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Yellow Bombs

Bombardier snowcoaches used by the Xanterra Lodges, left, and a van from Yellowstone SnowCoach Tours make a stop at Madison Junction as they ferry Yellowstone National Park visitors to the Old Faithful Lodge in 2008.

With an unceremonious trip from Old Faithful to Mammoth early Tuesday morning, a form of winter transport in Yellowstone National Park will motor its way into history — 18 bright yellow clattering Bombardier snowcoaches will be officially retired.

“Some of us are a little sad about it,” said Ashea Mills, a Gardiner resident and a former Xanterra “Bomb” driver for seven years.

At one time Xanterra Parks and Resorts — which operates lodging facilities in Yellowstone National Park — operated what was proclaimed the world’s largest fleet of the rugged, tank-tracked snowcoaches — 18 vehicles. They were part of a larger fleet owned by the National Park Service, which provided the coaches to Xanterra to transport guests from the North Entrance at Mammoth, Wyo., into Old Faithful and on tours around the park’s interior in winter.

“They have definitely served us very well,” said Rick Hoeninghausen, director of marketing and sales for Xanterra in Yellowstone. “Particularly when we operated out of the south and east end of the park, those can handle some pretty drastic snow conditions.”

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Early snowcoaches

Even as far back as 1955, when this photo was taken, Bombardier snowcoaches were being used in Yellowstone.

The hardy coaches with skis on the front were invented by Canadian Joseph-Armand Bombardier in the 1930s. His company went on to create Ski-Doo snowmobiles.

For travel in Yellowstone in the winter, the Bombardiers proved to be a dependable and easy-to-fix form of transportation.

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Old snowcoach

Xanterra Parks and Resorts is retiring its fleet of Bombardier snowcoaches like this one. Their fleet is owned by Yellowstone National Park.

“I referred to them as a large Tinker Toy,” said Zac Finley, who drove Bombs for Xanterra for six winters. “The Bombardiers were unique in that you could work on them in the field without a mechanic.”

Mills agreed. “You can fix a lot of things on a Bombardier with duct tape and zip ties,” she said.

Phasing them out is a sign of the times: less snow on the route from Mammoth to Old Faithful makes the cleated metal tracks of the Bombardiers less practical; small in size, they haul fewer passengers than larger and newer vans; the Bombs are also noisier than wheeled snowcoaches that are being tested for possible use, and without costly upgrades they wouldn’t meet Yellowstone’s standards for “best available technology” — meaning quieter and less polluting.

“They’re not really feasible on the north side of the park anymore,” Mills said, but that doesn’t make it any easier for her to see the old vehicles leave.

“It was the best job on Earth,” Finley said. “We were part of the history of transportation in the park. I always knew it wasn’t going to last, but it’s neat to have been part of something historic in a unique setting.”

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Work horse

This Yellowstone National Park photo shows West Yellowstone volunteers shoveling snow onto a road in 1977 using a Bombardier as a work vehicle.

Other snowcoach operators who own Bombardiers plan to hang on to their vehicles, for now, although all of them have been modified so many times that there seems to be little left of the original vehicles except for the cabs. But Xanterra’s bright yellow fleet is destined for the auction house. Some have already received new lives in other cold places, but perhaps will never be operated in an area as iconic as Yellowstone.

“Winter in Yellowstone is the best time — the most interesting, the most challenging, the most fun,” Mills said.

“Every day out there is a great day,” Finley said. “There was never a time when you were not looking forward to going to work,” even though it meant getting up at 5 a.m. in 20-degree-below-zero temperatures to warm up the vehicles.

Mills credited her visit to Yellowstone in the summer of 1995 for transforming her life. She met her husband while working at Old Faithful. And Finley proposed to his wife, who also worked as a Xanterra snowcoach driver, at Old Faithful.

“It was a very unique situation,” Mills said. “No one else in the world was doing what we were doing.

“It really has had a huge impact on a lot of us.”

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Montana Untamed Editor

Montana Untamed editor for the Billings Gazette.