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Short Story
4,816 words
SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

Nowhere to Go But Up

by Tony Van Witsen

Walters felt the sharp jerk of the rope in his hands and knew he’d betrayed a mountaineer’s most sacred trust. He’d only looked away a second or two but it was time enough for Sophie to slip off the vertical ice wall. The axes in her hands and sharp steel crampons on her boots had taken her up fifty feet when her purchase on the ice somehow failed. The rope should have caught her, running from Walters’ hands to the top of the cliff, over a tree trunk and down to the girl. Would have caught her, too, if he’d pulled in the slack as quickly as she climbed. Instead, in a sickening instant, she’d flopped backwards, helmeted head clanging against the lumps and bulges of ice. Her fifteen-year-old body hung limply, one foot still lodged in the ice by a single steel crampon point, the other swinging free. The axes dangled in space from the leashes wrapped around her wrists. There wasn’t even a cry of pain.

The cliff at Hidden Falls began with a short vertical pitch, ending at a narrow snow- and ice-covered shelf below a longer vertical stretch rising eighty or ninety feet to the top. With Walters still helplessly clutching the rope, Andre sprang to the lower pitch, scaling it almost in a single motion. Standing tiptoe on the narrow ledge, he could just touch Sophie’s helmet with the tip of his axe. Walters loosened the rope a little, knowing it wouldn’t do any good as long as her stuck foot prevented her from being lowered. By now Jon, the climbing guide, had begun his own scramble up that same lower pitch toward the ledge just as Andre began hacking at a small sapling that grew from the rock face. Once he’d got it free he thrust it upward, pushing the springy little branch at Sophie’s foot. He pushed once, twice; she moaned softly. Leaping upward a few inches, he pushed again, harder, then the crampon popped loose, scattering ice shards. Instinctively, Walters looked downward, feeling the thud of ice against his helmet. Then he looked up again at Sophie’s limp form dangling from his rope. Gradually he loosened it, trying not to think too hard about how a teacher like himself had failed to protect a child, as the girl’s feet dropped closer and closer to Andre’s outstretched arms.


“Don’t you think she’s a lucky girl?” Walters asked Andre when the two of them met with Kendall to plan the next expedition. He sipped his beer, recalling his mixture of relief and shame when Andre gently lifted Sophie over the narrow ledge, Walters paid out more rope, and she slid into the waiting arms of their fellow climber Kendall on the ground. She’d been banged up a bit, ankle twisted and bruised, but otherwise not badly hurt.

“You were part of her luck of course,” Andre said. “You never let go the rope.” This wasn’t strictly true, but Walters said nothing. “I place a lot of the blame on Jon,” Andre continued.

“That goes without saying,” Walters said, pleased that Andre recognized the justice of his position. “A better guide would have recognized Sophie was climbing beyond her skills.”

“A better guide,” Kendall said, “would have given a fifteen-year-old more training before letting her on vertical ice with three experienced climbers in their forties.”

“She reminds me of my students,” Walters said.

“That’s not a compliment, is it?”

“Did you notice her right thumb?” Walters said.

“Yeah, what’s with that, anyway? She can’t flex it. Is it some kind of accident or injury?”

“It probably affects her grip.” Walters said. “No way she belongs up there on the ice. Why isn’t she at the mall, shopping for clothes?”

“When I first took climbing lessons,” Andre said. “They made us watch a slide show of dead or injured climbers. Just to teach us a little respect, know what I mean? I’ll never forget those bodies, like broken toys. And get this: about a third of them were kids.”

“Here’s the thing, though,” Walters said. “Jon called yesterday. He says Sophie’s anxious to go climbing again soon.”

“Anxious?” Andre parroted.

“Apparently she likes having big strong men around.”

“To catch her when she falls, right?” Andre said.

“That was uncalled for. Anyway—”

“What do you mean, ‘anyway?’”

“I mean,” Walters said, “she’s willing to pay half his guiding fee.”

“Her parents are.”

“Maybe she earned that money,” Walters said. “Maybe she has an afterschool job.”

