Brad Anderson’s calf muscles burned like crazy. He’d been ice-climbing for hours, since before dawn. His ice pick felt like dead weight in his aching hand and the crampon spikes on the soles of his boots made walking even more painful. Then the Grantsville man looked up, and all the pain was forgotten for the moment.
He’d reached the summit of Flat Top, the tallest peak on the Oquirrhs. The dawning sun warmed his face and blue sky stretched forever, below which, he could see clear from Ogden to Provo. He grinned and shook the hand of his climbing partner and mentor, Bart Hamatake.
Just six years before that April day in 2010, that Flat Top climb would have been unthinkable for Anderson.
That’s because Anderson, 29, was born with congenital hip dysplasia, a condition where the cartilage that lubricates the joint between the femur and hip wears off to bone on bone over time. His dad and grandfather also had this debilitating disease.
As a young man, Anderson felt much older than his years.
“If I did anything remotely physical, my hips hurt,” he said.
By the time he was 14, he’d had four operations in an attempt to slow his joints’ deterioration, each surgery shoring him up for just a little while. Sports like football or basketball were out of the question. However, he did join the swim team his senior year in high school because swimming wasn’t as hard on his joints.
Also as a senior, he was elected Grantsville High School’s student body president, much to his surprise.
“I wasn’t the most popular person,” he said. “My hips kept me from sports. I thought people would be drawn to someone who did active things.”
After high school graduation, Anderson continued to snowboard, hike and hunt despite having to pay the price for several days afterward. He recalled that each time felt like he had just run a half-marathon.
“You don’t feel like doing anything at all,” he said.
Finally, the year he turned 21, he and his family decided he would have both hips fully replaced. His father, Richard, reluctantly agreed. Richard’s father had undergone a similar procedure years before, with lingering problems.
Fortunately in Anderson’s case, his surgeries were a success. Today, he walks with a barely noticeable limp.
Traveling with titanium hips could be a nuisance, however.
He said, “After 9-11, if you set scanners off, you’re in for a lot of trouble.”
Still, it’s a minor inconvenience compared to his new lease on life.
“It was pretty amazing,” he said. “I could go snowboarding two or three days in a row. It was like winning a million dollars, and I could afford so many things I couldn’t before.”
He climbed mountains, biked, hiked and even worked as a high-adventure guide for Army families, taking them river-rafting, snowboarding, skiing, hiking and canyoneering.
About that same time, he became friends with Hamatake, 54, who lived in Grantsville until late this summer and who was widely recognized as a local climbing expert. Hamatake knew him because he attended Tooele High School with Anderson’s mother. Conversely, Anderson remembered the older man giving a talk in school about being caught in an avalanche at Deseret Peak in 2001.
“I wanted to try ice-climbing,” Anderson said. “You can’t do that stuff by yourself so you’re always looking for someone else.”
He had taken an ice-climbing class at the University of Utah and asked Hamatake to take him on a real climb.
Hamatake knew Anderson as a child, and was familiar with the disability that the younger man had to grapple with. Anderson’s request worried him initially.
“I felt sorry for the kid,” Hamatake said. “He could hardly walk down the hall. How was he supposed to climb a mountain?”
At their first climb together, Anderson told his mentor about his surgeries, and how he felt better than ever. Hamatake could believe it.
“Nobody’s ever had to wait for Brad Anderson,” he said. “He’s a strong climber.”
The two also developed a special bond.
“We had to trust each other,” Anderson said. “If you were to fall, the person belaying [standing below you] would hold the rope and stop your fall.”
Things cruised right along for Anderson until 2007, when life delivered another setback.
“I found a lump in my neck and it started to get really big,” he said. “It got to the point where it was the size between a golf ball and a baseball.”
At a sinus-related appointment, his doctor immediately referred him to an oncologist for a biopsy. The prognosis: Hodgkins Lymphoma, or cancer of the lymph nodes.
“It was scary, that C-word,” Anderson said. “The worst of it was not knowing how bad it was.”
As it turned out, the cancer was at stage two and fortunately hadn’t spread outside his neck. After chemotherapy and radiation treatments, the lump eventually disappeared.
Throughout the years, Anderson has been in remission, but cancer changed his outlook.
He said, “Anyone that confronts cancer thinks, ‘Hey, this could kill me.’ It removed a certain layer of fear. Cancer cemented to me that you can’t stop death from coming, so why be afraid of it?”
That’s part of the reason he’s comfortable doing things his friends think are crazy — like hanging vertically from a rope over a crevasse on some snow-covered cliff face.
“You’re far more likely to die in the car than when you’re climbing,” he said.
Cancer took its toll on his health in other ways, however. Treatments weren’t horrible, but the inactivity was. During his cancer treatments, he gained 55 pounds.
“I looked in the mirror one day and I was the heaviest I’ve ever been,” he said.
He also didn’t have the energy to do things he used to love to do. Frustrated, he got back on the elliptical. Ten minutes in, he was panting. Eventually, he could work out for 30 minutes at a time.
He seized his climb back to health as a chance to start over, completing a bachelor’s degree in political science. In October, he’s slated to take the Law School Admission Test.
Inspired by Hamatake’s example, he started being physically active once again, hiking and biking. Four days a week, he works out at Anytime Fitness, where he’s a personal trainer. To him, Deseret Peak is a conditioning hike. Twelve times since Memorial Day this year, he’s hiked the challenging terrain. In all, he’s summited nine western peaks.
Also with Hamatake’s mentorship, he’s been able to go ice climbing.
On Flat Top that April day, Anderson savored his accomplishment. This man who’d had to surmount his own share of personal mountains finally achieved his dream of ice climbing thanks to his friend.
“Sharing that experience with Bart was awesome,” Anderson said. “I’ve been fascinated with snow-covered mountains like Everest since I was in elementary school. When you think of mountain climbing, you picture that in your head, someone using the ice pick and wearing crampons. It’s a thrill.”