The uncertain fate of an Alpine mountain inn

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Geographical features that once seemed to be ideal natural boundaries – “inexpensive” and “unavoidable,” wrote British geographer Sir Thomas Holdich in 1916 – have always been inherently unstable and are likely to become more volatile in the future. A movable border could be a pragmatic compromise, allowing states to maintain their general contours while giving up control of exact coordinates. “It shows how much our institutions, our politics, have been developed for a world with a static climate,” said anthropologist Ben Orlove of Columbia University’s Climate School. “We never thought that climate change would affect national borders. So many laws are designed for an old world, and we are now in a new kind of world. “

This region of the Schengen area is in a way an optimal testing ground for the concept of the mobile border. It is unlikely to trigger the kind of diplomatic and military tensions that occur on more politicized glacial borders, like the windy Southern Patagonian Icefield, caught between Chile and Argentina, and the Siachen Glacier, in the Himalayas, between India and Pakistan. Italy, Switzerland and Austria have rarely publicly debated specific coordinates for their Alpine borders. (One notable exception was the 1991 discovery of the Ötzi ice mummy, which an emergency measures team deemed Italian by three hundred feet.) In recent years, countries have only made these borders visible. high altitude only occasionally, for example, to enforce contrasting national regulations in the event of a ski pandemic.

In total, the Italian border with Switzerland and Austria has now moved to more than a hundred places, according to IGM reports. During the first year of the agreement, a landing stage in Italy suddenly found itself on Swiss soil. Subsequent land movements consisted of uninhabited terrain, scattered patches of rock and scree about a few hundred feet long. The mobile border has not encountered any people or commerce, with one exception: the Rifugio Guide del Cervino, a traditional mountain hideaway in the Pennine Alps. It is located on the edge of Testa Grigia peak, on top of a cliff that descends towards Italy and descends into Switzerland on the other side. The building itself can be located in Italy, Switzerland, or both. On the latest Swiss map, this is the only place where the pink border line breaks in the short warning dashes that signal a dispute.

The rustic lodge was built in 1984 by the Italian Società Guide del Cervino, the association of Matterhorn mountain guides.

One beautiful winter morning before the pandemic, I took the cable car to Testa Grigia. The almost hour-long ascent began in Breuil-Cervinia, a ski resort developed under Mussolini, who loved the sport. The elegant, panoramic final lift slowly led to the border, which was marked by a yellow line and a closed customs office. It had snowed overnight and the mountain was dusted with fresh powder (“farina”, or flour, in Italian). Over the entrance to the rifugio hung Italian and Swiss flags, but the forty-year-old building undoubtedly belonged until recently to Italy: in particular, the Società Guide del Cervino, or the association of Matterhorn mountain guides. A local alpine group, it was founded in 1865 by the first Italian mountaineers to climb the top of the mountain, famous for its appearance on the packaging of Toblerone chocolate.

The rifugio doors were unlocked, as they are at all times, should anyone need emergency shelter. I found the lodge manager, Lucio Trucco, at a table at the back. Athletic and angular, he wore ski equipment and wraparound sports goggles, and was accompanied by Malice, his Belgian Shepherd, a stiff avalanche rescue dog. On the walls behind him were windows facing the mountains and just as many unframed posters of other nearby mountains.

Trucco believed the building to be unmistakably Italian. “If you go to Google Maps, do you see the border? ” He asked. He zoomed in on the map on his phone, tapping on our location until he couldn’t zoom in. The image loaded quickly; the air was smelly, but there was powerful 3G service eleven thousand feet above sea level. “We’re in Italy,” he said, handing me the phone. It was true that the blue dot was technically in Italian territory. Additionally, according to Trucco, the rifugio had cultural significance and was inextricably linked to the local mountaineering heritage. It was important for the Trucco family, who have been in Breuil-Cervinia for five generations. (His ancestor Jean-Antoine Carrel was one of the first Italians to reach the top of the Matterhorn; his father reached the cross at the top about two hundred and fifty times; Trucco, who is fifty-one years old, is at one hundred and fifty-four. twenty fourteen.) But the location of the blue dot on Trucco’s phone didn’t exactly settle the issue: Google Maps displayed different boundaries depending on the user’s location, showing Crimea as a hard boundary in Russia and a disputed territory in Ukraine, for example.

The location of the border was once clearly defined by the ice outside the rifugio, which once rose so high that it blocked Switzerland like a wall. But the glacier lost so much volume that its top sank lower than the building. Although local and national authorities agree that it no longer divides the two countries, there is no consensus on the replacement line. “The Swiss, they go up and they say, ‘The border is here,'” said Trucco, pointing to the dumbwaiter commuting with hot bucatini. “A week later,” he continued, “the Italians came and said, ‘The border is here. He waved ambivalent, landing on a family of rosy-cheeked snowboarders near the door. “War is war, but we ended the war eighty years ago,” he concluded. “Stop, finished!” “

The business still operates as an Italian, billing customers 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 also an administrative headache. Next year, Testa Grigia is set to become a stage of the Matterhorn Alpine Crossing, a luxury cable car route that will transport travelers between Zermatt and Breuil-Cervinia on heated leather seats and Swarovski embroidery. (Unlike some low-lying ski resorts with almost no snow, the developers of the Matterhorn can still promise the spectacle of “eternal ice” for at least a few more decades.) With this influx of tourists in mind, Trucco had hoped to completely modernize the rustic rifugio. before the skyway opens.

However, the Association of Mountain Guides has repeatedly postponed the renovation, fearing that construction over a disputed border would be unnecessarily complicated. None of the neighboring municipalities, Italian or Swiss, wish to unilaterally grant the required building permits. Stefano Gorret, adviser to the Italian mayor, also claims that Italian banks are reluctant to finance the project. Although local governments are keen to cooperate, they cannot even solve practical homeowners’ problems, such as which country would provide the electricity. “We mountain people,” Gorret explained, “are victims of a nationwide situation.”

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