In the silence that followed, Walters realized he’d been flogging Andre. Of course her parents paid for the trip. And the climbing gear. He pictured a luxurious house high in the Front Range, a girlish, pink-wallpapered bedroom stuffed with expensive presents. A microscope, a laptop, rock-guitarist Barbie. Mountaineer Barbie. On the other hand, if Sophie’s parents could ease the expense of the trip, why question it?

Walters turned to Kendall. “Why does Jon want her along with us? Why didn’t he take her as a single client?”

“I don’t know. Ask him.”

“The tips would have been bigger.”

“Don’t overthink it,” Kendall said. “Or if you have to, think about the money.”

It made sense, even as Walters recognized Kendall’s talent for rationale. Climbing was what the three of them had. For Walters, it was refuge from his substitute teaching job in Denver where he shuttled from school to school, managing a new class every day without even knowing the kids’ names. Never seeing the results of his work, not even reporting to the same vice-principal twice. Kendall had a PhD in forestry but did seasonal work fighting forest fires in the Colorado mountains because, as he put it, “Forest fires have no academic politics.” Andre roomed with a local family and survived by strategies known only to extreme climbers. True climbing rats functioned by not thinking too deeply about what they were doing or too far ahead.

“Anyway I don’t think it’s any of our business,” Kendall said. “If Sophie wants to pay hundreds of dollars to take risks she’s not prepared for—”

“Should we do something to scare her off?” Walters asked.

“Nothing serious, certainly. Nothing—”

“Nothing dangerous? Is that what you were about to say?”

“Maybe something just scary enough to show her what she’s getting into.”

“You’re thinking of the Fang, right?”

“I wasn’t. And you’re a shit to suggest it. On the other hand, maybe we should.”

“What do you mean, ‘maybe?” Walters said.


If the Fang was supposed to be a big, scary test, Sophie didn’t notice. Or perhaps the long slog to the base of the climb tested everyone, forcing them to clamber through waist-deep powder up the side of Vail’s V-shaped valley. The day was sunny, in the high twenties, the ascending view dotted with sprawling mansions and vacation homes, the kind that featured oversize bathrooms on every floor. And half-baths. And powder rooms. Why did rich people need so many places to pee? Sophie’s Airedale terrier Goldberg scampered ahead of the group but continually sank in the deep snow, throwing up a miniature blizzard each time he extricated himself. Sophie, wearing a mango-colored down parka from Patagonia, kept up a line of chatter about famous climbers she’d read about or seen on TV. The others interjected remarks except for Andre who maintained a sullen silence. Those jackets retailed for nine hundred. Andre was right; her parents undoubtedly paid. They passed a bloodstain in the snow and clumps of fur where an eagle had attacked a rabbit, finally arriving where the cliff shot upward 150 feet and the pull of gravity was the same as everywhere else.

The Fang was a freestanding ice column descending from a rocky overhang with no solid structure to hold an axe, just a honeycomb of tiny, loosely connected icicles separated by air pockets. DO NOT ATTEMPT THIS CLIMB WITHOUT CHECKING ITS STABILITY FIRST, the guidebook said. Water dripped from the top of the pillar, giving climbers a chilly hosing on the way up.

Jon tried it first, gliding up the treacherous ice with the smoothness of a snake. Again and again his axes found a sure hold in the loose aggregation of ice columns, making it look easy. When Sophie’s turn came, she lodged her axe in the space between the pencil-thin icicles crowded together like tiny organ pipes. One axe immediately popped free; she replaced it but it slid out again, and she was unable to lodge it in the hollows between the ice flutes.

“Hooking action!” Jon yelled from below. “Put the curve of your pick where the icicles come together.” She tried it only to have the axe pop out again. “Shift your weight!” Jon shouted. “Make your body a counterweight for the tool!” She thrust her left foot out, testing for a place to stand, finding only empty space. Panting so loudly she could be heard below, she lowered her other axe to eye level but when she touched it to the ice, a CRACK sounded, followed by a noise like a thousand wine glasses breaking as several tons of ice column tumbled down past her. Walters looked downward as shards and daggers of ice whizzed past him, striking his hard hat, his shoulders, one bouncing off his cheek with a cold sting. This is what it’s like to be buried alive, he thought.

