Friday, July 9, 2010

Father of fallen climber turns author

New book a memoir of search, son’s life

Express Staff Writer

“Bringing Jon Home,” by David Francis, is available online and at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum. Photo by

The day after his son's funeral, David Francis sat down and began to write.

"I wanted to put my pain on paper," he said. "I wanted to write a memoir of my son, his brief but very remarkable life."

His son, Jon Francis, was an experienced rock climber and youth minister from Minnesota who went missing in the Sawtooth Mountains on July 15, 2006. After climbing to the summit of Grand Mogul, Jon wrote his name in a log book and began his decent. He disappeared shortly after.

The Custer County Sheriff's Office began a search, but called it off after 29 hours, reportedly telling David that he needed to "give [his] son up to the mountain."

David continued the search, enlisting the help of search teams, cadaver dogs and mountain guides before finally recovering his son's remains in late July 2007.

"Bringing Jon Home," David's recently released book, began as a chronicle of this search and how the public sector often lets missing adults, in David's words, "fall through the cracks."

"When it comes to finding missing and lost persons," David wrote in "Bringing Jon Home," "the public sector often lets us down."

In an interview, David said people responsible for search-and-rescue operations are often ill-prepared.

"They're not trained, they're not funded, they're not focused," he said. "The system needs reforming."

David's frustration with the Custer County Sheriff's Office is clear in his book, and there is no hiding the anger he describes feeling at the time of his son's disappearance. A retired Navy captain, David has training in search tactics and his book describes many ways in which the county allegedly mismanaged the search-and-rescue operation.

However, he said, he doesn't want to focus on that anger now.

"When I look back, I think maybe I was too honest," David said. "The anger is authentic ... but we've moved on. That's not part of our story now."

Sgt. Levi Maydole, search-and-rescue commander with the Custer County Sheriff's Office, said in an interview that he wasn't aware of the book's publication. Though he acknowledged that Custer County has made some changes in search-and-rescue procedure since Jon's disappearance, he said the incident commander did the best he could under the circumstances.

Since the writing of his memoir, David said he's come to realize the problem with adult search-and-rescue operations is larger than Custer County.

"It's not just an Idaho problem, it's a national problem," he said. "It's something that will continue to bring pain to families."

As a result of this realization, David and his wife have developed the Jon Francis Foundation, based in their hometown of Stillwater, Minn. The foundation's original purpose was to organize and raise money for the search for Jon's remains, but it has since evolved.

David said the foundation's main goals are to educate and counsel families of missing persons, reform and aid the search process, and work with local law enforcement.

"Our thinking at this time is, 'Let's make Minnesota a model,'" he said, by developing "standards of conduct" for search-and-rescue operations led by law enforcement.

The foundation works closely with law enforcement, which he said is not always easy. However, David said, "Over time we've developed trust, and they view us as a helper." The foundation has aided in five rescue operations during the past year.

The foundation has been instrumental in passing Brandon's Law, a Minnesota state law that establishes certain criteria for recovery of missing adults. The law is named for Brandon Swanson, a 19-year-old college student who disappeared after driving into a ditch in 2008.

David describes his book as "a cautionary tale" written for climbers and hikers, but also for search-and-rescue officers.

He said officers who have read his book said it helped them understand the perspectives of the families with whom they work.

The story gives equal weight to the search operations and Jon's life and ministry. David's memories are interspersed with a few pieces by his son, including a short essay on why Jon loved the outdoors.

The book also includes an appendix with media coverage of Jon's disappearance and the subsequent search, including articles from the Idaho Mountain Express.

"Bringing Jon Home" is available online at and at Copies can also be purchased at Iconoclast Books in Ketchum.

Katherine Wutz:

Who is Jon Francis?

Jon Francis was a 24-year-old youth minister at Luther Heights Bible Camp near Alturas Lake, an accomplished climber and cross-country runner. He was last seen just before reaching the summit of Grand Mogul in the Sawtooth Mountains south of Stanley on June 15, 2006. The Custer County sheriff called out a search party on June 16, which was called off after 29 hours of searching. Jon's father, David, continued searching until Jon's remains were discovered on July 24, 2007. It is now believed that Jon attempted to descend the Grand Mogul through the Chockstone Couloir, a gully on the north face of the mountain, when he fell and died as a result of blunt-force trauma. David has since set up a foundation in his son's name, an advocacy group that works to counsel families of missing persons, organize searches and reform the search-and-rescue process.

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