We didn't bring floatation like last year, and our approach suffered. The final slopes up to the gully were a trail breaking nightmare and I was wishing I had my new snowshoes. We finally reached a section below the gully that was firm having been scoured by avalanches. We donned our crampons, and decided to harness up as well. We continued up with one tool each until we got to a short ice step very early in the gully. The step was about 6' high and around 80° with the lower part being rock and snow. It eased off to a mellow (35°?) angle after the step but had solid blue ice and good sticks. The fun ran out, and it was back to snow after having some ice fun.
By the time we had all got above the ice step, the wind was really blowing. It is difficult to say if it was also snowing as the wind was blowing spindrift all around. It even blew a few light sloughs off the right side of the gully. We continued up keeping a close watch on the snow conditions. While it varied, it mostly had a wind crust, but we did not see it exhibiting instability. We marched onward.
About three quarters of the way up the gully there is a sort of chock stone against the left wall. We went around it to the right with mixed moves and some thin ice. Above the rock, it turned back to snow again. Of course, we were now higher in the gully and the wind appeared to be blowing in all directions. In the upper gully there was a definite wind slab forming and so we were moving in the hopes of getting to safer terrain, although the slab did not show any signs of instability while we were there.
We exited Lover's Lane to the right where we saw a tree in the hopes of rapping into The Zipper, the traditional finish to Lover's Lane. We found a tree with slings on it high up and figured we were seeing the route with low snow. We set a rap anchor and Josh headed down. He went down about 20' before being able to assess that not only did our rope not reach (remember low snow) but there were no intermediate anchors. He then struggled to climb back up to the anchor while Matt and I debated the next move. Josh was tempted to try another lower tree to see if it would reach. Matt and I pulled the plug stating that the avy danger was increasing, and we would be rappelling into a gully where we had no first hand knowledge of the snow conditions. (Other than extrapolating what we had found in Lover's Lane.)
We retreated back to a set of trees in the top of Lover's Lane. From there Josh led out on a short (30m) pitch of mixed climbing which involved several veggie belays and hooking rock and root to arrive at another tree. He then brought Matt and I up and Matt headed out in search of a way down. While that was happening, I had to take my gloves off to warm my hands. My hands had stinging pain and were hard to move or grip. I put them in my armpits for a bit and at this point finally put my shell jacket on. It seemed that my fingers did better actually being exposed to the air rather than in my gloves. But after they felt normal again, I put the gloves back on to continue climbing.
After a short pitch of mostly snow and a little mixed step, Matt arrived at group of snags which he brought Josh and I up to. There was a narrow gully to the southeast that looked promising for a descent. (Continuing beyond it up the ridge would have required some serious mixed climbing.) Matt made a short rap down to a tree in the gully. From there, I led the next rap which had a near overhanging section followed by going under a chock stone. I considered an attempt at slinging the chock stone, but opted not to as it appeared the ropes might get me to walking terrain.
After getting below the chock stone, I realized the ropes might be too short and I attempted to set an anchor with pitons on the steep rocky slope. After sinking a knifeblade I realized I didn't like my stance, and couldn't find a second placement to backup the first with. This led me to trying to see if I could stretch the ropes enough to make them reach below the next step.
In my attempt I ended up hanging off the lip with my autoblock jammed into the knots at the rope end. Meanwhile Matt and Josh were freezing and wondering if I was injured. They yelled down, I yelled back. I tried to sink a lost arrow, but it didn't work. I was able to put a bugaboo in a location and then successfully lowered myself the few feet to the snow below off of my cordelette.
Unfortunately for Matt, when he arrived the rope ends were not even. That, added to his shorter height meant he added another piton to the anchor before he could lower off. We proceeded to traverse to some trees as Josh came down and cleaned up our mess. A short traverse on a steep snow slope got us to our last rappel and finally to walking ground.
The walk out went well if you consider wallowing in 6" of new snow going well. We trudged back to the car and made it out before they closed the gate at Longmire.
Overall, this was a great trip. Unlike last year's conditions we were blessed with what a Scot would call "full conditions." This added to the spice and inspired our reluctance to drop into the Zipper to finish with a possible summit. If we felt good about the snow, it would have proved to be faster to drop into The Zipper instead of taking our retreat route. By the end of the day we were all thoroughly drenched from snow being blow into openings in our clothes as well. But the route was enjoyable. Aside from the bit of ice near the bottom (which may get buried under deeper snowpack) the climb did not feel technically harder. It was more interesting because of the ice and the rappel into The Zipper. We managed to spice it up quite a bit with our retreat variation. Next time I go back, it will be under better skies.
My pics are here.