When the crashing ended and Walters dared to look up, he saw Sophie suspended from the top rope, hanging in the void where the column wasn’t. It was almost as if the ice had been taunting her: You thought you knew me, didn’t you? You knew nothing. Watch now while I kill you. Just as Walters was thinking they might have overdone the scare tactics, Sophie descended the final few feet, grinning as if she’d just had the world’s most excellent adventure.

“I guess I ruined it for everybody else who wants to do this.” She laughed as a whining Goldberg scrambled out from beneath the pile of ice chunks. Kendall, holding the rope, stared mutely at her, up to his knees in the rubble of what had been the column seconds before.

“It’ll form up again,” Jon said.

“Not this season it won’t,” Andre said.

“Sure it will,” Walters said.

“Bullshit. It’s nearly March.”

“So? You got any more plans to do the Fang this season?”

Andre looked down at the wreckage, as if he’d been cheated of something.

“What are you so angry about?” Walters said.

“Maybe I’m pissed off on general principle. How’s that sound?”


Too exhausted for Vail’s overpriced nightlife at the end of the day, the climbers shuffled into Skiers and Drinkers, the only restaurant they could afford. A year earlier, Holland Seymour, a locally famous climber, had suffered a cerebral edema and collapsed in the dining room over a bowl of artichoke dip just after some kids had snapped his picture. He did not survive but before he lost consciousness, he’d supposedly told the kids to confine their climbing to Sunday afternoon bashes on Gray’s and Torrey’s, if they knew what was good for them.

“What are you all having?” the waiter said.

“Rare steaks for my badass climbing buddies here,” Sophie said before the others could speak.

“Are you paying?” Andre said.


“Never mind,” Andre said. “I’ll stick with the beer.”

“Medium cheeseburger for me,” Walters said.

“Ditto,” Kendall said.

“And for the young lady?” the waiter said.

“I’ll have the linguine and a cherry coke,” Sophie said. When it arrived, the four working fingers of her right hand had trouble winding the pasta around her fork.

“Can I help you with that?” Kendall said.

“I can do it.” Spearing some pasta, she proceeded to swing the fork in a circular motion, causing the linguine to whip itself halfway around the tines, but the thing didn’t properly catch. Unspooling everything, she went through the circling motions again, then a third time.

“You did it,” Walters said, smiling without meaning to, as she finally got the pasta around the fork.

“I knew I would eventually. I’ve had to do this trick with pasta ever since I had the accident during track practice.” Forking up more pasta, she repeated the circular motion with no more success than the first time. “I was almost a track star for a while in eighth grade.”

“You could have had it fixed,” Walters said.

“That’s what my parents said. That’s what my—”

“Boyfriend?” Kendall cut in. “What your boyfriend said?”

“Sort of. I mean, yeah, he was kind of my boyfriend for a while. Then for a while, in ninth grade, I thought I was a lesbian.”

“Did—” Kendall said and stopped.

“Nothing at all,” Sophie said with a grating laugh. “I just thought for a while that I might be one and then I decided I’m not.”

“And you never thought of fixing that—that—” Walters said.

“I wondered about it during my lesbian phase. What happened was, the ligament got torn in the original accident but they screwed up the repair job. I let them fuse it to keep things from getting worse. Now I kind of like the way it’s something only I have, that no one else has. It’s why I have to be a climber.”

“What about college?” Kendall asked.

“Not sure if I want to go. I was thinking of maybe Boulder Outdoor Survival School or NOLS.” If the National Outdoor Leadership School was the Harvard of outdoor schools, BOSS was MIT. “If I apply, I want to write about Chantal Assouline for my essay. She was a lesbian, right? I want the climbing life she had.” Chantal Assouline was the French mountaineer who never returned from a solo climb on Aconcagua in 1992. Months later, her broken, frozen body was found wedged between two rocks at the base of a cliff below the summit, which only added to her luster. Walters looked at Sophie blankly.

“Chantal Assouline was an orthopedic surgeon,” Andre said.

“She was a great climber,” Sophie said. “I’m going to—”

“She was a doctor. She climbed in her free time.” Sophie gave Andre another laugh. For the first time she looked tired.

“Maybe I’ll just be a climbing bum,” she said.

“Very romantic,” Andre said.

