1,600 people are missing in the American wilderness; Jon Francis was one of them

Ascending a mountain in Idaho would be on Jon Francis' bucket list. He would check it off, and pay for it with his life.

Ascending a mountain in Idaho would be on Jon Francis' bucket list. He would check it off, and pay for it with his life.

Jon Francis couldn't rouse any of his Luther Heights Bible Camp chums early on Saturday, July 15, 2006. So the five-time Minnesota high school champion runner set off to climb the 9,733-foot Grand Mogul in Idaho's rugged Sawtooth Mountains solo.

The 24-year-old, who'd graduated from Stillwater High eight years prior, hopped a boat at 8 a.m. The driver shuttled the uber-fit camp counselor into the verdant belly of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, 731,00 acres of land run by the U.S. Forest Service.    

The boat driver, along with two passengers, remembered Jon hurriedly debarking, eager to conquer the 3,000-foot vertical challenge. They'd be the last to see Jon Francis alive. 

David and Linda Francis got the call Sunday afternoon. Their son was supposed to have returned from his climb Saturday evening. The camp director reported Jon missing to authorities Sunday morn. Now the same person from Luther Heights Camp was informing the Stillwater couple the youngest of their four kids had missed the morning's staff meeting.

A one-two combo of sorrow and worry knocked the wind out of the parents. Still, their faith was strong that their son, who'd started camping with his dad in the Boundary Waters at age eight, was okay.

"Jon was ultra fit… He had a lot of outdoor experience when he lived with us," David says. "When he moved out west [after graduating from Augustana College in South Dakota], Jon did long hikes and started mountain climbing. He'd done rock climbing when he'd lived here in Stillwater."     

David and Linda hopped on the first flight they could, arriving in Boise late Sunday. They'd drive the remaining 200 miles into the Sawtooth wilds, stepping out in the town of Stanley the next morning.   

A Chester County deputy sheriff debriefed them. The department would be in charge of "the incident," as the deputy called it. The sheriff's office and U.S. Forest Service searched for the missing climber, as did lay experts from the Sawtooth Search and Rescue unit. 

Two men from the Search and Rescue unit would soon find a note that Jon had left in the summit registry, a weatherproof, metal canister used as a record of visitors who summit a mountain. 

"… Climbed avalanche field to east face and east ridge. Great times bouldering," read Jon's note dated July 15. "All Glory to God for the climb and the beautiful Sawtooths."

Despite the find, the Chester County Sheriff called off the search after only two days. The department didn't have anymore time or resources to dedicate to the search, the Francises were told.

"It’s time to give your son up to the mountain,” a deputy advised them.

"Like a lot of western states, the county sheriff is charged with missing persons cases," says David. "They're in charge of them, but they're not required by law to conduct searches for people gone missing in wilderness areas."

No official tally exists, but it's estimated that there are roughly 1,600 people missing in the wildness of America's public lands, the roughly 640 million acres of federal real estate, including national parks, national forests, and Bureau of Land Management ­property.

According to David, the the wilderness M.I.A. include campers in the Boundary Waters and hunters who ventured into the woods of Minnesota alone.   

David and Linda refused to cede their child to the mountain. 

In August 2006 they enlisted the aid of a search manager, Jeff Hasse, president of Search, Rescue, and Recovery Resources of Minnesota. The campaign would stall due to bad weather, but resumed in June, with the family renting a house in Smiley Creek, some 37 miles north Ketchum. 

Searchers would rappel down Grand Mogul's steep north face in July. Guides found human remains in a deep crevice, located around 8,200 feet. The area had been previously searched. Jon had apparently fallen into the fissure, which made locating him that much more difficult.

A guide first spotted the missing climber's backpack strap. Its contents were strewn through the gully that measured 300 feet long and as much as 50 feet wide.

"He chose the descent with the loose [terrain] because, we found out from his friends, he liked to do this sort of thing because he could kind of like ski down it. He thought it would be fun," David says. "He got to this big boulder that stopped his descent. Instead of retracing his path back up the mountain, he tried to scramble through this area that was technical terrain.… He slipped and fell 120 feet to his death."

Jon was laid to rest in Minnesota.

The family would start the Jon Francis Foundation, which educates people about being smart in the wild and also "acts as a guide to others" who are confronted with the reality of a loved one gone missing in the bush. 

"It's truly an underground national crisis," says David. "Unless you've truly experienced being abandoned in the wilderness by a law enforcement search, people don't pay attention to it until it comes home to you."