton's epic boat voyage across stormy Antarctic seas to South Georgia Island. Regular hot meals. 17 days.

  • Refugees' trek across immense, trackless mountain wilderness, survivors forced to eat their leather bags to survive. 91 days.


  • Shackleton's crossing of South Georgia Island's 4,000' mountains and glaciers to whaling station. Hot food and drink throughout. 36 hours.

  • Refugees come under heavy Communist gunfire attack during Brahmaputra crossing, Trungpa and survivors climb 19,000' over midwinter Himalayas. Food: leather scraps. 10 days.



  • With generous outside help – ships, crews, food, fuel – Shackleton was able to rescue all the expedition’s men marooned on Elephant Island. Without that help, likely none would have survived.

  • With everything against them – terrain, weather, lack of food and, overwhelmingly, the Communist PLA – Trungpa and his original party, plus a few dozen more, were still able to reach safe haven in the Himalayas before continuing on to India. However, most who joined the journey later did not escape.


Even a brief overview leaves no doubt about the Tibetan story’s place in history. Those who undertook the escape accomplished something truly monumental, their story a shining human saga that ranks 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 are questionable. 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 Trungpa and Shackleton.


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.