“Maybe I’ll skip school. Get a little job doing whatever, live out of my car and climb when I want. I mean, that’s what it’s about, isn’t it?”

“Well,” Andre said as Sophie turned to him. “I could tell you about some free-climbs Matt Walters and I did in Boulder canyon. The slope was gentler. But still—no ropes. Could almost have been easy, but then just as Matt and I were about three-quarters of the way up it started to rain.”

“Can I write this down?” Sophie was already reaching in her bag for a pen.

“Tell her about the hail,” Walters said. They’d never free climbed Boulder canyon. He was fascinated not only at Andre’s lie but the ease with which he’d begun building on it.

“The hail came on top of the rain,” Andre continued as Sophie began writing. “The storm was really on us now. We were on the rock face. Mixed rock and ice, really. We had our hands in one set of cracks, our feet in others.”

“You did?”

“Don’t forget the bat guano,” Walters said.

“It might’ve been guano. The surface got slippery with—I don’t know—something. Maybe guano. I could see the lip of the canyon fifty feet above. Loose rocks breaking off all around me.”

“Really?” Sophie was scribbling furiously.

“I looked up and saw a couple of hikers on the rim watching us. They started throwing—”

“Pebbles?” Sophie looked up from her notebook.

“Nacho chips.” Andre picked up a couple of chips from a bowl on the table, crumbling them in his hands and scattering them.

“That’s just awful.”

“The saddest part,” Andre said, “is the wind that picked them up. They floated out over the canyon floor. Then a pair of eagles flew by and snatched them away. I’ll never forget the sight of the mama and papa eagles soaring over the vasty void of the canyon with nacho chips in their beaks. For their young, I suppose.” He segued into a flawless copy of Chantal Assouline’s French accent, sending Sophie into shrieks of laughter. “Eet ees so sahd. I was so ’ungry. I could really have used some of zose cheeps right zen.”

“Say that—say that again,” Sophie squealed.

“Okay.” Andre smiled as he obliged her.

“Oh my God, I knew I was with the right climbers.” Sophie was almost choking with laughter, cherry coke dribbling out her nose and down her chin. Nothing Andre said at that point could have made her treat him with the respect he deserved, rather than the awe she wanted.

“Will there be anything else?” the waiter said, appearing with the check.

“More eagle food.” Walters pointed to the remaining chips. “Can’t let the little eaglets go hungry.”

“More chips, good,” the waiter said.

“It was a joke,” Walters said. “Skip it; we’ve had a long day.”

“I think he’s funny,” Sophie said. “You should hear him.”

“I’ll have another beer,” Andre said.

“Just the check, actually,” Walters said. “Sophie, you can ride with me back to the motel.”

“I said I want a beer and I’m going to have one,” Andre said.

“Andre, we’re too tired for any more bullshit,” Kendall said. The waiter finished adding up the check while Walters considered what led Andre to spin that fable for Sophie. His lying made no sense but neither had she. What kind of child suffered a disfiguring injury, then went back looking for more? Something of the former not-quite-track star remained, an obsessiveness that seemed spooky in someone so young. He knew the mountain town where she lived, Evergreen, with its tin-pot mansions upstaging each other, the kitchens heavy on granite and stainless steel. Some of those parents spent 30 thousand dollars for a private college consultant to get their kids into an Ivy.

Driving back to the bunkhouse with Sophie beside him, Walters remembered how the teachers’ lounge had ricocheted with tales of a boy who spent the summer teaching filmmaking to at-risk kids in Belize just so he could brag about it to the admissions officer at Yale. So the story went. That same week a boy in one of his classes explicitly refused instructions to stop texting and focus on work. “Why should I take orders from you? You ain’t my real teacher,” he said with a punk entitlement that left Walters depressed at all teenagers. His black sweatshirt read LADIES FIRST. Who knew what that meant; nothing wholesome, surely.

From behind, Walters heard the H-O-O-O-N-K, H-O-O-O-N-K of Andre’s horn, saw in the mirror his headlights closing in. He sped up, trying to keep a safe distance, embarrassed at what the girl must be thinking. Andre closed in again, trying to force him to up to a reckless speed. Well fuck him. Slowing down as the light turned yellow, he waited till a second before it turned red, then raced through the intersection. Brakes screeched on the cross street, cars skidded to a stop as Andre followed through the red light, blowing his horn. A second after he parked at the motel, Walters jumped out and ran to Andre.

