For centuries, glaciers have kept Switzerland on one side of the Alps and Italy on the other. More than two-thirds of the border follows the watershed divide, a theoretical line strung between mountain ridges, perennial snowfields, and glacial summits. Generally, melted snow that flows to the south is Italian; water that runs down the mountain a few inches north is Swiss. Like the rest of the glaciers in the Alps, half of which will likely disappear by 2050, the ice that defines this international boundary has been melting for decades. Sometimes the border retreats in favor of Switzerland; other times, Italy quietly grows by a few hundred feet.
Natural borders can flood, drift, crumble, or dry up. In response, countries may hold on to out-of-date hydrological borders, populating their maps with vestigial squiggles, or swap tiny parcels of land to account for the difference. There’s also the costly strategy of locking a natural boundary in place: following a 1963 agreement, for instance, the U.S. and Mexico built a concrete channel to prevent the Rio Grande from further shifting course. In 2009, Italy and Switzerland determined that their border would move with the landscape: wherever their glaciers melted, the border would follow. With this mobile-border agreement, they effectively pledged to accept the consequences of rising temperatures, regardless of who came out ahead.
The idea for the moving border originated in the nineteen-seventies, when the Austrian Federal Office of Metrology and Surveying, or B.E.V., and the Italian Military Geographic Institute, or I.G.M., realized that the boundary between their two countries looked out of place. The glaciers in the Ötztal Alps no longer resembled those in the black-and-white photographs in their archives, over which early surveyors had traced the border in red ink. In the resulting agreement, drafted in the following decade, the environmental changes were described as “gradual” and “natural.” It seemed possible, then, that the glaciers could someday return to their original shape. But by the time the agreement between Austria and Italy was approved, in 2006—as with the moving-border accord between Italy and Switzerland, three years later—the cause seemed obvious. “Climate change,” the legislator Franco Narducci announced in the Italian Parliament, was at least partly responsible for “the erosion and contraction of glaciers,” and having a “rigidly fixed” boundary no longer made sense.
Geographic features that once seemed like ideal natural boundaries—“inexpensive” and “unmistakable,” the British geographer Sir Thomas Holdich wrote, in 1916—were always inherently unstable, and will likely become more volatile in the future. A mobile border could be a pragmatic compromise, allowing states to hold on to their general outlines while relinquishing control of the exact coördinates. “It shows how powerfully our institutions, our politics, were developed for a world of static climate,” the anthropologist Ben Orlove, at Columbia University’s Climate School, said. “We never thought climate change would affect national boundaries. So many laws are designed for an old world, and we’re in a new kind of world now.”
This region in the Schengen zone is in some ways an optimal testing ground for the concept of the mobile border. It is unlikely to trigger the kind of diplomatic and military tensions that play out on more politicized glacial borders, such as the windy Southern Patagonian Ice Field, caught between Chile and Argentina, and the Siachen Glacier, in the Himalayas, between India and Pakistan. Italy, Switzerland, and Austria have rarely publicly debated the specific coördinates of their Alpine borders. (One notable exception was the discovery, in 1991, of the ice mummy Ötzi, whom an emergency mensuration crew deemed Italian by three hundred feet.) In recent years, the countries have only occasionally made these high-altitude borders visible, for instance, to enforce contrasting national pandemic regulations on skiing.
In total, the Italian border with Switzerland and Austria has now moved in more than a hundred places, according to reports from I.G.M. In the first year of the agreement, a ski-lift landing situated in Italy suddenly found itself on Swiss soil. Subsequent land shifts have consisted of uninhabited terrain, scattered plots of rock and scree about a few hundred feet long. The moving border has not run into any people or commerce, with one exception: the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a traditional mountain lodge in the Pennine Alps. It’s situated on the edge of the Testa Grigia peak, atop a cliff that drops off toward Italy and descends into Switzerland on the other side. The building itself may be located in Italy, Switzerland, or both. On the latest Swiss map, this is the only place where the pink border line breaks into the cautionary short dashes that signal a dispute.
One bright winter morning before the pandemic, I took the cable-car route up to Testa Grigia. The nearly hour-long ascent began at Breuil-Cervinia, a ski resort developed under Mussolini, who loved the sport. The sleek and panoramic final lift let out gently at the border, which was marked by a yellow line and a shuttered customs office. It had snowed overnight, and the mountain was dusted with fresh powder (“farina,” or flour, in Italian). Above the rifugio’s entrance hung both Italian and Swiss flags, but the forty-year-old building had until recently belonged without question to Italy: specifically, the Società Guide del Cervino, or the Matterhorn mountain-guide association. A local alpine group, it was founded in 1865 by the first Italian mountaineers to summit the mountain’s peak, famous for its appearance on the packaging of Toblerone chocolate.
