Euro Reviews: Because It’s There – ‘Altitude’ Takes Us To The Heights Of Climbing

by Richard Bruton

Climbing meets art as Jean-Marc Rochette (Snowpiercer) and co-writer Olivier Bocquet slowly but surely craft a tale that captures the majesty and threat of climbing in this autobio telling of Rochette’s formative years as both climber and artist… Altitude.

There’s both a majesty and a poetry to mountain climbing; the wonder of nature, the epic scale of it all… and against all that, you have the climber, small and insignificant compared to the sheer enormity of the mountain itself. It’s all about the climber pitting themselves against nature.
And it’s all summed up perfectly in a three-word answer to a question asked of George Mallory, who died on his third attempt on Mount Everest in 1924…
“Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?”
“Because it’s there.”
That’s it. Whether it’s the smallest rockface or the tallest mountain in the world, the mountaineer shares the same explorer’s desire to get there that you find with those venturing into space. It’s an adventure, but it’s also an incredibly dangerous thing, and the mountaineer who forgets that soon pays the price, often a fatal one.
Now, there’s definitely that majesty, poetry, exploration, awe, wonder, terrifying threat and thrilling adventure here in Altitude, but it just takes quite a while to find all that, a while to really find itself and become the book I was really hoping it was going to be.
The thing is, I’ve been spoilt for mountaineering comics by The Summit of the Gods, adapted from the book by Yumemakura Baku by the manga artist Jirô Taniguchi (published in English by Fanfare/Ponent Mon). Across five volumes, that was an absolutely thrilling and awe-inspiring work all set against the backdrop of the mystery of George Mallory’s disappearance, easily one of my top 20 graphic novel series of all time.
I was really hoping that Altitude would hit me with everything in the same way that Summit of the Gods did, or at least capture that majesty of nature, the adrenaline rush of the climb, the pitting of man against mountain, exactly the feeling I got from seeing that incredible cover.
It does… eventually. But, like the ascent to the peak, there’s a necessity of heading through the meandering lowlands before the splendour, excitement, danger, and absolute beauty of that final ascent.
It looks great, with Rochette’s art managing to look both raw and cultured, a thick line that gives all his figures this solidity and weight, yet also manages to look absolutely gorgeous when taking in the landscapes.
Altitude certainly started with aplomb, with the first few pages of young Jean-Marc transfixed in front of a work of art – the perfectly still nature of the young boy as the artist’s ‘camera’ pans around the him, that wonderfully wide-eyed stare, obviously one of absolute absorption rather than boredom – the perfect opener, the portrait of the artist as a young man falling in love with art, the first steps on his path to becoming an artist…

And following that introduction to Rochette the artist, we get the introduction to Rochette the climber, through the unlikely route of his mother.
It’s a relationship that’s far from a loving, caring, nurturing mother-son one, but yet it’s his mother, his harsh, beaten down by the world, uninvolved with her son’s life mother who manages to give him that first taste, his first glimpse, of the mountains that will dominate his life just as much as a love of art will.

Those two moments there, the art, the climbing, that was exactly the sense of the monumental and epic nature that I was looking for in Altitude. But after that, for pretty much the next 100+ pages (it’s a 300-page book), it simply meanders through the early climbing and artistic life of Rochette.
We’re swiftly introduced to Jean-Marc and his friend Sempe, a few years on, as Sempe takes the novice climber under his wing. There’s school interludes, more difficult interactions with his mother, the occasional mention of his artistic progress, but it’s just done in such a way that simply didn’t really involve me much.
For over 100 pages I read, turned the page, and kept wondering when it was going to come together, because it always seemed as though the excitement, the splendour, the adventures, the terror was there… frustratingly out of reach.
And then, at about halfway through… it suddenly kicks into gear. Absolutely, devastatingly, brutally. And hand in hand with that, there’s a beautiful sense of all that majesty that I was looking for…

Suddenly, everything clicked for me, the realisation that the previous 150 pages were there, knowingly or not, as a way to establish that sad truth of climbing; that no matter how much you practise, no matter how careful you are, no matter how much planning and prep is done…it’s always going to go south sometime, where the mountain just bites back.
The stakes get higher and mistakes are made, yet the youngsters come out unscathed, bravado and luck seeing them through. Yet each time, the dangers are getting closer.
And then, just a few pages later… the first death.
That harsh reminder that climbing is a dangerous way to play. Jean-Marc is still in his teens and he’s going to reconnect with one of his climbing buddies…