“Have you had enough fun for one night, you son-of-a-bitch? Reckless driving. Lying to that girl. What were you doing? I mean what the hell were you trying to do, anyway?”

Walters observed Andre’s bushy beard and sly smile. His papery skin looked grayer than usual under the streetlamps. Receding lines of them glowed through a curtain of snow falling so steadily it almost made a noise. There would be eight inches on the ground by morning. “I just thought,” Andre muttered, “that little girl needed to know what real fear feels like.”


“She wants to be a mountaineer, right?”

Walters returned to the car, where Sophie waited. “I apologize for Andre,” he said.

“No, don’t. Did you watch him today?” Sophie said. “How does he do that?”

“Do what?”

“The way he climbs. He never forces the mountain, he sort of persuades it. It’s like that’s how he becomes himself.”

Thoroughly disgusted at her hero-worship, Walters had to admit she was right about Andre. He seemed to dance over the ice without strength, without theory, almost without weight. A leftward shift, a foot placement where you’d least expect, an upward movement that was more insinuation than force. Then he’d fold in on himself like a jackknife in preparation for an audacious move around an obstacle. Walters could never believe the sheer intuitiveness of it.

“I admire his—courage too,” Sophie said.


“To live like that, I mean. Just climbing. Nothing else, just climbing. It’s like the great ones don’t exist when they’re not climbing. Why can’t I live like that?”

Fat chance, Walters thought, but didn’t say. She was coming close to something about extreme climbers, an unpleasant, perhaps shameful truth. He wondered if he should tell her the whole day had been a prank, an elaborate jape to expose her inexperience.

“What’s the saying?” she said. “About mountaineers?”

“What saying?”

“That they’re so compelled to climb they’ve got literally nowhere to go but up.”

“Nowhere to go but up. That’s good.” Walters laughed but the child sitting beside him did not.

“Should I free climb Boulder Canyon?” Sophie said. “Like Andre?”

Walters couldn’t see much in the darkened car, which smelled of armpits after the day’s exertions. He should be honored by Sophie’s trust; instead he felt patronized, as if she were a debutante dancing one dance with her chauffeur before going on to a lifetime of feather pillows and duvets. He’d never seen a duvet; they simply sounded flouncy and useless. He felt no faith in his own instincts. What if he stopped relying on resentment to fill out what should have been real feelings about particular circumstances and people? What would that feel like? When he heard himself say, “I think Andre would want you to try it,” in his most supportive, encouraging teacher’s voice, he had no idea what compulsion willed the words.

“Maybe I’ll go next weekend,” Sophie said.


Sophie knew exactly with whom she wanted to climb in Boulder Canyon: Reid Manning. First, although she didn’t know him well, she wanted to. Second, while he didn’t climb, he gave off an air of being up for anything, something she’d sensed the two times he helped her revise her papers after school in the writing center. Third, at seventeen he already had a car and a license. How much better did it get than that?

After traveling deep into the canyon and parking on a turnout above an iced-over creek, the two of them hoisted on their packs. On the short hike to the base of the slope, Sophie tried to explain to Reid what she’d already learned about climbing but kept breaking up at his jokes. At the base of the climb, a woman in her twenties watched a young man work his way up the rocky, icy incline. Sophie could hear his whoop of delight when he reached the top and hauled himself over to level ground.

“Gimme those axes,” Reid said with a crooked grin, and because he was Reid and not some junior-high jerk, she complied, knowing whatever happened next would be almost the definition of fun. Slowly, he ascended the lower half of the slope. With growing confidence he moved past the point where it slanted upward to a 45-degree angle. Climbing with Reid had definitely been the right choice. Maybe later they’d go out for coffee at one of those places in downtown Boulder.

“What do I do now?” Reid had gone higher than she expected. “There’s a kind of overhang here.”

“Move to the left,” the woman at the base shouted.

“Where the hell is that? There is no left up here.”

“You have to kind of twist your body over. But don’t let go. Keep your feet firmly planted.”