The doors of the rifugio were unlocked, as they are at all times, should anyone require emergency shelter. I found the lodge’s manager, Lucio Trucco, at a table in the back. Athletic and angular, he wore ski gear and wrap-around sports glasses, and was accompanied by Malice, his Belgian shepherd, a wiry avalanche-rescue dog. On the walls behind him were windows overlooking the mountains and just as many unframed posters of other, nearby mountains.
Trucco believed that the building was unmistakably Italian. “If you go on Google Maps, do you see the border?” he asked. He magnified the map on his phone, tapping at our location until he couldn’t zoom any further. The image loaded quickly; the air was nauseatingly thin, but there was strong 3G service at eleven thousand feet above sea level. “We are inside Italy,” he declared, handing me the phone. It was true that the blue dot was technically in Italian territory. Moreover, Trucco argued, the rifugio had cultural significance, and was inextricable from the local alpinist heritage. It was important to Trucco’s family, which has been in Breuil-Cervinia for five generations. (His ancestor Jean-Antoine Carrel was the one of the first Italians to arrive at the Matterhorn summit; his father has reached the cross at the top roughly two hundred and fifty times; Trucco, who is fifty-one, is at a hundred and ninety-four.) But the location of the blue dot on Trucco’s phone didn’t exactly settle the matter: Google Maps has displayed different borders depending on a user’s location, showing Crimea as a hard border in Russia and a disputed territory in Ukraine, for instance.
The location of the border used to be clearly defined by the ice outside the rifugio, which once rose so high that it blocked out Switzerland like a wall. But the glacier has lost so much volume that its top has sunk lower than the building. Although local and national authorities agree that it no longer divides the two countries, there’s no consensus on the replacement line. “The Swiss, they come up and they say, ‘The border is here,’ ” Trucco said, pointing toward the dumbwaiter shuttling hot bucatini. “A week later,” he continued, “the Italians come up and say, ‘The border is here.’ ” He gestured ambivalently, landing on a family of pink-cheeked snowboarders by the door. “War is war, but we finished the war eighty years ago,” he concluded. “Stop, fini!”
The business still operates as Italian, charging guests in euros and paying taxes to the Italian Revenue Agency. Beyond these transactions, its status becomes somewhat murky. Renovating, already a logistical challenge requiring helicopters, is now an administrative puzzle, too. Next year, Testa Grigia is slated to become a stop on the Matterhorn Alpine Crossing, a luxury cable-car route that will ferry travellers between Zermatt and Breuil-Cervinia on heated leather and Swarovski-embroidered seats. (Unlike some nearly snowless low-altitude ski resorts, the Matterhorn developers can still promise the spectacle of “eternal ice” for at least a few decades longer.) With this influx of tourists in mind, Trucco had hoped to fully modernize the rustic rifugio before the skyway’s opening.
However, the mountain-guide association has postponed the renovation repeatedly, worried that building on top of a contested border would be unnecessarily complicated. Neither of the nearby municipalities, Italian or Swiss, wishes to unilaterally grant the required building permits. Stefano Gorret, an adviser to the Italian mayor, also says that the Italian banks are reluctant to finance the project. Although the local governments are eager to coöperate, they cannot resolve even practical concerns for the owners, such as which country would supply the electricity. “We, the people of the mountain,” Gorret explained, “are victims of a situation at the national scale.”
In a suburb of Bern, at the Swiss Federal Office of Topography headquarters, I met Alain Wicht, the national-border officer who is responsible for the 7,761 points that define Switzerland’s borders. A kind of emissary of precision, he has spent the last six years measuring and re-measuring the country’s perimeter. He can pinpoint the border with a margin of error of four inches nearly everywhere but the Rifugio Guide del Cervino. On a large monitor, he opened the latest digital map, which depicted every building in the country, including “teacup”-size details. It was easy to tell, in some places, where Switzerland ended and its neighbors began. Elsewhere, along the natural border, the route was sinuous and unpredictable. A topographer who worked with Wicht, Tobias Providoli, pulled up the Alps. “You need to find the top,” he advised, indicating the point where the drainage basins joined together, like the two sides of an A-frame roof.
