Upstream in the Snowy Alps, the border between Switzerland and Italy has shifted due to aDisputing the location of an Italian mountain lodge.
The boundary line runs along a drainage divide – the point at which meltwater will flow to one country or the other on either side of the mountain.
But the retreat of Theodul Glacier means the watershed has moved toward the Refugio Guide del Cervino, a refuge for visitors near the 11,417-foot Testa Grigia peak—and it’s slowly widening beneath the building.
Frederick, a 59-year-old tourist, opens the narrow wooden door to enter the refuge’s restaurant, light coming from outside.
The menu is in Italian, not German, and is priced in Euros instead of Swiss Francs. Nonetheless, 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 has been the subject of diplomatic talks that began in 2018 and ended with an agreement last year – but the details remain secret.
When the refuge was built on a rocky outcrop in 1984, its 40 beds and tall wooden tables were entirely on Italian territory.
But now two-thirds of the lodge, which includes most of the beds and restaurants, is technically located in southern Switzerland.
The issue has come to the fore because the area, which is dependent on tourism, is located on top of one of the world’s largest ski resorts, with a major new development being constructed including a cable car station a few meters away. .
An agreement was reached in Florence in November 2021, but the result will only be known if the rubber is stamped by the Swiss government – which will be no earlier than 2023.
“We agreed to split the gap,” Alain Wich, chief border officer of Switzerland’s national mapping agency Swissstopo, told AFP.
His work includes looking after 7,000 border markers along Switzerland’s 1203-mile border with Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein.
Wich participated in negotiations, where both sides made concessions to find a solution. “Even if neither side turned out to be a winner, at least none lost,” he said.
Where the Italian-Swiss border crosses alpine glaciers, the border follows the watershed line.
But Theodul Glacier lost about a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010. This exposed the rock beneath the ice, altering the drainage divide and forcing the two neighbors to renegotiate a nearly 100-yard-long section of their boundary.
Wich said that such adjustments were frequent and usually by comparing readings by surveyors from border countries, without involving politicians.
“We are fighting over an area that doesn’t cost much,” he said. But he said it was “the only place where we suddenly found a building involved,” giving “economic value” to the land.
Their Italian counterparts declined to comment “due to the complex international situation”.
Jean-Philippe Amstein, former head of Swisstopo, said such disputes are usually resolved by exchanging parcels of land of equal surface area and value.
In this case, “Switzerland is not interested in obtaining a piece of the glacier,” he explained, and “the Italians are unable to compensate for the loss of Swiss surface area.”
While the outcome remains secret, the asylum’s caretaker Lucio Trucco, 51, is told that it will remain on Italian soil.
“The shelter 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 renewal of the refuge – villages on either side of the border have not been able to issue building permits.
Therefore work will not be completed in time for the scheduled opening of a new cable car on the Italian side of the Kleine Matterhorn mountain at the end of 2023.
The slopes are accessible only 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 throughout the summer on the Zermatt-Cervinia slopes, even if such activities contribute to glacier retreat.
“That’s why we have to increase the area here, because he’s definitely going to be the last person to die,” Trucco said.
For now, on the Swissstopo map, the solid pink stripe of the Swiss border remains a dashed line as it passes through the refuge.