OBITUARY : Dr Philip Jon STEPHENSON (Jon), 10 November 1930 – 24 May 2011


The ANARE Club announced the death of Dr Jon Stephenson on 24 May 2011 with the following website notice:-

Associate Professor Jon Stephenson passed away this morning after suffering a large stroke.  Jon was highly respected Geologist and an Antarctic Expeditioner.  He was well known to many ANARE Club members and attended the Tasmanian midwinter dinner in 2010 with his daughter Sara.

Jon graduated from the University of Queensland with first class honours in geology. In 1957 he was appointed the Australian member of the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition (TAE), the first expedition to cross the Antarctic continent. During that expedition, and on the route to the pole, Jon as Geologist and Ken Blaiklock as Surveyor, mapped the previously unexplored Shackleton Range. Dog sledge was their mode of transport.

Dr Phillip Law, as Director of Australia’s Antarctic Division, was instrumental in the appointment of Jon Stephenson to the Commonwealth Trans Antarctic Expedition.

Jon Stephenson was firstly a Queenslander. He was also an Australian and a Scientist of world renown. He seized all opportunities in pursuit of geological knowledge and adventure:  Queensland in the South ─ Queensland in the North ─ Europe ─ Antarctica ─ Asia ─ anywhere there is important geology. Throughout his life Jon was at the forefront of knowledge.

Born in South East Queensland, schooled in Warwick where the mountains of the Great Dividing Range and McPherson Ranges were his training ground, his life was involved in geology, wild places, study and teaching. This relationship with the environment and  with people was his world.

Jon received his secondary education at Slade School Warwick from 1944 to 1948. He was School Captain and Dux in 1948 and excelled in sport. On leaving Slade Jon undertook study in Geology at University of Queensland where he established a great reputation.

A history of Slade School, covering the period to 1952, records that in 1950 Jon 'Oigle' Stephenson won the H.C.Richards Medal of the University of Queensland for the best second year geology student. He was awarded the University Medal in 1954 at the conclusion of his degree with first class honours. He then proceeded to London to pursue his studies.

In 1957, just as he completed his PhD at the Imperial College, University of London, he was chosen to take part in the Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition. This was to be the first ever crossing of the Antarctic. Jon completed the whole crossing from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. He was the Geologist and Glaciologist for this expedition lead by Sir Vivian Fuchs during the International Geophysical Year 1957-1958.

The crossing was achieved in three segments: Weddell Sea to south of the Shackleton Range where the base, South Ice, was established in 1957 (350  statute miles): next was South Ice to the Pole (550 statute miles): and Pole to Scott base at the Ross Sea (1250 statute miles). This story is contained in “The Crossing of Antarctica” by Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary. (1958). Jon Stephenson has produced his account of the expedition in “Crevasse Roulette”. (2009)

At South Ice, Jon spent the 1957 winter with two others. Their base was a hut 4.6 metres square, which was soon completely buried in snow. He made a study of how ice crystals in snow change with increasing depth, working at -30 degrees Fahrenheit in a small ‘laboratory’ off the main hut. After winter, and before the main traverse to the Pole commenced, Jon and others explored the Shackleton Range and adjacent mountains from a satellite field depot. The men, equipment and the dog teams were flown in for this work.  The survey and geologising of this previously unknown mountain area was a highlight of the overall expedition for Jon.

From South Ice, the two dog teams with Jon and Ken Blaiklock led the way for the segment to the Pole. This made it the first dog sledge journey to the Pole since Amundsen in 1912; and Jon Stephenson the first Australian to the Pole. The heavy Sno-Cat vehicles navigated via snow cairns set out ahead by the sledging party. The vehicles and heavy sledges notably encountered difficulties with the hard sastrugi. The dogs were repatriated by air from the Pole to Scott Base. Jon continued to complete the crossing with the over-snow vehicles.

For this work Jon Stephenson received the Polar Medal from the Queen in 1958.

After writing reports on his TAE work, Jon was appointed a UNESCO Expert in Mineralogy at the University of Punjab, where he did geological research in the Himalayas. In 1961 he was a foundation staff member of James Cook University in Townsville. He established the Geology Department, later becoming Associate Professor. He retired in 1995.

