Robert Lang has a penchant for the exhilarating and said the rush that comes with skydiving or swimming the depths of the world’s oceans is undeniable. Mountain climbing, another of his extreme hobbies, is actually a relaxing exercise by comparison, Lang said.
But after reaching the summit of Mt. McKinley in Alaska last month, the Forest Park mechanic saved the lives of two fellow climbers who would have fallen to their deaths were it not for his quick thinking. That experience, he said, was a high like no other.
Lang, 41, works as a mechanic at Forest Park Foreign Car Repair on Harrison Street, and during his time off, scales and traverses some of the world’s most beautiful and most daunting peaks. During his most recent climb in May to the summit of Mt. McKinley, Lang, carrying nearly 200 pounds of equipment and food, saved the lives of two Spanish climbers during their descent.
“I met these men, Carlo and Pepe, while I waited for the weather to clear at the base,” Lang said. “They asked if I would clip up with them and so I did. Both of them are well-trained climbers. It took us 13 days to climb up and we reached the summit on May 20.”
According to Lang, his fellow climbers spent only a few minutes on North America’s highest peak while he stayed behind for several hours to take in the views. Fearing that Carlo and Pepe might worry about him, Lang began his descent and eventually caught up with them. They had joined another group of climbers from Colorado.
“We were at the worst part of the mountain; it was about a 50- or 60-degree slope,” Lang said. “After 300 or 400 feet on the trail, Pepe wanted to put his picket in the snow, but he slipped and fell. Pepe’s rope then pulled Carlo down and they began sliding down the slope. I put in an ice ax and put my weight on it, hoping it would be strong enough to hold the three of us up. The group from Colorado saw what was going on as Carlos struggled with too much tension on the rope. Finally, a man from Colorado reached him and after 10 minutes or so the two were able to climb back up.”
The decision to throw his axe into the ice was innate, Lang said, a reflex honed from years of mountaineering. Growing up in his native Czech Republic, Lang taught himself the basics on a 3,000-foot peak that he said became quite treacherous in the winter months. By comparison, Denali–as Mt. McKinley is known in the Native American Athabaskan language–stands at more than 20,300 feet above sea level.
In June, the Associated Press reported that the Alaskan mountain has taken five lives already this season. Since 1996, 13 have died while climbing Denali. However, as dangerous as McKinley might be, Denali National Park rarely sees the level of heroism displayed by Lang last month.
“This certainly isn’t common,” Maureen McLaughlin, a spokesperson for Denali National Park, said. “Robert’s decision-making is a great thing, and we certainly applaud him. We have a program that recognizes those that assist other climbers, and we recognize self-sufficiency and clean climbing with a pro-pin designation. Robert will be getting one soon.”
Lang has a climbing philosophy unique to his own style of mountaineering. He prefers to register as a solo climber. His independence and self-reliance as a solo climber has also granted him opportunities to climb in Europe and South America.
“I feel much safer when I am solo,” Lang said. “What I do is my decision when I climb alone, and it makes me more comfortable than climbing with another person. Most people do not have the same tempo and breathing style as me, and that is very important to a climbing group.”
Lang said there are usually only five or 10 solo climbers per year of the 1,100 that climb McKinley.
“Climbing is not really dangerous to me since I do many more extreme sports, like skydiving and scuba diving,” Lang said. “Mountaineering is a pleasure sport with the nice mountains and nature. Skydiving is a rush sport-there is no time for error. Mountaineering is relaxing. But all sports need to be done carefully, even riding a bike in the city. All dangerous situations are about weather and the human factor of bad judgment.”
His actions on the mountain that day earned him not only the respect and accolades of the national park, but the unending gratitude of the two men he saved.
“They said, ‘Thank you so much. You saved our lives. If you ever come to Spain, our home is your home,'” Lang said of Pepe and Carlo. “They were definitely appreciative. They knew what could have happened.”
When Lang returned home to Forest Park, his boss and co-workers greeted him with cheers and inquiries about his adventure. The shop’s manager, Vladimir Rejman, refers to Lang as the “hero.”
“When I heard Robert’s story, my heart went down to my stomach,” Rejman says. “Robert’s that kind of guy, though. He helps around a lot. It’s in his character.”
Forest Park’s newest hero already has plans for another climbing expedition, this time in Washington. Naturally, Lang showed no signs of fear.
“I think I am ready for everything,” Lang said.