When David Francis answered the phone on July 16, 2006, he heard the words that would be any parent’s nightmare.
His son Jon was missing.
Jon was working as a youth minister in Ogden, Utah. It was a part-time job, so he was spending the summer as a counselor at the Luther Heights Bible Camp near Ketchum, Idaho.
On Saturday morning, he had left the camp to climb a peak called the Grand Mogul in the Sawtooth Mountains. When he failed to show up for a staff meeting Sunday morning, the camp director called David.
Jon had long enjoyed nature and outdoor activities. He and David went to the Boundary Waters for many years for Father’s Day. Jon had been a three-sport athlete at Stillwater High School, excelling in cross-country, nordic skiing, and track. After graduating from Augustana University, he moved to Ogden for his job in youth ministry, and had fallen in love with the western mountains.
After receiving the call, David and his wife, Linda, traveled to Idaho and watched in fear as the Custer County sheriff organized what was termed a “hasty search,” meaning the people and dogs stayed on safe trails.
David asked if anyone had climbed to the summit to look for clues. No one had, so he asked if someone would do that. A group climbed the mountain in three hours, and in a rusty ammunition box that served as the summit register, they found a 3-by-5-inc card Jon had written. They brought the card back and gave it to Linda.
“She held it and cried for hours,” David said.
After two days, the sheriff came to David and Linda and told them it was “time to give your son up to the mountains,” David remembered. “Then they packed up and went away. We were left totally dumbfounded, hopeless, and helpless.”
Although law enforcement had stopped their search, volunteers were interested in helping. By early August, two search managers from the Jacob Wetterling Resource Center in Minnesota arrived and started a more organized approach to the search. Using as many as 120 volunteers, they searched until snow in October stopped the operations.
“We came back in June,” David said. “We had a number of dog clues that pointed to the north face of the mountain. It was too dangerous for us to go in.”
They hired members of the Sawtooth Mountain Guides to search in a series of large cracks on the north face of the granite mountain.
“These mountaineers were amazing,” David said. “One by one they went in, rappelling into the crevasses until they finally found Jon’s remains on July 24, 2007, a year and a week after Jon went missing.”
The search manager determined that Jon had climbed the east face, and then decided to descend the north face, a faster way down. He reached a difficult section and slipped, falling 120 feet. He was 24 years old.
“The coroner said it was an immediate death caused by blunt force trauma,” David said. “Strangely we took some solace from that. He wasn’t in pain there waiting for us.”
Soon after, David and Linda started the Jon Francis Foundation to help other families who have lost loved ones in wilderness areas, sharing what they have learned about search and rescue and wilderness safety.
“Our mission came out of tragedy,” said David, who serves as executive director of the foundation. “Law enforcement often discontinues a search before they find the missing person, and they do it generally within a week. They cite a lack of clues or a lack of resources to the family.”
The Jon Francis Foundation comes in after law enforcement has stopped searching.
“We’ll meet with the sheriff and the incident commander and let them know we’ve been called in by the family to continue the search for their loved one,” David explained. “We develop a search plan, start recruiting resources, and then we get out there.”
To date, the Jon Francis Foundation has had 46 family engagements in 19 states and Canada. They have participated in 27 missing person cases, and with the assistance of countless volunteers, helped “resolve the unresolved loss” for 13 families. Four of the missing persons survived.
Thousands of people have attended wilderness safety presentations and classes sponsored by the Jon Francis Foundation, and many have read the “Outdoor Health and Safety Handbook” written by David. He has also created a series of wilderness training videos that are available on their website www.jonfrancisfoundation.org/.
In addition to search and rescue and wilderness safety education, a third aspect “snuck up on me,” David said. “Not only are you relying on me to find your loved one that is missing, you are dealing with unresolved loss. You can’t find them, and you can’t lay them to rest, so it is grief upon grief.”
David said that Linda is the comforting presence when they help people deal with their grief. To assist with that, David wrote a book called “Grief Travelers” to give people some perspective on what their grief journey will be, and hopefully, some resolution to their loss.
The work done by the Jon Francis Foundation is the result of several foundation grants and the financial support of many generous individual donors, David said.
Search and rescue in America’s wilderness areas does not function well, according to David. He said Canada has an excellent centralized search and rescue system, but the concern for local control in the United States leaves this country with a rescue system that is broken.
At a minimum, David believes that wilderness visitors should have to sign in and have an equipment check to make sure they have the essentials for survival including a GPS and a Garmin InReach, a handheld device that allows people to send messages or hit a red SOS button.
“If I were king of the national parks,” David said, “I would have them sign in and mark when they plan on returning, so if they don’t return, it doesn’t take four days to realize they are missing. The wilderness is beautiful, but it can be treacherous. Or as one searcher said to me recently, ‘The wilderness is not an amusement park.’”