In the weeks to come, Sophie would have ample opportunity to contemplate the brief moment when she wanted to shout, “No, don’t listen to that!” but didn’t want to betray her trust in a boy who could teach her so many important things she wanted to know, things like music groups and movies and creative writing. There was the sun high overhead, the canyon deep in blue shadow, the lumpy expanse of upward-sloping ice, cars going by on the road through the canyon floor, the creek with its water rushing beneath the frozen surface, and Reid, tumbling down the slope, axes still tightly leashed to his wrists. There was his body slamming into a tree, then the other woman taking out her phone and frantically searching for a signal in the canyon, and through all of it, the firm sense that none of this was happening because such things never happened to Sophie Farentino, fifteen years old, of 2860 Olympia Lane, Evergreen, Colorado 80439.


Walters didn’t often think about his students’ off-hours. They were so slack-minded, so easily bored or distracted by trashy music or video games. This was a crude generality but it stood to reason. Feeling relief at the freedom from grading faced by real teachers, he began to sharpen his axes with a file, stopping when he accidentally sliced the fleshy part of his thumb against the pick. Stumbling into the bathroom, licking the blood off, he thought of taking a shower, then decided a Band-Aid was enough. His fridge still held the remains of the roast chicken his girlfriend, Patsy, had brought over the night before. Patsy had a way with chicken. She’d roasted this one with three lemons in the body cavity. Somehow the lemony flavor suffused everything. Chewing on it was a moment of almost erotic bliss.

Finished with the chicken, he turned on the TV in time to catch the news about Reid Manning’s death. Video showed Sophie’s face rigid with terror as a stretcher bearing the boy’s body was slid into the back of an ambulance. He had been vice-president of his junior class in addition to tutoring other kids after school in the writing center. Walters sat for several minutes, thinking about the accident and the boy, cut down at the beginning of his life. On an impulse, he looked in the Evergreen phone book and dialed Dr. Albert Farentino’s number.

In the planning nook of her kitchen, Mrs. Kate Farentino had been examining online photos of two possible function halls for the political fundraiser when her phone rang. Entertainment venues were so limited in the mountains. Still, that was where the money was and with the Mayor of Denver set to announce his bid for Governor in just three days, a lot was at stake. The business with Sophie’s friend had been very distressing, so many prying phone calls. She’d finally used her strategic communication training to post an online statement: THE FARENTINOS JOIN ALL COLORADANS IN MOURNING THE LOSS OF A FINE YOUNG MAN WITH SO MUCH AHEAD OF HIM. OUR HEARTS ACHE FOR THE FAMILY. It had seemed best to keep Sophie away from reporters, although a couple managed to find her email anyway. Nothing more to be done but let time do its healing work.

“Hello, is this Mrs. Farentino?” came the man’s voice when she picked up.

“Who is this, please?”

“You don’t know me. My name is Walters. Or you can call me Matt.”

“Are you with the media? We’re—”

“I’ve been going on weekend climbing trips with your daughter.”

“Oh yes, of course.”

“Can I speak with her?”

“Sophie can’t come to the phone.” After a moment she lowered her voice and added, “Sophie hasn’t left her room in two days.”

There was a long pause, after which Walters said, “Tell her I don’t think I would want to leave my room either.” It seemed a strange thing for a grown man to say but then she remembered he was a climber too. Best to let him process his grief for a moment as Sophie had hers. Then it would be time to wrap the call up.

“Mr. Walters, we’re all very sad at this loss,” she said, and waited but there was no reply. She waited a bit longer. Nothing. Trying to keep the conversation going, she added, “You have to wonder how things got to this point. So senseless and tragic. I mean who put the idea for a dangerous stunt like this into that young man’s head? And with no experience, none at all! Who on earth convinced him to try something like that?”


SHJ Issue 16
Spring 2017

Tony Van Witsen

is a two-year resident of Michigan and has been writing fiction for approximately ten years, specializing in short stories. In the summer of 2001 he enrolled in the MFA program in fiction at Vermont College and received his degree in January 2004. His stories and essays have appeared in a range of journals including The Missing Slate (featured as a story of the week), Serving House Journal, Crosstimbers, Identity Theory, and Valparaiso Fiction Review.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury