Wednesday, August 2, 2006

Family of missing hiker not giving up

Jon Francis missing 19 days now

Express Staff Writer

Jon Francis? parents, Linda and David, left, and sister, Jocelyn, say they want closure to Jon?s mysterious disappearance in the Sawtooth Mountains. Courtesy photo.

"The search continues," David Francis said. A retired Navy captain and nuclear submarine officer, Francis, who is in the middle of a campaign for the Minnesota state Senate, sat on a shady porch with his wife, Linda, and discussed the search for his son. His Naval training was coming in handy. He held himself together almost until the end of the conversation. His wife kept very still and quiet.

Jon Francis, 24, was spending his fourth summer at the Luther Bible Camp near Alturas Lake, north of Ketchum, when he disappeared Saturday, July 15, while climbing the 9,733-foot Grand Mogul in the Sawtooth Mountains. He had been working as the director of youth ministry at Ascension Lutheran Church in Ogden, Utah.

David and Linda Francis have been staying in Stanley as guests of Jeff Clegg, who owns Redfish Lake Lodge. The Francises have three daughters, two sons-in-law and five grandchildren, all of whom are helping in the search.

"He's a man of deep faith," Francis said of his son. "As a teen, he worked at a homeless shelter for children in Minneapolis. (Afterwards) our priest said, 'Your son, Jon, has a special gift working with children.'"

A program director at Luther Bible Camp, Francis' previous three summers were as a counselor. An experienced backpacker, he led trips in the Sawtooth and the White Cloud mountains. As part of its two weeks of staff training camp, camp counselors become certified in Wilderness First Aid, along with map and compass training. Jon Francis was a former cross-country runner who often hiked alone. He has made 12 summits in the Sawtooths and White Clouds, including Thompson, Snowyside, Castle and Borah peaks, his father said.

"I've learned it's not unusual for young men to hike and climb alone," David Francis said. "Here's what we know: In his log at camp, his plan was based on the Tom Lopez book on mountaineering. He was going to be bouldering on the way up. He wrote he 'climbs for the glory of God.' He was coming down the east face. He told them he'd be back at 6 p.m. He must have gotten into trouble, maybe taken a fatal fall on Saturday. That's the most likely scenario."

As many as 150 people arrived from the Francises' home state of Minnesota; Utah, where Jon Francis lived; and other Northwestern states to help once it was announced the Idaho authorities were calling off the search Tuesday, July 18.

Francis said he made calls to political friends in Minnesota who "leveraged support with their counterparts in Idaho." Gov. Jim Risch and his wife, Vicki, met with the Francis family at Redfish Lake Lodge on Sunday, July 23.

"We've been at battle stations for two weeks," David Francis said. "I'm angry now. It's been a crash course on search and rescue. The things that needed to be done never got done. I approached the incident commander on Monday, July 17, and asked if anyone had been to the summit. No one had. I asked if we could take dogs to the summit. I was told no."

"They were very, very cautious," Linda Francis said quietly.

Meanwhile, the Francis family hired Stanley-based Sawtooth Mountain Guides to mount a private search. Co-owner Erik Leidecker climbed Grand Mogul and found Francis' log entry:

"07/15/06. Jon Francis, LHBC (Luther Heights Bible Camp) and Ogden Utah. Climbed avalanche field to east face and east ridge. Great times bouldering! All Glory to God for the climb and the beautiful Sawtooths."

As well, Sawtooth National Recreation Area Recreation Manager Ed Cannady spent four of the five-day official search on Grand Mogul. He intended to continue searching on his own.

"For the most part, our crew and Erik's crew are the ones that spent time on the upper part of the mountain, where the greatest danger was," he said. "We looked in a thousand places but there are 10,000 places to look. You just scour as best you can. The family was extremely gracious and strong. I was just so impressed."

Deb Webb, the chief dispatcher at the Custer County Sheriff's Office, said the search is now "strictly on a volunteer basis," and is no longer official.

Nevertheless, it was the intervention of Risch that moved the search along last week.

Ryan Jung, one of the Sawtooth Mountain Guides, was asked to be in a helicopter by Gary Gadwa, a retired Idaho Department of Fish and Game conservaton officer. Gadwa was coordinating plane flights at the request of the governor, Leidecker said.

In the air for five and a half hours on Friday, July 21, Jung said the whole thing was frustrating. "They worked with us very well. The crew engineer operated the forward-looking infrared system, known as FLIR. The screen is only 7 to 8 inches. It's good for surveillance or to stop intruders, but it doesn't work for looking in three-dimensional topography. The human eye is more sensitive to color.

"I asked if a body would show, and the crew said it wouldn't."

Leidecker spent the night of Saturday, July 29, on the mountain with a dog.

"Day by day, it's all up to the family," Liedecker said Monday. "They've discussed leaving, but, ultimately, what we do is all at their request. They want closure.

"We know the terrain and the mountains and how he climbed up and how people generally descend, but other than that we have no clues on how he came down. Our best guess is he slipped and fell but I have no idea."

Leidecker said they have covered 50 to 60 percent of the area. "Higher probability areas have been searched but not by dogs."

The helicopter search covered the east ridge and northwest face, some of neighboring Mount Heyburn and the south ridge, the canyon just west of Grand Mogul called Outside Chance, Elephant's Perch and Saddle Back Lakes.

"We're very grateful to the people of Idaho. They've been so supportive with housing, meals and everything, but local and elected officials didn't want anybody injured on their watch," David Francis said. "Erik has been the best, of course, a real blessing. We needed someone to step up. The Minnesota Legislature and our friends exerted pressure on (Idaho), but they probably have limited resources. It was really a capable search. The biggest regret is that we weren't on the same team."

"We were on the same team, just not the same page," Linda Francis said. "It's been a tremendous effort."

"The critical error was not getting dogs on the summit early," Francis said. "This is a recovery effort now, I think. We continue to grieve and heal and stay engaged with the Sawtooth Mountain Guides."

On Monday, David Francis said Johnny Unser, of Sun Valley, had brought two of his search-trained dogs up to help, and there had been a possible alert from one of the other search dogs, which turned out to be false.

The last phone conversation the Francises had with their son was on Wednesday, July 12.

"He was excited about our trip out here. We were coming in August," Francis said. "He said, 'I know you miss me, but I love it out here.' I said, 'Jon it's called leaving home.'

"He was in love with the mountains."

The Francis family has a Web site——devoted to up-to-date news and information on helping in the search and as a memorial.

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