Casino Mont Blanc

Chamonix, France | C.1848

Photo Credit: Ramon Portelli

The windows remain closed at Casino Mont Blanc. However, opening the shutters would afford any bleary-eyed player a hypnotic view of the snow capped mountain for which the establishment is named. Mont Blanc towers nearly 5,000 meters over the small village of Chamonix, daring visitors to brave its deadly peaks.

The French can take the credit, or perhaps the blame, for inventing roulette, pari-mutuel, baccarat, and even blackjack, which was originally called vingt et un (twenty-one). Mont Blanc’s casino was originally a lavish hotel that hosted the likes of Napoleon III, but it is now more frequented by tourists looking to try their luck after skiing in the Alps.

Though easy to dismiss as a tourist trap, a casino serves as a fairly apt foundation for Mont Blanc, considering that the first people who successfully climbed it were taking quite a gamble themselves.

In 1760, before Alpine climbing became a sport, naturalist Horace Bénédict de Saussure announced a prize for whoever could reach the daunting summit of Mont Blanc. He had been the first to attempt the feat, only to cancel it a few days in, after his entourage of twenty—including servants ready to ensure a luxurious ascent for de Saussure—complicated the excursion.

Almost three decades later, amateur climbers Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard set off on an expedition that turned the heads of Europe toward the Alps. The twenty-six-year-old Balmat was a peasant who wandered from village to village selling crystals to wealthy collectors, while Paccard—twenty- two years his senior—was a respected local physician. The unlikely duo yielded glory: they reached the summit in 1786. In doing so, they encouraged an Alpine movement that would bring countless mountaineers to the region for generations, all seeking to catch a view of the Alps from its highest peak.

Balmat would spend the rest of his life chasing the euphoria of that first big win, climbing dozens of other mountains in Europe. While attempting a reckless climbing gamble in the Sixt Valley in France, he disappeared. Paccard, on the other hand, was satisfied with the summits he’d reached and opted to fold on his climbing career. He married Balmat’s sister, settled all debts, and became a justice of the peace.

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One thought on “Casino Mont Blanc

  1. sea-grape says:
    May 15, 2023

    What a story! I’d love to visit, but maybe not climb the mountains.

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