Vale: Dr Jon Stephenson, 1930–2011

Jon Stephenson at Heard Island in 2002.
Jon Stephenson at Heard Island in 2002. (Photo: Grahame Budd)
Jon Stephenson takes compass-controlled panoramas of retreating glaciers at Saddle Point, Heard Island, in February 1963The Mountain Party share a tot of whisky on arriving at the ANARE Station, Heard Island, after their retreat from the summit plateau of Big Ben.The Mountain Party's camp at 4000 feetStephenson Glacier and Stephenson Lagoon on Heard Island

Jon Stephenson’s death from a stroke, six months after his 80th birthday, ended a long and adventurous career of distinguished service to science, exploration, and education.

Jon graduated in 1954 from the University of Queensland with First-class Honours in geology and mathematics, and with the University Medal. Following doctoral field work in the Mt Barney region of South-East Queensland, he undertook postgraduate studies and gained his PhD at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London University.

In 1956 Jon was appointed as the only Australian member of Sir Vivian Fuchs’s Commonwealth Trans-Antarctic Expedition, the first expedition to cross the Antarctic Continent. He spent the winter of 1957 conducting glaciological research with surveyor Ken Blaiklock and glaciologist Hal Lister in a small hut buried in the ice 500 miles from the South Pole. Before and after the winter he and Ken made topographical and geological surveys of unexplored mountain ranges, on one occasion experiencing great hardship and danger when a prolonged blizzard prevented the expedition’s aircraft from returning to pick them up. During the expedition’s journey across Antarctica, Ken and Jon became the first men to drive dog teams to the South Pole since Amundsen in 1911.

Jon earned the lasting respect and affection of all his colleagues, and worthily upheld Australia’s international reputation in Antarctic exploration and science. The Stephenson Bastion at 81°S in the Shackleton Mountains has been named for him. His fine book about the expedition, published in 2009 under the apt title Crevasse Roulette (Rosenberg, Sydney), is recognised as a significant contribution to Antarctic literature and history.

From 1958 to 1960 Jon worked as an 'Expert in Mineralogy' with UNESCO at the University of Punjab in Lahore, West Pakistan. He lectured in geology, and undertook field research with students in the Himalayan foothills. When this appointment ended he organised and led a small private expedition to an unexplored region of the Eastern Karakoram. The expedition was plagued by illness, bad weather, and an accident that forced one member to withdraw. Despite these setbacks, Jon completed a topographical and geological survey, and reached a height of 7000 m during a gallant solo attempt to make the first ascent of K12 (7428 m).

In 1963, with two fellow members of the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (Warwick Deacock and myself), Jon undertook an ambitious investigation of the glaciology, geology and vulcanology of the unexplored summit region of Big Ben (2745 m), the heavily glaciated active volcano that forms the bulk of Heard Island. After eight days of relaying heavy loads up the mountain the party camped on the summit plateau (2285 m) with the necessary equipment and supplies for a fortnight’s work – but a prolonged blizzard then began, and seven days later the loss of a food depot and other misadventures forced them back to their starting point at Long Beach, fortunate to have escaped with their lives.

On their subsequent overland circuit of the island they discovered, and comprehensively documented, massive glacier retreat – some of the earliest evidence of climate change in the South Indian Ocean. Throughout the journey Jon collected rocks for later studies of their age, petrology, and palaeomagnetism, and as the first geologist to traverse those parts of the island he substantially extended what was then known of the island’s geology. In recognition of his contribution, two prominent landmarks on Heard Island – Stephenson Glacier and the Stephenson Lagoon – were named for him.

In 1961 Jon established the Department of Earth Sciences at James Cook University in Townsville, and over the next 35 years he built it up to be the thriving department it is today. From 1979 to 1982 he was Dean of the Faculty of Science. His infectious enthusiasm for his subject, whether in formal lectures and seminars or in field work, made him an inspiring teacher. He organised and led many research expeditions in North Queensland and the South-West Pacific, which yielded much new knowledge, especially about volcanic rocks and the origin and evolution of landforms. The expeditions included an investigation of active volcanoes on Ambrym Island in the New Hebrides, as well as extensive pioneering research in North Queensland on old volcanoes, long lava flows, the Undara lava tubes, and the Toomba lava flow. Jon published numerous research papers and monographs on his findings, and co-edited an important reference book on the geology of North-East Australia. A brilliant photographer, he recently created superb large-format photographic narratives of the Trans-Antarctic Expedition and his Karakoram Expedition, which have been exhibited in many galleries and libraries.

After retiring from his Associate Professorship in 1995 Jon held honorary research positions at James Cook University and the Museum of Tropical Queensland. He continued to broaden his experience in extensive travels, often as a trek leader in the Himalaya and as a lecturer on Antarctic cruises. It was on one of these cruises that Jon made detailed observations of the recent volcanic transformation of McDonald Islands (near Heard Island), which he subsequently reported in the journal Antarctic Science.

Jon will be sorely missed by all who knew him. He was a staunch, generous, and stimulating friend, and the perfect expedition companion – tough, dependable, considerate, and great company. One of the most intellectually adventurous persons I’ve known, Jon had an insatiable appetite for science, history, literature and music. His contributions have been recognised by the naming for him of three prominent topographic features in the Antarctic, by the award of the Queen’s Polar Medal, and by the Australian Geographic Society’s ‘Lifetime of Adventure’ award. Our deepest sympathy is extended to his wife Jenepher, their three daughters, and their seven grandchildren.

Grahame Budd
Former ANARE expeditioner 1954–1971