Paula Hofherr, 18.06.2021

Summer solstice bonfires - behind the scenes

With heart and soul

Christian Hohenegg has been closely involved with the solstice bonfires in the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena for almost fifty years. In this interview, he grants us a revealing look behind the scenes.

Christian, who can get involved in the solstice bonfires in the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena?
Christian Hohenegg: Basically anyone who enjoys it. We have lots of groups here in the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena. There are 16 of us in ours and we have a great time every year! We also come up with lovely new ideas each time.
 
How long have you been involved?
Christian: It’s my 43rd year of doing it. I had to take one year off because of an injury, but apart from that I’ve never missed it. In these parts, the solstice bonfires are something you get to know as a child, so there’s no getting away from it. When I was a boy of around ten or eleven, I asked my godfather if he’d take us boys to see the mountain fires. I’ve been involved with the bonfires since then and never looked back. For around 20 years I was on the Zugspitze, then also on the Kleines Sonnenspitzl, the Igelskopf, and the Tajakopf mountains – everywhere, really. And now I’ve been up above the Wetterstein lift in Ehrwald for 14 years.
What needs to be done before your design is ready to light?
Christian: For us, of course, planning for the solstice bonfires starts several weeks ahead of the actual event. We go up to the spot where our design will be seen several times to prepare the shelter. We also need to arrange the bags that will later be lit ...
 
… so the designs are made using bags?
Christian: Right. And you can see that clearly from down below: lots of little dots of fire arranged to make each image. We use bags filled with sawdust and soak them in rapeseed oil. This year we made no less than 570 of them. They’re then packed into bigger bags to make them easier to carry on our backs. Each one weighs up to 25 kilos. By the time we’ve hauled them into position, each of us will have been up and down the mountain two or three times. It’s a one-and-a-half-hour walk every time.
(c) Tirol Werbung / Bert Heinzlmeier
Quite an effort. And you also need to be creative: who thinks up and plans the designs?
Christian: Our group has settled into a certain rhythm for the solstice bonfires. This year it’s a Christian design, next year an animal, and the year after that a flower. In the past, for example, we had a rose and a gentian, but also an ibex. When it comes to design, we sit down with our planner Christoph and discuss what we’d like to see. He then draws the image and works out how many bags we’ll need, how big the design will be, and so on. We prepare 30 bags more than he calculates, you know, just in case something breaks.
 
Preparations are done and it’s the big day. How does that usually go?
Christian: We meet at my place around 7:30 to 8 in the morning and start off with a nice cup of coffee. I quickly pop over to the fire department to find out if the solstice bonfire can go ahead – it depends on if the weather’s good enough. Then we drive our jeeps up to the Wetterstein lift and walk over to our spot. We’ll have a quick breakfast and then start laying out the design at around 9:30. We take a short break for lunch when we’re near the shelter, usually a barbecue, before getting back to work. And when the image is done, we sit down together and enjoy a snack.
 
How do you know where each bag goes?
Christian: Our designs measure 200 by 50 metres. To make them manageable, we start off with a central axis, which we use as a guide. From there, the design takes shape piece by piece. It can take around five to six hours. When that’s done, we have a barbecue and enjoy a pleasant evening together. There’s time, because the fire isn’t lit until around 10 at night – when it’s dark enough to see clearly from down below. We do this in pairs, one person with the rapeseed oil, the other with the torch. It needs to be quick, so each pair is in charge of their own section of the design. The bags are laid out around one to two metres apart.
(c) Tiroler Zugspitz Arena / Foto Somweber
An important issue, of course, is the environment. Is there a lot of waste that needs to be cleared up after the solstice bonfires?
Christian: We take all the waste we produce – the rapeseed oil bottles, for example – back down with us. A few days later we go up again to see if we missed anything. Everything in the bags, though, is completely burned, so there are no unwelcome surprises there. We’ve always been very careful about this. By the way, we’re on a large scree slope here, which means there’s no way the fires could spread.
 
Your design is one of many in the Tiroler Zugspitz Arena. Do you work together with the other groups?
Christian: No! It’s often been the case, for example, that there were two crosses, or two hearts, or something else. But it doesn’t matter, and it’s always fascinating to see how each group designed their image.
 
Can you actually see the other designs on the night?
Christian: From up where we are, we can see a lot, but not everything. We don’t stay there, though – once we’ve lit our fires, we hurry back down into the valley. After all, we want to see what our design looks like from down there, and how the whole thing has turned out. At the end of the day, we enjoy the same lovely view as our guests.
Where’s the best spot to see the solstice bonfires?
Christian: In the “Moos,” the area that lies between Ehrwald, Lermoos, and Biberwier. It’s really wonderful there, because you have a great all-round and totally unobstructed view.
 
One last question: how much longer are you going to be part of the solstice bonfires?
Christian: At least until I’m 60. That’s three years away, and I’ll definitely be here until then. That might be enough for me – might be! (laughs)

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