Tiroleans mark the longest day of the year by lighting fires in the mountains. One of the areas with the most spectacular summer solstice celebrations can be found at the Zugspitze mountain. The tradition of summer solstice fires dates back many centuries and is today included on the UNESCO Cultural Heritage List.
“The best moment for me was a few years ago when I got up in the early hours of the morning and walked up to the top of the mountain to position the torches in the ground. Suddenly there was the most incredible sunrise. I kneeled down right there in the middle of the mountains – that’s how moved I was,” says Thomas Koch from the village of Lermoos.
The friendly man in his late thirties is one of those guys you often meet in Tirol: busy all the time and seemingly a jack of all trades. His main job is working in the tourist information office in Lermoos, but he is also a carpenter, farmer, vice-mayor, sculptor and father of two daughters. And, once a year, he is a firestarter.
A centuries-old tradition
Every year on 21 June, the official start of summer and the longest day of the year, fires are lit throughout Tirol to celebrate the summer solstice. This tradition can be traced back to the Middle Ages. The area around the Zugspitze is home to some of the most spectacular and intense summer solstice celebrations. Here visitors will find incredible images and motifs such as crosses, hearts and the Tirolean eagle blazing on the alpine slopes high above the valley floor.
The local firestarters in this region near the German border are also not averse to modern designs: Papa Smurf and Donald Duck have both been immortalised in fire. Such creations are not to the taste of everyone – after all, the summer solstice fires are a long tradition continued with great pride. Thomas himself isn’t bothered about such unconventional motifs: “In our group we only use religious images, but there’s a place for everything.”
Smartphone and Pythagoras
The path up to the mountain hut belonging to Thomas Koch and his family is steep. On his back Thomas wears a full rucksack weighing in at 30 kilos. Its content: torches, food and the odd beer or two. All these things have to be transported up to the top of the mountain on foot. “Firestarters like me have to be sure-footed, fit and have good spatial awareness. So far it has been mostly men, but there are more and more women getting into it,” explains Thomas.
Together with 15 fellow firestarters he climbs the mountains overlooking Lermoos year after year. They place up to 400 torches on the high mountain slopes to form a motif clearly visible from the valley below. The rougher the terrain, the more difficult the task. Back in the day the men would use pieces of string and Pythagoras’s theorem to position their torches. Today the job is a lot easier thanks to binoculars, GPS and help from the valley floor.
Fog – the firestarter’s worst enemy
The whole process is, of course, not exactly what you would call risk-free. While the main dangers are thunderstorms and slippery terrain, the firestarter’s worst enemy is fog. With limited visibility it is almost impossible to position the torches correctly: “It is always a nerve-wracking process. You have to stay focussed the whole time and you can’t afford to put a foot wrong.”
The area around the Zugspitze mountain is home to roughly 300 firestarters. “Each group has its own tricks when it comes to making the torches. Of course everyone wants to have the best display, so there is a certain rivalry between the groups. But at the end of the day it is first and foremost about having fun,” explains Thomas.
Firestarting as a family tradition
As the clock strikes 10 o’clock the Wetterstein Mountains come to life as more than 10,000 torches are set ablaze to produce spectacular motifs. “If all goes well then it is a fantastic moment,” says Thomas. This year his two daughters have joined him on the Gartjoch ridge high in the mountains – firestarting is a family tradition.
Thomas himself accompanied his father for the first time when he was four years old. “I was very proud that I was invited to come along even though I was so young,” he comments. Shortly after their last summer solstice together his father died. Since that day Thomas the firestarter has climbed up into the mountains again and again to mark the summer solstice. 32 years and counting…
Photos: Bert Heinzlmeier & Oliver Soulas.