In 1963, Jon joined the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions, as a Member of the 1963 Heard Island Party of six expeditioners. A specific aim of this group was for Jon, Dr Graham Budd and Warwick Deacock to climb Big Ben for the first time. This most difficult climb had been attempted previously by ANARE wintering parties but without success. This climb was not achieved on this occasion either. The very arduous conditions encountered resulted in having to pull back from the attempt just 500 metres below the peak of the 2745 metre high mountain. The climb of Big Ben starts from sea level. Five days of blizzard engulfed their tent and left the party short of food. They had to abandon their tent and endure an arduous three day descent to Long Beach, spending five days in makeshift shelter before returning to the Atlas Cove base via Spit Bay. In spite of the hardships, Jon achieved significant geological study at Heard Island.  

There is so much to the life and achievements of Philip Jon Stephenson and this writing does not assume to encompass it all. Fortunately much is recorded in readily acessable places, publications and in organisations in which he has been involved.  Something of his outgoing personality and wise council, mentoring and pride in family life can be understood from those records.

He had a passion for trekking, tennis, sailing, classical music, and in his youth had played his sport on the hard school rugby fields of Warwick. He had an unending interest in learning and at eighty was still eager to learn and share experiences with others.

For his whole life Jon was an enthusiastic bushwalker and climber, quite at home in untracked places, especially in South East Queensland. This background stood him in good stead in his application for TAE albeit that snow experience was not included.

Mount Barney was Jon’s great love. He did his Honours and PhD based on his work there. Jon took 150 kilograms of South East Queensland rock to London to use in his studies. Most of the field work was done alone in what is probably the most remote part of southeast Queensland. It is geologically interesting because the rocks of the area are part of an ancient volcano eroded to its roots. Jon’s work identified the first such structure to be discovered in Australia, although many more have been shown to exist since then.

He was a founding member of the University of Queensland Bushwalking Club and served as President.

He was one of the trio that first traversed The Thumb on Hinchinbrook Island, Queensland, in 1953. The party had a very hard time with thick vegetation, difficult rock faces and lack of water in the tropical weather.

He was one of the earliest parties to climb Federation Peak in south-west Tasmania, in 1954. (This notable peak was first climbed in January 1949 by John Bechervaise, Fred Elliot and Allan Rogers and then a solo climb in Ocrtober 1949 by Keith Lancaster.) He also took part in expeditions to the Karakoram Himalaya and New Hebrides. Jon also took part in several private company treks to the Himalayas.

Back in tropical North Queensland, there was a concentration over thirty years on the volcanic field research, including the spectacular Undara Lava Tubes.

Recognition of this phase of Jon’s career is in the award to Phillip Jon Stephenson, of the "J.P. Thomson Medal" of the Royal Geographical Society of Queensland (formerly Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, Queensland Division). This was awarded in the Centenary Year of the Society in 1985. The Bronze Medal was awarded "for exploration and contribution to the geographical knowledge of North Queensland through research and publication". Presentation of this Medal was by Duke of Kent during a visit to the Society in Brisbane in 1985.

Notable activities in the last few years have been the collection and production of a photographic exhibition using his personal photograhy on the Trans Antarctic Expedition. This involved a visit to London to retrieve original information from the Royal Geographical Society.

Even more satisfying was the publication of his book “Crevasse Roulette” This is a personal review of the Transantarctic Expedition. He was the recipient of the Australian Geographical Society Lifetime of Adventure Award in 2009. Jon became increasingly less mobile in recent years, a cause of some frustration, with knee replacement and more recently, heart problems. He lived in Townsville. He had a stroke at his home in Townsville on 23 May, fell and incurred brain damage and never regained consciousness.

Jon Stephenson is survived by his wife Jennepher, daughters Sara, Frances, Melissa and their families.

 Prepared by David Carstens, with assistance from many, especially Sara Bucher, Mike Hines, Ian McLeod and Rex Filson. 08/07/2011.