Ben Nevis

Then (left) – Late 1940s © W.S. Thomson – The Mountaineers’ Hut and Carn Dearg, Ben Nevis. Published in Let’s See Fort William and Lochaber (Kilmallie House, Corpach, Fort William), p. 14. Now (right) - September 2023 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – Charles Inglis Clark (C.I.C.) Memorial Hut and Carn Dearg, Ben Nevis.

Photographer and historical researcher Estelle Slegers Helsen has been wandering around Lochaber in the footsteps of the Scottish photographer W.S. Thomson MBE (1906-1967). Since 2021, she has taken photographic remakes for roughly 75 years after Thomson initially captured the landscape and has talked to local people along her journey. This is article #23

In the autumn of 2021, I met Noel Williams of the Scottish Mountaineering Club and showed him photographs of W.S. Thomson. Noel was thrilled and has been a Thomson fan since. He became, just like I, intrigued by some black-and-white images on and around Ben Nevis captured by Thomson in the late 1940s, published in his Let’s See booklets.

Thomson loved the Scottish Highlands, and as a keen mountaineer living in Glasgow, he explored the Lochaber mountains from the early 1930s, accompanied by friends and future wife, Elizabeth Frame.

In 1945, when he settled in Fort William, he became a member of the Lochaber section of the Junior Mountaineering Club of Scotland, also known as the Lochaber Mountaineering Club.

As a mountaineer, Noel effortlessly identified Thomson’s Ben Nevis photographs. “Early autumn would be perfect to go,” Noel said in the autumn of 2021.

Last September, I visited Fort William for a few days, driving from the East Midlands to Wester Ross. “Weather conditions will be good tomorrow,” Noel messaged. Reading this, I was excited, but I kept my breath because heights and climbing are not my favourite subjects. However, I am always in for an adventure without taking risks. Knowing this, Noel suggested hiking the North Face Path to the Charles Inglis Clark (C.I.C.) Memorial Hut.

As a memorial of their son Charles, a keen mountaineer who was killed in the First World War, Jane and William Inglis Clark funded the Charles Inglis Clark Memorial Hut on Ben Nevis, which opened in 1929. Archive footage (National Library of Scotland – Moving Image Archive – Ref. no. 7702) shows mountaineers gathering on Ben Nevis for the opening ceremony.

The following morning, it was only a short drive from Noel’s place to the North Face Car park. We both carried our camera gear. Noel has been planning to take a panorama of the North Face, and I aimed for a remake of a Thomson photo entitled The Mountaineers’ Hut and Carn Dearg, Ben Nevis, published in Let’s See Fort William and Lochaber.

We go straight uphill and cross the Puggy Trail. Noel explains: “Here ran the Puggy Line, a narrow-gauge industrial railway, built in the 1920s for the construction and maintenance of a 15-mile-long tunnel to carry water for the Lochaber hydroelectric scheme, which provides electricity for Fort William’s aluminium factory.”

The first part is a winding forest path with a beautiful view over the head of Loch Linnhe and along Loch Eil.

We have a short break where the water of the Allt a’ Mhuilinn disappears into the underworld, into the last adit of the hydro scheme. “The river, misspelt as Allt a’ Mhuillin on the signs along the path, will accompany us uphill to the hut”, says Noel.

At the top of the forest, we enjoy the stunning scenery of Ben Nevis ahead.

As a geologist, Noel bombards me with the names of rocks, stones and sediments. I gaze at the buttresses and gullies of the Càrn Dearg on the left and Castle Ridge on the right. The path continues climbing. On our way, we greet about a dozen people.

Just before lunchtime, we reach the C.I.C. Hut, a private, locked shelter for mountaineers. Noel has a key, and I feel fortunate he guides me inside.

“The hut was erected by Jane and William Inglis Clark as a memorial for their son Charles, who was killed in action in the First World War.”

The stone building was opened in 1929 and extensively refurbished and extended between 2008 and 2012. The inside is basic, though well-equipped with a five-star kitchen and a compost toilet. The walls are covered with old mountaineering gear and a modern stunning one-shot panoramic photograph Alex Gillespie took.

While having lunch, I leaf through the visitor’s book and wonder if Thomson ever signed an older book.

Sitting in this shelter makes life timeless. We almost forget about the mission of our journey.

Noel first settles on an excellent spot to make his photos for a panoramic view. I feel tiny and humble in this overwhelming environment. Thin, high cloud obscure the direct light. He names the ridges and buttresses: North-East Buttress, Tower Ridge, Trident Buttress, Castle Ridge… All the gullies, the rifts between the rock mass, have a number or a name, some even poetic: Moonlight Gully (my favourite), Surgeon’s Gully, Vanishing Gully, Comb Gully. For mountaineers, there are more than 200 routes to climb and conquer.

For the remake, I have to scramble towards Càrn Mòr Dearg to the northeast of Ben Nevis, to which it is linked by the Càrn Mòr Dearg arête. A 270-degree view surrounded by 1200 to 1300 metres high walls unfolds. It is like standing in a gigantic amphitheatre.

The C.I.C. Memorial Hut, more than doubled in size, disappears in the dramatic grey-coloured rocky landscape, covered in shades of green. A windmill makes a slightly sweeping noise. A stock of bright orange gas containers is ready to warm mountain climbers in winter.

(Read further after the images)

September 2023
September 2023
September 2023
Late 1940s
Late 1940s

Move the slider to discover what changed.

Then (left) – Late 1940s © W.S. Thomson – The Mountaineers’ Hut and Carn Dearg, Ben Nevis. Published in Let’s See Fort William and Lochaber (Kilmallie House, Corpach, Fort William), p. 14.

Now (right) – September 2023 © Estelle Slegers Helsen – Charles Inglis Clark (C.I.C.) Memorial Hut and Carn Dearg, Ben Nevis.

The Ben Nevis is a favourite place for mountaineering in winter when it is much busier than summer.

Noel and I join again, both happy with our photo hunt. “For most of the other remakes, we have to walk on the arête”, says Noel while pointing to some people walking on top.

I shiver and briefly reply: “For my next visit to Fort William.”

Where I stood for the remake.

Logos West Highland Museum, Year of Stories 2022, Heritage Fund, Museums Galleries Scotland and EventScotland

Travel in Time – Lochaber Series is supported by the West Highland Museum and the Year of Stories 2022 Community Stories Fund.

Estelle has published a 64-page book with 30 side-by-side then-and-now pictures, which you can find in local shops or buy online. More information available here.

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