At Testa Grigia, this dividing line was tricky to locate. The glacier appeared patchy and fragile on the screen, surrounded on three sides by bare rock. “Because of climate change, the top changes,” Providoli observed. As a result, Wicht said, the border should now follow the next highest point—the mountain ridge, which happened to run beneath the building. It split the property lengthwise, claiming three-quarters for Switzerland, and leaving the remaining few thousand square feet in Italy.
That border line was based on measurements collected by Wicht’s predecessor and his I.G.M. counterpart, in 2013. Three years after that, at a meeting in Florence, Swiss and Italian officials reviewed those calculations and discussed what this modified border would look like, without reaching a final agreement. (Trucco was later interviewed on French TV, hopping good-naturedly around the restaurant—“Here I’m in Italy. But if I go to that table, I’m in Switzerland!”) In 2018, the officials convened in a hotel in Bellinzona to settle the status of the rifugio. No one wanted to leave the building in Switzerland: the mayor of Zermatt, Romy Biner-Hauser, predicted that they would “solve it in no time.” Switzerland would give up the lodge, which would be granted permanent Italian status, and Zermatt would receive land on an adjacent mountaintop in return. But the Italians rejected the plan. “We had no problem with giving those square meters to Italy,” Biner-Hauser recalled, “but they did not accept the offer that was on the table.”
The Italian side claims that mobile-border policy does not apply to the rifugio. They contend that the agreement was meant only for vacant mountain terrain, and that the original negotiators may have simply overlooked the lodge. Additionally, the moving-border agreement explicitly concerns “gradual” and “natural” climate change, and not “sudden man-made change,” such as the building of a dam or a ski-lift platform. The glacial melting at Testa Grigia was certainly affected by warmer temperatures, but it might have also been accelerated by the continuous activity on the slopes, including nocturnal snow grooming and summertime skiing. If these factors, rather than climate change, were decisive, then the rifugio could stay in Italy, and Italy wouldn’t have to give up anything in return.
Though I.G.M. declined to comment further on the matter, Italian authorities have made their stance known publicly. “We risk losing one of the jewels of our mountain,” the local politician Augusto Rollandin warned at a regional Aosta Valley meeting this May. Albert Lanièce, an Italian senator who has been lobbying on behalf of the rifugio for years, told me that the building belongs unequivocally to his home country. “If it leaves, it should be for a good price,” he said.
Negotiations over the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, postponed for the past year and a half, resumed earlier this month. Six Swiss delegates and seven Italian delegates discussed the future of the alpine chalet at the grand I.G.M. headquarters, in Florence. The meeting had a “constructive and friendly atmosphere,” according to a statement from the Swiss mapping agency. “It’s going to work out between Switzerland 🇨🇭 and Italy 🇮🇹,” Gorret texted me after the talks. But there’s still no official agreement. The future settlement is unlikely to be approved before 2023, after the scheduled launch of the Matterhorn Alpine Crossing.
During my visit to the rifugio, Trucco had fretted about the prospect of the rifugio ending up Swiss. “I hope that we’ll find a solution,” he said. “I have the impression that they don’t want to.” He was anxious about potentially dealing with the country’s higher cost of living. “It would mean that the coffee that you buy now for two euros will cost four,” he speculated. “Many clients wouldn’t return.” (Both the Italian and Swiss mapping agencies stress that ceding the rifugio entirely to Switzerland would be an undesirable and unlikely outcome.)
Trucco also mused about ways to take advantage of the moving border. He imagined permanently dividing the restaurant—in Switzerland, waiters would serve apple strudel and rösti; across the border, diners would eat carbonara, minestrone, and polenta. “If the Swiss keep breaking our balls, you know what we’ll do?” he joked. “We’ll make a wave of snow with the machine.” He estimated the peak of the imaginary slope, easily high enough to redirect the border in his favor.
Hours after the ski lifts closed, Trucco returned to Breuil-Cervinia on a snowmobile. At night, Italian snow groomers polished the day’s used slush into clean stripes that eventually converged at the rifugio. They parked outside and sat in what might have been Switzerland, the one corner of the restaurant that was still lit. A Nepalese mountain climber, working the night shift, sent up plates of pork belly from the kitchen. The next day around dawn, Swiss snow groomers stopped in for a morning espresso, which was still cheaper on that side of the mountain.
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