Introduction The Merrick is the highest of the Galloway Hills at 843m, and the highest hill in southern Scotland. Partly because of this it has the most reliable winter climbing conditions in Galloway. The best conditions for many routes require no snow, but only a good hard freeze, five or more nights of -5ºC are ideal. Only the Black Gutter really requires a bit of snow. Three main climbing areas on The Merrick are described on this page. The first two areas are on the Black Gairy above the Kirriereoch Burn.
The first good view of the cliffs of the Black Gairy as seen from the approach walk up the Kirrireoch burn.
An interesting curiosity is that the longest theoretical line of sight possible in the British Isles is from the top of the Merrick to Snowdon in Wales, a distance of 232km. It's almost certainly only possible to see it on a clear winter day. See this site Merrick Summit Panorama for details, an explanation of why you probably can't see The Merrick from Wales, and other great summit panoramas.
Access The majority of the winter climbs on the Merrick are on a crag called the Black Gairy which lies between 550-750m altitude on the north side of the west ridge of the Merrick. Access is pretty long, but very worthwhile. There are two main options. The first is to leave your car at or near Kirriereoch Farm and walk in to the bottom of the crag from the west along forestry roads (cross the bridge at 373864) then over moorland along the south side of the burn. It is quite rough ground and the land has been devastated by industrial forestry. This takes about 1½ hours from the farm, 1 hour from the end of the ungated forest track at 388868. The other option is to walk in from near the top of the Bennan Hill, where a forestry road can be used for access. This approach, mostly on short grass, takes you over Benyellary to the Merrick-Benyellary col. Traverse westwards from just above this col to reach the top of the descent route as detailed below. For the Howe of the Cauldron climb this summit route is definitely recommended. Just descend to the Howe of the Cauldron climb from near the trig-point at the summit.
Note that there is an obvious dyke junction on the plateau directly above the top of the Black Gutter.
Dangers This is a remote and serious mountain cliff. Winter climbing is also inherently dangerous. The rock protection on the routes on the Black Gairy is generally poor, sometimes non-existent, and the rock itself is all pretty loose. You'll probably need some ice-screws, some warthogs or other turf protection, and a cool head. Dangers
Descents From the top of the routes descend steep grass and heather slopes about 500m to the west of the main icefalls. You can also descend steeply to the east about 800-1000m east. Both of these descent routes could be grade I in fully icy conditions.
The picture below is of the left hand side of the Black Gairy and was taken in March 2006 after no snowfall but one week of hard (-5ºC) frosts every night. As you can see conditions on many routes were excellent, however Interstellar Overdraft was not formed at all (it appears to require a freeze-thaw of snow to form). The majority of these big routes are 3 or 4 pitches long, 150-200m. Kenny's and Chippy's and the Black Gutter also require more snow than this to form properly.
The big routes on the Black Gairy in excellent condition again in February 2010.
Linda Biggar on the crux grade III/IV pitch of the Black Gutter, left hand finish, March 24th 2008.
Interstellar Overdraft in good condition, March 2008.
About 100m the left of the Black Gutter (not in topo above) is one further route, climbed 19th February 2008 by J. Kinnaird and J. Biggar. Monsieur Marmalade, III, 4, 150m starts at a narrow slot in the lower tier below a leftwards dog leg ice stream on the upper face. Climb the slot, cross the grass and climb the dog leg upper ice stream, in about 4 or 5 pitches altogether.
James Kinnaird on the technical crux of Monsieur Marmalade, III, 4.
Further right is a good long buttress giving many easier grade routes of up to 100m long. This area is very convenient for the descent route, great for a short day out or grabbing one more route before it gets dark! These routes really require a bit of snow on them to be worth doing. Thanks to Stephen Reid at Needlesports for the photo this topo is based on.
Linda Biggar on the awkward crux of Chippy's Downfall (direct finish), March 2010.
Topping out on a route at the left hand end of the Merrick, March 2010.
There is one other recorded route on the Merrick, in the Howe of the Cauldron on the NE side of the mountain an icefall often forms high up. It is easiest to approach from above, just drop down to the northeast from the summit trig-point on the Merrick. It is almost certainly the most reliable ice climb in Galloway and forms either with or without snow cover. It is a 100m grade II/III, 2 **, ice-screw protection is necessary.
My only shot of the whole route is this one below from 2006, when it was a remnant icefall a day or two after a thaw set in. It was still a very enjoyable climb in these conditions, although it did not feel wintry!
Of course there is another way to reach the Howe of the Cauldron icefall...
There is some good steep, skiing down into the top of the Howe of the Cauldron. Photo courtesy of Stephen Reid at Needlesports. My nice new High Visibility orange jacket was courtesy of Adobe Photoshop!