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Johannesburg - The top of Mount Vinson Massif is a sharp tip that juts out of a shroud of snow and cloud at 4 892m above sea level.
When Jayson Funnell reached the highest point of Antarctica on January 6, he had two priorities – hold up a banner for cancer and find a small pebble, which his mother had asked for.
Mount Vinson is Jayson’s third international summit, with Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua under his belt, and at 16, he is the youngest African to reach the icy peak – one of the famed seven summits.
But he says he would not have dreamt it, never mind done it, without his father as inspiration.
Dad Ray Funnell was diagnosed with leukaemia in 2006 and although he recovered after a bone marrow donation from his brother, he had a relapse in 2008.
Lengthy stays in hospitals, waiting for blood platelets, and punishing chemotherapy treatment took its toll, but when Funnell could get up, he would walk the corridors, pulling his drip.
“When the nurses asked Ray where he was going on these walks, he would say he was climbing Kilimanjaro,” says his wife, Lynne.
When he recovered, summiting Africa’s highest mountain was the first thing on his mind and in 2010, he did just that.
“My dad is my hero,” says Jayson.
After hearing his father rave about the trip, he was encouraged to join his dad on the mountains and inspire other cancer patients.
They climbed Kilimanjaro when he was 14.
Jayson, now a Grade 11 pupil at King Edward VII School in Joburg, had a strict training regime for his latest trip. Mentor and guide Sean Disney of Adventure Dynamics asked him to quit rugby because it resulted in too many injuries, and challenged him instead to climbing the Westcliff stairs 10 times a week.
General cardio training and running have also helped him attain a fitness level that earned him the nickname “Mountain Goat” when he climbed Kili.
Disney says it’s great to see youngsters catching the climbing bug – especially for a cause.
Getting used to bulky snow-gear was also testing, says Jayson, but it was an inner fortitude that he really needed to tap into for the challenging trip.
It was this “power of thought” that willed him to the peaks of Vinson, Aconcagua and Kili.
Getting to the South Pole was an adventure in itself; five plane flights (one of them in a big Russian army plane) and a journey culminating in pulling their own equipment by sled in temperatures of -45°C.
While Ray dreamt of climbing mountains far away from his hospital bed, he also developed a passion for the work the SA National Blood Service does.
The Sunflower Fund, known for its “bandana days”, is the other cause the mountaineering pair have adopted to create awareness.
Both organisations encourage South Africans to become donors to help cancer patients because platelets and bone marrow stem cell stocks are always in short supply.
Lauren Corlett, PR manager for the Sunflower Fund in Gauteng, says Jayson has a core of steel, despite his quiet, shy exterior.
“Jay is a phenomenal young man who is climbing these enormous mountains to bring awareness to the importance of blood donation.
“For him to take on a cause at the age of 14 highlights his bravery and enthusiasm.”
For the 16-year-old, highlighting a good cause by carrying a flag for the cancer organisation and spending time with his dad is always a win, but Jayson says summiting Aconcagua was his “biggest victory”.
Having battled the elements for two weeks before nearing the summit, he had to make the last five-hour ascent without his dad at his side.
Funnell was debilitated by altitude sickness on the day of the summit, so he couldn’t continue.
Having promised Lynne that he would stay with their son at all times, he had to make a difficult decision. It took a determined Jayson to step forward and say: “Give me the banner, dad.”
“That was the day Ray knew Jayson had become a man,” says Lynne.
It was on the highest mountain in Latin America that Jayson found a soulmate and mentor in Sibusiso Vilane, who led the tour.
Famous as the first black African to summit Everest and a well-known motivational speaker, Vilane played a vital role in helping Jayson get to the top.
In the latest trip to the South Pole, Ray developed flu, which, because of the chemotherapy, means a throaty cough. But daily antibiotics and the gentle suasion of Disney brought him to the top of Mount Vinson alongside his son.
Jayson has four more climbs to realise his dream of “seven summits for cancer”.