At 4 AM on August 15th 2008 I met with a friend of mine outside the door of my apartment in Barcelona. We hit he road and drove north towards the Pyrenees. The goal of the day was to hike up to the top of Puigmal (2910m) — one of the highest peaks of the Catalan Pyrenees. The reason for this early start was that we were concerned about the burning heat of the August sun. The plan was to start walking at sunrise and ascend the mountain in the relatively cool morning while the sun was still rising. We would then make it to the top before noon and avoid being suffocated by the mid August heat.
We drove north, through Puigcerdà, across the border to France, to Vall d’Err, and shortly before six we arrived at the foot of Puigmal. The sun was still well below the horizon so we had a small breakfast and waited for the sky to light up.
Shortly after six we started our hike along the Err valley toward the peak Puigmal. We were glad to have started early. It was not too warm. Although we did not want to admit it, it was even slightly cold. Or rather, we were dressed for the sun that was not shining. Not yet. The mountain tops surrounding us were covered with clouds. We did not complain about the cold. We knew that we would look back at it nostalgically later in the day when the heat from the August sun would be just about unbearable.
After hiking for about an hour I felt something hit my earlobe. My first thought that flew through my head was that it had probably been a fly. Then I felt another. And another. I realized it was not a swarm of flies that was bombarding my head. It was something much cooler. It was hail.
We looked at each other — my friend and I. We sought confirmation from each other that we were not hallucinating — or that we actually were. “Is it really hail in Spain in the middle of August?” I asked my friend. “Well, actually, we are in the south of France but not Spain,” replied the friend. The reply was indeed correct, but did little to satisfy the information need that prompted my original question.
After a short crisis meeting we decided to continue towards the peak of Puigmal in the hope that the hail would go over quickly. Our hope did come true in a sense. The hail stopped. It started snowing. It got colder. The wind picked up. The hail had turned into a small snowstorm. Albeit not a big one — certainly the largest snowstorm I have experienced in the South of France in August.
We marched on stubbornly in the snowstorm for some minutes, until the stubbornness had to give in to the weather. We had to admit that the weather had no intention to change in the short term. The snowstorm was no place for men in shorts. Thus we decided to retreat. The path to the top was covered in snow. The peak was covered in clouds. We were not dressed appropriately for the weather. We had no choice but to retreat.
When we reached the car it had more or less stopped snowing. Although the peaks were still covered in clouds, we could see some patches of blue in-between the clouds. We were disappointed not to have made it to Puigmal, but could not but smile at the irony in our adventure. We had set off early in the morning to escape the August heat, but had to cancel our hike due to an August snowstorm.