Friday, July 27, 2007

Missing hiker?s remains found in Sawtooths

Family confirms identity

Express Staff Writer

Jon Francis -Courtesy photo

Based on remains found in a rock crevice on Grand Mogul's north face Tuesday, the family of missing hiker Jon Francis believe they have finally found their son a year after he disappeared.

"There were a couple seconds of joy, and then grief set in," said David Francis, Jon's father. "It's now positive we have found Jon's remains. They were transported off the mountain yesterday."

Francis, 24, was last seen just before reaching the summit of Grand Mogul in the Sawtooth Mountains south of Stanley on July 15, 2006. The area is approximately 55 miles north of Ketchum.

He was the director of youth ministry at Ascension Lutheran Church in Utah, and was spending his fourth summer at the Luther Bible Camp near Alturas Lake when he went missing.

Click to enlarge (PDF)
Map by Evelyn B. Phillips.
Grand Mogul, where Jon Francis was hiking in July 2006 when he went missing, hovers high over the south end of Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains.

Search efforts were initiated by the Custer County Sheriff's Office the day after Francis disappeared. When official searches concluded, the family continued to scour the mountains with help from Stanley-based Sawtooth Mountain Guides. In August 2006, the family also enlisted the aid of a search manager, Jeff Hasse, president of Search, Rescue, and Recovery Resources of Minnesota. The search was called off last October due to bad weather, but resumed last month. The Francis family rented a house in Smiley Creek for the summer.

"We came for the long haul," David Francis said.

On Tuesday, July 24, human remains were found in a deep crevice at 8,248 feet by Sawtooth Mountain Guides after searchers rappelled down Grand Mogul's steep north face. They were returning to camp at the base of what is known as Boy Scout Couloir. The remains were found approximately 200 yards from the camp at about 3:30 p.m., Sawtooth Mountain Guides partner Erik Leidecker said Thursday.

"It's a narrow gully at the base of a 300-foot cliff band," Liedecker said. "This area had been searched, but it was not obvious. A guide found a backpack strap. Then almost immediately they started to see remains and contents from his backpack. It was strewn through the gully that is about 300 feet long from base and 20 to 50 feet wide. We speculated he fell."

At 3:45 p.m. Tuesday, Leidecker received a call from his guides. He called the family and then Custer County Sheriff Tim Eikens. On Wednesday, July 25, Custer County Search and Rescue, Sawtooth Search and Rescue, and Idaho Mountain Search and Rescue teams set out at 9 a.m. to recover the remains under the direction of Eikens.

"It's hard to say exactly what happened," Leidecker said. "The rain may have uncovered stuff. There's active rock fall and snow at the top that's melting wet."

Sparing details, he said the way the personal items and remains were strewn about made it clear that they had moved.

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"His wallet was in a plastic bag," a weary David Francis said. "They haven't found his backpack, but some of the contents were there. We're working with Tim Eikens, and he will send people back up there to find as much as he can. We'd like to find his backpack and camera. It'd be a gift to see the pictures he took."

Over the past 60 days, more than 500 searchers and 70 search dogs were on the mountain, David Francis said.

"We knew where Jon was not. We knew the next area would be the north face. It's a very difficult, rugged area," he said. "One of the keys, and something important that we've learned, is to profile the climber. What came out was Jon had a preference for descending down gullies."

Leidecker gave a lot of credit to Jeff Hasse for his profiling work.

"He did a lot to recreate what might have happened," Leidecker said. "The reality is no one would have been there if it wasn't for Jeff and his work and the dedication of the family. They always believed he was up there. The Sawtooth Mountain Guides were involved from the first, and obviously our deepest sympathies go out to the family.

"Of course, it's also a sense of relief that he was found. A lot of guides put a lot of time in looking. The last few days have been pretty emotional for all of the people involved. The guides who found him are the same guides who were involved since last July. From the perspective of the guides, the greatest satisfaction comes from knowing the family has closure."

David Francis said his family will stay in Idaho until all the remains have been recovered.

"Eventually, we'll lay him to rest back in Minnesota," he said.

The Francis family founded the Jon Francis Foundation in early 2007 to help others with search and rescue efforts and to educate climbers and hikers about wilderness safety.

"We're serious and hopeful the foundation will be successful. There is a lot we've learned that we hope to pass on to the wilderness community. We also have discovered what a wonderful person Jon was. He made a difference in peoples' lives. We want to make a difference, just as he did."

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