Saturday, July 17, 2010

Antarctic expeditioner - Jon Stephenson

In this day and age, it is not often one gets the chance to chat with a real life Antarctic explorer. It happened for me at a reception at Tasmania's Government House for delegates of the Antarctic Visions conference.

As we drove to the reception on the coach, I noted an older gentleman sitting alone. He waited until everyone else had alighted and as he did, I mentioned to him that I would appreciate the opportunity to speak to him.
'I'm sure you must have a story,' I said.

Little did I know!
Jon Stephenson was the only Australian chosen for the First Commonwealth Trans Antarctic crossing led by Vivian Fuchs in 1957-58. This was the journey which Sir Ernest Shackleton had planned to make in 1913, but which was aborted when his ship 'Endeavour' became trapped in the ice of the Weddell Sea.

As a young geologist and a mountain climber, Stephenson was studying in London in the 1950s and jumped at the chance to go to Antarctica. 'Bunny' Fuchs led the party which was to head south to the Pole from the Weddell Sea, while Sir Edmund Hillary led the party approaching from the opposite direction (Ross Sea Region) in order to lay supply depots.

Arriving at Antartica in the previous season, Jon and two other scientists wintered on the ice 800 km from the pole, surviving the temperatues of minus 50 degrees and more, and existing through the blackness of 24 hour nights.
As a geologist, Jon took whatever opportunity he could to collect rock samples, like the plant fossils collected by Captain Scott before he died. This evidence proved that the continent of Antarctica was part of the great land mass of Gondwana that had once been joined to Tasmania/Australia.

When spring eventually arrived and the days started to lengthen, Jon and his companions were joined by other members of this Crossing party, and by two teams of huskies. Though he had never driven dogs before, it was Jon's job to drive one of the sledges to the pole. He was also engaged in helping to guide the heavy vehicles through the treacherous crevasses fields.
Like playing Russian Roulette!

On one occasion Jon fell through a snow bridge but managed to lodge an elbow in the snow and prevented himself from falling hundreds of feet to his death.
It took 50 years for Jon to get around to writing a book about his experiences on The Ice.

Published in 2009, Crevasse Roulette captures the essence of the people, places and events of 50 years ago, as though it was only yesterday.
Jon Stephenson was the first Australian to reach the South Pole since Amundsen conquered it in 1913. Jon and his companion were also the first since that time to arrive by dog sled. This achievement will never be repeated as current restriction do not allow dogs on the Antarctic continent.

I felt priveledged to meet Jon that night and thoroughly enjoyed listening to the lecture he gave the following day when he discussed the attributes of various Antarctic expedition leaders. Since returning home, I have read Crevasse Roulette in which Jon tells his remarkable story. It is illustrated by some of his own photographs. If you are awed by the pristine beauty, yet unforgiving nature, of Antarctica and you admire the courage and endurance of the expeditioners, you will enjoy Jon's book.

Pic: His Excellency the Governor of Tasmania and Mrs Underwood. Jon Stephenson centre.
Taffy Williams with the second dog team - photo by Jon Stephenson from his book Crevasse Roulette published by Rosenberg Publishing 2009.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bit late to post this, but glad you have highlighted the achievements of Jon Stephenson. You refer to the fact that Jon, who died recently, was the first Australian to reach the South Pole. He certainly was was the first Australian to stand at the Pole. But he wasn't the first Australian at the bottom of the earth. I was the first Australian to "reach" the Pole and to see it, 18 months earlier when I flew over the Pole at 1,000 feet in a United States Air Force transport plane for a couple of hours while a United States Navy DC-3 made the first aircraft landing. The DC-3 carried the first persons to stand at the Pole since Scott left early in 1912.

I was glad to see your item because in the latest edition of Aurora, the Journal of the Australian Antarctic expeditioners club there is a book review of George Lowe's "The Crossing of Antarctica" which states that "Sadly, there were no Australian members" of the crossing party.

Maurice Cutler