That just hits you in the gut so perfectly. The darkness, the funereal darkness, the chilling line of ‘Jean-Marc, how well did you know Jean-Claude’ and that sudden, shocking revelation in the bottom left panel, Rochette going tight on the face to capture the emotion – beautifully done.
In the aftermath of this death touching him, we see more of Jean-Marc’s first steps at making money from his comic art, as he gets published in Actuel, the main French underground magazine of the 70s, home of Gotlib, Mandryka, Shelton, Crumb et al. And now Rochette’s name gets added to that list.
At this point in the book, it’s impossible not to see the young Jean-Marc finding solace in art as an escape from the shock of death. Suddenly, he’s a tourist on the slopes, no-one to climb with, a scared young man who’s suddenly realised that the climbing he loves is a dangerous and deadly thing.
Yet he’s in love with it and finds his way back to the mountains, the ice, the glaciers, all because it’s an addiction, an adrenaline rush.
It’s now page 200 and from here to the end Altitude becomes practically breathless, page after page of excitement and trepidation, marvelling at Rochette’s absolute control of these scenes, the composition of his pages, never flashy, always sticking to traditional panel layout. Yet it genuinely felt as though I was holding my breath when reading it. I was absolutely invested in Jean-Marc and his climbing partners, sharing the adrenaline with them, yet able to see the inevitable that they were seemingly incapable of seeing. Or perhaps, like many climbers, just accepting of it?
There’s an ice climb with Larouche-Joubert and Jean-Marc of lightning, storms, and the cry…

Again and again in this final third of Altitude, Rochette (and obviously co-writer Boquet) manage to show us everything going wrong, the youthful good luck inevitably running out, the mountain winning (as it always does). It is simply stunning.
The action comes thick and fast… an ice climb with another friend, Chardin, where there’s this stunning little sequence that takes place as they ascend Les Ecrins and the Bonatti, simul-climbing, never clipping in, just roped to each other, and the ascent gets steeper, becoming ‘sheer and tricky.’ And the inevitable happens…

It’s the silence of that second panel that works so well, a snapshot, time slowing down in a perilous moment, as Jean-Marc sees Chardin fall and realises, with horror, that it’s too late to do anything… and all the time the rope connecting them is pulling taut, no piton, no sling, and below them 2,000 feet of thin air.
Or the ice climb where they traverse snow, sheer drop beneath them, careful to knock the sticking snow off their cleats with their ice axe every step… not every other step… every step.
Look at the sequence below… my heart skipped a beat when I read the caption … ‘Chardin skipped a step.’ Another little moment of brilliance, creating a pause before the inevitable disaster.

Incredibly, the pair survive, their luck holding impossibly long. But the overriding sense in this final part is one of the inevitable, of the climber’s skill and luck eventually falling foul of the mountain.
And when that moment comes, it is sudden, unavoidable, and incredibly bloody…

I’ll stop now. Suffice it to say that the final few pages are a perfect ending to the book, with the young adult Jean-Marc recovering, escaping his climbing addiction, finding refuge, solace, and eventual salvation in his art and comics.
He climbs again, of course, it’s in his blood. But there’s never the passion, he’s been bitten hard by the mountains and it’s scared him. Youthful fearlessness gives way to adult realisation. The mountains, the climbing, they will always be part of his life. But not the whole of his life. After all, there’s this little comic project the 21-year-old has been asked to draw… something called Snowpiercer.
And that’s where we leave it. Rochette talking about the comic that will make his name, atop a peak, gazing across at a mountain that he knows he will never climb.

This really has been one where I’ve gone on a bit, hasn’t it? But it’s a book that surprised and impressed. A book that takes its time to set up things, something that feels frustratingly close to the epic saga I wanted, but all of that slow and steady build-up is a vital element, one that only becomes clear when you finish the book. If not for the meandering, the adrenaline rush and excitement filled final third of Altitude would be nowhere near as impressive.
So stick with it. Enjoy the gentle meanderings of the young Rochette beginning to climb. Save your stamina for that final 100 pages, where everything explodes into a fast-paced, wonderfully done epic of man versus mountains. Yes, you know who the winner will be in the end, but that doesn’t stop your heart from almost beating out of your chest as you thrill to the adventures.
Spectacularly, beautifully put together. Altitude isn’t the best mountain climbing epic perhaps, but in the final analysis, it’s getting ridiculously close to Summit of the Gods in terms of capturing the spirit of the climber, the dangerous beauty of the mountains, and the sheer excitement of pitting yourself against nature.
ALTITUDE – written by Olivier Boquet and Jean-Marc Rochette, illustrated by Jean-Marc Rochette, translated by Edward Gauvin. Published by SelfMadeHero 2020.

%d bloggers like this: