A firm handshake, friendly smile, with a slight hint of fatigue. Thomas Koch is no stranger to long days. The 38 year-old has an office job as well as working as a farmer, deputy mayor and sculptor. Oh, and he is also a father. As we make our way up to his mountain hut on the Gartjoch ridge, Thomas becomes quieter as he starts to prepare himself mentally for the task ahead. He comes here every year at this time to pursue what has become his great passion: lighting fires.
The summer solstice, when the longest day of the year meets the shortest night of the year, has been celebrated in Tirol since the 14th century by lighting fires high in the mountains in order to drive away evil spirits. These fires, which often form decorative patterns and religious symbols, are today part of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage List and are particularly spectacular in the area around Lermoos. "I always have butterflies in my stomach. If everything goes well then it is a really special experience," he explains.
Together with his brother he designs the motifs and patterns which will light up the side of the mountain. Some symbols require up to 400 separate fires. It was at the tender age of four years that Thomas was taken up into the mountains for this annual ritual by his father. "I was very proud that I was allowed to be part of it at such a young age," he says. Shortly afterwards his father died. Since then Thomas has climbed up into the mountains every summer solstice for the last 32 years to light fires.
Thomas Koch, mountain fire setter
The tradition of setting and lighting mountain fires to mark the summer solstice goes back a long way in the Koch family. Each year around 21 June countless fires are lit in the mountains surrounding Lermoos in the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena depicting both secular and religious motifs. At precisely 22:00 around 300 volunteers set flame no fewer than 10,000 torches. One of the most spectacular vantage points is the top of the 2,962m Zugspitze overlooking the Wetterstein Mountains. The platform at the top of the mountain can be reached in just ten minutes using the Tiroler Zugspitzbahn. Further popular attractions in the area are the summercoaster in Lermoos, the beautiful Heiterwanger See lake and the outdoor adventure area in Bichlbach.