Survivor says his faith conquered a mountain

Posted: Monday, May 01, 2000

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) -- Jamil Hosni's perilous journey to the top of Mount Olympus started in Boise, Idaho, where a friend gave the young religious seeker a copy of The Book of Mormon.

Hoping to participate in ''the gathering in Zion'' described in scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the 19-year-old Alaskan came to Salt Lake City with the clothes on his back, $200 and the book.

His plan was to seek purification atop Olympus. His spiritual ardor and idealism appears to have shoved common sense aside and he nearly died on the trip last month after summiting with no provisions or cold-weather gear.

''I wanted to demonstrate my willingness to suffer for God, to show my faith in him,'' Hosni said. ''I planned on going up for a week of fasting. I was just going to read scripture all week and come down for my baptism.''

On Friday night, March 17, Hosni began hiking up Olympus, the striking flatiron peak that shoots up from the Holladay benches and was named after the Greek peak believed to be the home of the gods.

He wore cotton and borrowed leather boots, packed a pint of water, a few snacks, a cheap sleeping bag, fire starter and a Gerber folding multi-tool.

This was ''a rescue waiting to happen,'' said Salt Lake County sheriff's Sgt. Lane Larkin, who supervised the unsuccessful search for Hosni.

''Everyone has a God-given right to go there and enjoy it,'' Larkin said. ''You don't go alone. To go alone and ill-prepared, that's wrong.''

While 20 search-and-rescue volunteers combed the mid-mountain reaches in a blizzard on the night and morning of March 19-20, Hosni was near the summit wrapped in his damp polyester sleeping bag praying for survival.

Three days after beginning his trip, he emerged from a steep ravine at the base of the mountain, dangerously dehydrated and frostbitten, and barefoot after losing his shoes.

Hosni grew up on the Alaska capital, Juneau. Raised by his mother alone since age 6, he had no religious upbringing. He searched for spirituality, starting with Taoism and Buddhism, and aided by psychedelic drugs, he said.

He dropped out of school his junior year, got an equivalency diploma, and hit the road with his best friend Aaron.

''Our society is so dysfunctional,'' said Hosni, who keeps his goatee and hair closely cropped. ''I didn't want to follow any of the paths it had to offer.''

While in Mexico a few months ago, he met a vacationing Utah couple, Faith and Scott Bollinger, who invited him to stay at their Holladay home if he passed through.

Later in his travels while reading The Book of Mormon, Hosni became inspired by Joseph Smith's teaching. He parted with Aaron and headed to Utah.

On March 14, Hosni arrived in Salt Lake City and checked into a hostel in the Avenues neighborhood. The next day he toured Temple Square, eager to become a Mormon.

He found the Bollingers on March 16 and spent the night at their home, telling them of his plan to climb Mount Olympus the next day, a Saturday. They lent him some gear and insisted he return the following evening.

Faith Bollinger snuck a banana, a few pieces of bread and some chocolate milk into his pack.

Hosni said he had no intention of returning that soon, but promised to try to be back by Saturday evening. He would call the Bollingers from a pay phone to pick him up.

So that Friday at 8 p.m., well after dark, the Bollingers' daughter dropped off Hosni, who has little interest in mountaineering and only rudimentary survival skills, at the Mount Olympus trailhead.

Normally, the hike to the 9,026-foot summit, which climbs 4,000 feet in three miles, can be accomplished in under four hours. But Hosni lost the trail after following some of the many sucker paths that criss-cross the mountain's west side. Less than halfway up, he bedded down for the night.

His huge campfire was visible from Olympus Cove, where concerned residents notified Salt Lake County authorities. Sgt. Larkin said a helicopter was sent to check out the fire and the pilot returned to base after observing Hosni bundled in his sleeping bag without any signs of distress.

Hosni continued his climb to Olympus' summit, bushwhacking a difficult route that took all day. The sun was setting when he reached the top and his hands were numb. With the temperature plunging and the winds raising, he cut pine boughs with his Gerber tool to lay a bed and build a small fire.

Before climbing into the sleeping bag, he cut the ice-encrusted laces off his boots and removed them from his freezing feet. Hosni spent the next 36 hours, until Monday morning, curled in a fetal position, struggling to stay warm and hoping the chopper would return.

''I entered cycles of hopelessness,'' Hosni said. ''It was an incredibly alone, empty feeling and then my faith would return.''

In a vain attempt to slake his gnawing thirst, he ate snow, which probably did more harm by sapping his energy. His food was gone after just a few hours on the mountain.

On Sunday evening, the Bollingers called the sheriff. A search was launched, but a storm kept the helicopter grounded. Larkin sent his volunteer team to the spot where the chopper pilot had seen the campfire two days before. They spent six hours searching in white-out conditions until 2 a.m., Larkin said.

High winds hammered Hosni's exposed bivouac nestled among the ridgetop rocks, temperatures fell into the teens and about two feet of snow fell.

The weather broke Monday morning, and Hosni realized he better get going or he would die on the mountain.

''The fire was completely buried, the backpack, the shoes, everything,'' said Hosni, who abandoned his gear and kept his thoughts on his girlfriend to steel his will to live.

Using the sleeping bag as a kind of sled, he began sliding down the mountain. After descending several hundred vertical feet, the shoeless Hosni spent the remainder of the day picking his way slowly down a brush-choked ravine with his wool socks continually sliding off.

''I told God I didn't mind if my feet died,'' he said. ''If he would allow me to join the woman I love, I would be forever in his service.''

It was late afternoon when he spotted a man, who walked with him the rest of the way off the mountain.

''It was the happiest moment of my life,'' Hosni said. ''The tears just came out.''

The man, whom Hosni knew only as John, offered him liquids, which he vomited. John took the youth to his office, where he spent an hour in a shower, massaging the life back into his blue feet.

Hosni spent four days recovering in St. Mark's Hospital, then went through with his scheduled baptism and confirmation. His feet suffered no permanent damage, although numb patches remain in the toes.

Hosni went home to Alaska last week but plans to return to Salt Lake City to study film and music at the University of Utah.

Faith Bollinger, meanwhile, questioned the competence of sheriff's rescue officials, who failed to find the youth.

''I hope I never get lost,'' Bollinger said.

Larkin, whose team of 30 volunteers perform about 60 search-and-rescue missions each year in the Wasatch Mountains, had no apologies.

''A rescue has to be done safely. If one of the rescuers is injured or killed, it's not a rescue,'' said Larkin, who holds painful memories two years after a helicopter crash killed three professional rescuers and an injured skier during an evacuation in Little Cottonwood Canyon. ''You don't just run up the mountain in your Superman suit. That doesn't happen. Not in that weather, not in that terrain.''



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