The man who hiked Camelback Mountain fully naked last Saturday wasn't on drugs, but his jaunt was preceded by four sleepless nights and mental problems, says his friend.
Nicholas Pirsein, 19, was at the scene on Saturday and appears in a YouTube video made by the woman who urged other hikers to tackle the suicidal man.
Brian Zelienski, 22, began his breakdown days before the incident and drew Pirsein inadvertently into his disordered world view, Pirsein says.
"He almost had my sanity with his," Pirsein says, adding that he "made the wrong decision" in following his friend for those days.
Pirsein met Zelienski about three months ago in their home state of Illinois and became fast friends, both interested in skateboarding. A month ago, the young men decided on a whim to move to the Valley, he says. They moved into an apartment near 37th Street and Thomas Road and "had jobs lined up."
As November began, Zelienski and Pirsein began an unceasing philosophical conversation, believing they were coming up with far-reaching insights.
No drugs were involved, Pirsein insists, but the two stayed up all night talking about their ideas. For the next couple of days, they talked at length about their ideas and strolled through miles of city streets.
One of those ideas: "Everything is inside of itself."
Notice how the sentence starts with an "e" and ends with an "f," Pirsein explains.
Far out, right? They also dwelled on "coincidences" such as the fact that both of their fathers are named Brian. Zelienski led the conversation and Pirsein followed along.
They chatted with dozens of strangers during the walkabouts, talking about their insights and trying to brighten peoples' lives, Pirsein says.
After talking to each stranger, "we'd ask people, 'Are we crazy? They'd say 'No, you're making perfect sense.'"
But Pirsein also talked to some family members and friends during those days, and they told him the ideas didn't make sense. Yet Pirsein stuck with his friend, finding intellectual stimulation in their inner quest.
That Friday, November 4, they decided to hike to the top of Camelback Mountain.
"We could see everything. It's beautiful up there. We thought it was, like, a special mountain," he says.
They came back the next morning and hiked it again, having talked their way through a fourth sleepless night. They got about halfway and went back down, walking back to their apartment.
A half an hour later, "we came up with a plan. We had to go back to the mountain."
Pirsein says the plan involved "saving the world" by staring at the sun, which they hoped would result in the "dark" of their eyes becoming bright.
"We went up that mountain to take away the evil from our hearts," he says.
The pair cut through a neighborhood and found themselves once again on Camelback's Echo Canyon trail, a rugged, steep 1.2-mile route to the summit that is one of the most popular hikes in the Valley. It was a great day for hiking, with temperatures in the mid 60s.
Zelienski's thoughts had become increasingly bizarre over the four days, but not incoherent or unreasonable, at least according to Pirsein. As they began their second trip of the day up Echo Canyon -- with no sleep and no water -- Zelienski snapped into a much worse mental state, Pirsein says.
On the trail, Zelienski spouted that he was "god" and didn't need shoes because he couldn't be hurt. So he took them off. Then he said he didn't need a shirt.
When Zelienski took off his pants and underwear, too, Pirsein realized things had gotten totally out of control. He tried to explain to Zelienski that he couldn't do that because of all the people on the trail. But Zelienski refused to get dressed. He began babbling, now making very little sense.
Pirsein says he got in Zelienski's face and demanded that he put his clothes on. That's when Zelienski picked up a rock and "threatened to kill me," he says.
Zelienski immediately backed off from the threat, saying, "No, I won't, you're my friend." But Pirsein says he became scared of his friend and ran up ahead of him. Pirsein decided to hike to the summit and "try out my plan to save the world."
After reaching the top, Pirsein squinted at the sun for a few seconds, then turned in pain, his eyes tearing up. His friend had "lied" to him. The endeavor wasn't rational. He began hiking back down to his buddy.
Lower on the mountain at about that time, I ran into the naked man hiking by himself. See my blog post on the experience by clicking on the above hyperlink.
As that post mentioned, Valley resident Ewelina Federkiewicz soon came upon the man and tried to help him. On one of the videos she made with her cell phone, Federkiewicz confronts Pirsein and tells him he needs to help his friend. Pirsein replies that he's done all he can. On another of her videos, Zelienski can clearly be heard saying he's going to throw himself off the mountain and kill himself.
Though the summit isn't the location of the biggest drop-offs in the mountain park, there are a few doozies. Federkiewicz convinced a couple of burly guys to grab the naked man and hold him on the ground until firefighters could arrive. Zelienski was soon air-lifted off the mountain and taken to a hospital.
The police report on the incident isn't yet available, but police tell New Times that they found no evidence that the two had used drugs. But the report will be submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office for possible criminal charges, says Phoenix Police Sergeant Trent Crump.
Pirsein tells Jackalope Ranch that when he made it back to Echo Canyon's parking lot, a cop informed him that at least 32 people had called to complain about his friend.
Zelienski was evaluated by mental health professionals earlier this week. Pirsein says his friend was still in a hospital as of Friday; he didn't know which one.
Before the second hike up Camelback, Zelienski put a hole in the ceiling of their apartment, Pirsein says. A neighbor who'd heard the noise told the manager, resulting in a weekend eviction.
On Friday night, Pirsein was on a bus for Illinois to return to his family. He hopes the public won't view his friend too harshly.
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"He's gonna feel like an idiot" when he recovers, Pirsein says. He knows his friend "loves little kids" and would have never intentionally exposed himself.
Although some may not see the incident as humorous, Pirsein says there were many "funny" moments in their four-day adventure and he wrote down every detail, hoping it might provide fodder for comedy sketches. The pair dreamed of someday meeting comedic actor Seth Rogen to share their ideas with him, Pirsein says.
Call it drama or tragi-comedy, last week's very public debut of the friends from Illinois won't be forgotten anytime soon by Camelback hikers.