Up in the snow-capped Alps, the border between Switzerland and Italy has shifted due to melting glaciers, calling into question the location of an Italian mountain hut.
The boundary runs along a drainage divide – the point where meltwater will flow from either side of the mountain to one side or the other.
But the retreat of the Teodule glacier means the watershed has crept towards the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a visitor refuge near the 3,480-metre (11,417-foot) Testa Grigia peak – and it is gradually extending below the building.
Frederic, a 59-year-old tourist, opens the narrow wooden door to enter the refuge’s restaurant, light pouring in from outside.
The menu is in Italian, not German, and is priced in Euros, not Swiss Francs. However, at the counter he orders a piece of pie and asks: “So – are we in Switzerland or Italy?”
It’s a question worth asking, as it was the subject of diplomatic talks that began in 2018 and ended in a compromise last year, but the details remain under wraps.
Sleeping on the Swiss side
When the asylum was built on a rocky outcrop in 1984, its 40 beds and long wooden tables were entirely on Italian territory.
But now two-thirds of the lodge, including most of the beds and the restaurant, is technically in southern Switzerland.
The issue has come to the fore because the tourism-reliant area sits atop one of the world’s biggest ski resorts, with a major new development just meters away, including a cable car station.
An agreement was struck in Florence in November 2021, but the outcome will not be revealed until it has been sealed by the Swiss government – which will not happen until 2023.
“We agreed to split the difference,” Alain Wicht, chief border officer at Switzerland’s national mapping agency Swisstopo, told AFP.
His work includes looking after the 7,000 border markers along Switzerland’s 1,935km border with Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein.
Wicht attended the negotiations, where both sides made concessions to find a solution. “Even if neither side emerges victorious, at least nobody loses,” he said.
A line in the snow
Where the Italian-Swiss border crosses the Alpine glaciers, the border follows the watershed.
But Theodul Glacier lost almost a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010. This exposed the rock below the ice, changing the drainage divide and forcing the two neighbors to redraw about 100 meters of their boundary.
Wicht said such adjustments are common and are usually settled by comparing the readings of surveyors from bordering countries without politicians getting involved.
“We are fighting over territory that is not worth much,” he said. But he added that it “was the only place where we suddenly had a building involved”, adding “economic value” to the land.
His Italian colleagues refused to comment “due to the complex international situation”.
Former Swisstopo boss Jean-Philippe Amstein said such disputes are usually resolved by exchanging parcels of land of equivalent area and value.
In this case, “Switzerland is not interested in getting a piece of glacier,” he explained, and “the Italians are not in a position to compensate for the loss of Swiss surface.”
The wine remains Italian
Although the outcome remains secret, the refuge’s manager, Lucio Trucco, 51, has been told it will remain on Italian soil.
“The asylum remains Italian because we have always been Italian,” he said.
“The menu is Italian, the wine is Italian and the taxes are Italian.”
Years of negotiations have delayed the refuge’s renovation, with villages on both sides of the border unable to obtain a building permit.
The works will therefore not be completed in time for the planned opening of a new cable car up the Italian side of the Klein Matterhorn mountain in late 2023.
The slopes are only accessible from the Swiss ski resort of Zermatt.
While some mid-altitude resorts are preparing for the end of alpine skiing due to global warming, skiing is possible all summer on the slopes of Zermatt-Cervinia, even if such activities contribute to the retreat of the glacier.
“That’s why we need to improve the area here because he’s certainly going to be the last one to die,” Trucco said.
For now, on Swisstopo maps, the solid pink strip of the Swiss border remains a broken line as it passes through the refuge.
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© 2022 AFP
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