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A melting glacier is moving the Italian-Swiss border near one of the world's largest ski resorts

A banner marking the Swiss border near the 3,480-metre high Rifugio Guide del Cervino refuge at Testa Grigia peak.
A banner marking the Swiss border near the 3,480-metre high Rifugio Guide del Cervino refuge at Testa Grigia peak.   -   Copyright  Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
By Nicolas Camut  with AFP

Way up in the snowy Alps, the border between Switzerland and Italy has shifted due to a melting glacier. It is putting the location of an Italian mountain lodge in dispute.

The borderline runs along a drainage divide - the point at which meltwater will run down either side of the mountain towards one country or the other.

But the retreat of the Theodul Glacier means the watershed has crept towards the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a refuge for visitors near the 3,480-metre Testa Grigia peak. Now it is gradually sweeping underneath the building.

Frederic, a 59-year-old tourist, opens the narrow wooden door to enter the refuge's restaurant, the light flooding in from outside.

The menu is in Italian, not German, and priced in euros rather than Swiss francs. Nonetheless, at the counter, he orders a slice of pie and asks: "So, are we in Switzerland or in Italy?"

It is a question worth asking as it has been the subject of diplomatic negotiations that started in 2018 and concluded with a compromise last year - but the details remain secret.

Two-thirds of the restaurant is now in Switzerland

When the refuge was built on a rocky outcrop in 1984, its 40 beds and long wooden tables were entirely in Italian territory.

But now two-thirds of the lodge - including most of the beds and the restaurant - is technically perched in southern Switzerland.

The issue has come to the fore because the area, which relies on tourism, is located at the top of one of the world's largest ski resorts. A major new development including a cable car station is being constructed a few metres away.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP
The Rifugio Guide del Cervino refuge at Testa Grigia peak.FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

An agreement was hammered out in Florence in November 2021 but the outcome will only be revealed once it is rubber-stamped by the Swiss government. Something that won't happen before 2023.

"We agreed to split the difference," Alain Wicht, chief border official at Switzerland's national mapping agency Swisstopo told AFP.

Even if neither side came out winners, at least nobody lost.
Alain Wicht
Chief border, Swisstopo

His job includes looking after the 7,000 boundary markers along landlocked Switzerland's 1,935-kilometre border with Austria, France, Germany, Italy and Liechtenstein.

Wicht attended the negotiations, where both parties made concessions to find a solution.

 "Even if neither side came out winners, at least nobody lost", he said.

A line in the snow

Where the Italian-Swiss border crosses Alpine glaciers, the frontier follows the watershed line.

But the Theodul Glacier lost almost a quarter of its mass between 1973 and 2010. That exposed the rock underneath to the ice, altering the drainage divide and forcing the two neighbours to redraw around a 100-metre-long stretch of their border.

Wicht said that such adjustments were frequent and generally settled by comparing readings by surveyors from the border countries, without getting politicians involved.

"We are squabbling over territory that isn't worth much," he said. But he added that this "is the only place where we suddenly had a building involved", giving "economic value" to the land.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP
Way up in the snowy Alps, the border between Switzerland and Italy has shifted due to a melting glacier, putting the location of an Italian mountain refuge in dispute..FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP

His Italian counterparts declined to comment "due to the complex international situation".

Former Swisstopo chief Jean-Philippe Amstein said such disputes are typically resolved by exchanging parcels of land of equivalent surface area and value.

In this case, "Switzerland is not interested in obtaining a piece of glacier," he explained, and "the Italians are unable to compensate for the loss of Swiss surface area".

The lodge's wine will stay Italian

While the outcome remains secret, the refuge's caretaker 51-year-old Lucio Trucco has been told it will stay on Italian soil.

"The refuge remains Italian because we have always been Italian," he said.

"The menu is Italian, the wine is Italian, and the taxes are Italian."

The years of negotiation have delayed the refuge's renovation as the villages on either side of the border have not been able to issue a building permit.

FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP or licensors
Skiers with the Matterhorn mountain in the background.FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP or licensors

The works will therefore not be completed in time for the scheduled 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.

That's why we have to enhance the area here because it will surely be the last one to die.
Lucio Trucco

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 the glacier's retreat.

"That's why we have to enhance the area here because it will surely be the last one to die," says Trucco.

For now, on Swisstopo's maps, the solid pink band of the Swiss border remains a dashed line as it passes the refuge.