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It was only supposed to be a little 20-minute hunt - just a walk through the mountain forest at the end of a nice day of hunting. Instead, it cost Gordon Longenecker his life.

Gordon's wife, Carol, and his hunting partner, Paul Fischer, still think about it three years later. They've analyzed what went horribly wrong. They ponder how the foibles of the man and his equipment combined with the forces of nature to produce a tragedy.

But mostly, they want others to learn from the 49-year-old Billings man's death so they can possibly save themselves.

Sunday, Nov. 6, 2005 was a beautiful day to hunt - plenty of sun, a few clouds crossing the sky and unseasonably mild temperatures. By day's end, Fischer and Longenecker found themselves up near the headwaters of Bridger Creek in the Absaroka Range between Big Timber and Reed Point.

It was a new hunting area for the men, and in looking at their map, Longenecker decided to make one last little hike in the closing minutes of the day from the end of a logging road to the end of Bridger Creek Road, a distance of perhaps a half-mile. Fischer would drive around and pick him up.

Because the weather had been so nice, Longenecker was wearing tennis shoes. He had a light jacket on. He grabbed his fanny pack and rifle and pistol and headed into the woods.

But 15 minutes later, a storm rolled in over the mountains. Nice weather turned to dropping temperatures and rain, then rain and snow. And by dark, Longenecker hadn't shown up at the pickup point. He was lost.

With the onset of darkness and the weather deteriorating further, the hunting boots and warm coat he left behind in the vehicle became critical issues. He had a compass and knew how to use it. He didn't have a map and, as it was discovered later, the map he had studied before he set out wasn't totally accurate.

Longenecker had a new GPS unit he had recently begun using, but the men had talked about how it wasn't working properly, including a backtracking feature that was found to be a quarter-mile off in one previous use. He had some Skittles candy along and plenty of matches but didn't have other food or an emergency blanket. The foil-type blanket hadn't been replaced since it was used two years earlier. He had a two-way radio and so did Fischer, but they weren't working for some reason.

Plus, there was the terrain. The road and drainage ends in something of a headwall. If you missed the end of the road, you missed the drainage entirely. You were on your own to make sense of the topography.

And finally, there was the nature of Longenecker himself. He was a strong walker and had the attitude that if he only pushed on, he would find his way to safety. Once, two years earlier, he had walked his way out of another mountain range in the darkness for 10 miles to find a farmhouse.

As darkness settled in and the snow began to stick, Fischer understood both the man and the situation. He contacted the sheriff's office about the lost hunter. Efforts to mount a search began. Hypothermia, a condition of dropping body temperature to lethal levels, became the enemy.

Carol Longenecker had been returning from Missoula that Sunday. By the time she was notified and got to the scene, there was already upward of eight inches of snow on the ground. Fischer had been traveling the road, honking his horn to try to alert the lost hunter. Early rescuers did the same. If Longenecker used the traditional three rifle or pistol shots to signal his position, none were ever heard.

Sweet Grass County search-and-rescue crews launched a ground search that night. Early Monday, pilots from Yellowstone Air Service in Big Timber and Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls attempted to fly over the area but were unable to help because of snow and fog.

Search crews had a difficult time finding Longenecker's tracks. At about 3 p.m. Monday, a team from Absaroka Search Dogs arrived on the scene. The dog picked up the scent, and the team tracked Longenecker for about six miles.

Just after 11 p.m. they found him on a logging road that came in out of another drainage. He was sitting there, unconscious, and the team tried to keep him warm with blankets and spare clothes, but the area was remote and it took hours to get him out. By the time rescuers got him to the airport in Big Timber, Longenecker was dead.

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Hypothermia had killed him. And Fischer can't help but believe that its effects set in sometime during the cold rain, snow and walking he did during the night.

Long before it finally killed Longenecker, it had clouded his thinking to the point that he was walking in a direction away from help, rather than toward it. And while the logging road he spotted beckoned him on, it was not where searchers would be looking for him.

Searchers found evidence of what his wife describes as the path of six squiggly miles that her husband traversed - signs of where he spent part of the night, a candy wrapper, the compass that he dropped along the way, evidence of trying to build a fire.

But if Longenecker had only stayed put instead of walking and spent his energies on building a shelter and finding enough wood to keep a fire going there to keep him warm, things almost certainly would have turned out differently.

If he had put on the heavier coat and hunting boots that he left in the truck, things could have turned out differently.

If his fanny pack had been restocked with the emergency blanket, more food, the map, a flashlight and a working GPS unit, it could have all been different.

All these things conspired with a quick change in the weather to contribute to the situation that led to Gordon Longenecker's death.

In hopes that the same things don't conspire against other hunters, Carol Longenecker and Paul Fischer share their tale of tragedy.

Gazette outdoor editor Mark Henckel can be contacted at henckel@billingsgazette.com or at 657-1395.

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