Altitude... Written by Jean-Marc Rochette and Olivier Bocquet: Published by SelfMadeHero
There was a discussion recently in a climbing writing forum about where we are it with regard to the market these days for climbing and mountaineering biographies? I hazarded a guess that most people buying a traditional climbers (auto) biography will probably over 60. As mountain culture has changed dramatically over the last 30 years, there has been a steady decline in the readership of traditional paper publications. Not just books but magazines and journals. In the UK, magazines like On the Edge, High and Climb have been and gone and these days, more younger climbers will probably prefer watching a Youtube bouldering video than lashing out twenty quid for a biography of a long dead mountaineer they've never heard of. Can a book like Altitude reverse that trend, for here is a book which is frankly miles away from those heavy tomes which have traditionally graced the climbers bookshelf. A mountaineer artist's memoirs presented in a comic strip format. Beautifully produced and illustrated and perhaps more importantly...what a tale!
Altitude tells the story of French artist and mountaineer Jean-Marc Rochette's early years as a passionate tyro who develops a life long love affair with the Alps. Aided and abetted by a small but equally enthusiastic band of friends, his development follows the traditional path taken by most climbers whose enthusiasm is ignited in their teens. The risky gambits, the dodgy gear, the hero worship etc. As Jean-Marc expands his mountaineering orbit he must still observe the educational demands of the state. In this instance a period of stultifying water treading in a boarding school, presided over by tyrannical head. Despite this setback to his mountain career, the author manages to find some escape through art while still managing the odd 'prison' break' to head off to the local crags with his great friend Phillipe Sempre.
As their mountaineering development continues apace, the routes they embark upon are described using guidebook terminology...i.e: " Aiguille Dibona,10,269 feet, West Face, Direct Ascent M Laloue, A Madier, 9th August 1939.' 'Magnificent but short climb,very steep,very sustained. Height 330 feet. Very Difficult. Recommended'.
With each route beautifully illustrated through the cartoon strip format, we follow Rochette's career development from gauche teen to a self confident young mountaineer. Perfectly in tune with his environment and confident in his ability. As the author moves into young adulthood and independence, his skill as a graphic artist brings him some small reward through the publication of some of his cartoons in the underground press and like most young people in that era, the sex, drugs and rock and roll lifestyle that permeated youth culture in the 70's was a powerful draw to a young man whose difficult home life and troubled relationship with his single parent mother, saw him looking to develop new relationships and interests far removed from his darker past.
Despite his growing desire to develop his art into a possible career, Jean-Marc is still frequenting the mountains although by now his climbing partnerships have grown. New faces appear on the scene as former partners like Sempre drift away. It's a measure of the toll bourn by Alpine mountaineers who maintain a lifelong commitment and who develop their technical skills, the number of climbing partners who 'buy the farm' as they say in the States. For the average UK weekend climber who may go through his/her climbing career unscathed and suffering no loss of friends or partners, it is certainly sobering to see the heavy price paid by many Alpine mountaineers.
I won't go into detail describing what fate befalls whom. Suffice it to say, a book about an Alpine mountaineer operating quite often at the limits of risk is unlikely to come out the other side unscathed.
With regard to the style and format. Caricatures and cartoon strips have featured in climbing zines and magazines in the past. Particularly in the 70's and 80's, but these days you just rarely see it. Either in paper or in the digital climbing media. Personally I've always enjoyed the graphic/cartoon format. Perhaps it was a childhood spent devouring comics and later appreciating the works of creators as diverse as Raymond Briggs, Ralph Steadman and Alan Moore, so, although the format might be seen as somehow a inferior form by the mountain literature snobs, it works for me and I'm sure plenty of others reading Altitude will agree.Here's hoping this exciting format will attract a new and younger readership to the world of mountain literature.
Jean-Marc Rochette is a French comic book artist and writer. Among his many credits is Snowpiercer, a graphic novel, film, and major soon-to-be released series from Netflix. Olivier Bocquet is the author of many graphic novels, including the acclaimed prehistoric adventure series FRNCK, and has collaborated with artists including Julie Rocheleau, Gabriel Germain and Léonie Bischoff.
From the Publisher...”SelfMadeHero aims to publish ground-breaking and beautiful work by authors and artists from across the globe, from the quirky and humorous to the political and profound. We are proud to bring readers graphic novels and visual narratives that provoke, entertain, inspire and inform. '
John Appleby: 2020