ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This next item is about a photograph. I'll describe it as best I can, but you can also check it out at our Web site, npr.org. It comes to us from Washington State - specifically, from the State's Department of Transportation avalanche crew that's working on the North Cascades pass. The photo shows a snow-covered mountainside, and standing upright in the snow is a formation that looks like a car tire coated with snow or ice, or a gigantic white Cheerio that looks like it suddenly stopped in its track while rolling down hill.

As I say, it's at npr.org. And it looks like a clever piece of photo shopping on someone's computer, but we are assured that this snow doughnut - and the one lying on its side behind it - are naturally formed. It's extremely rare. We're - we're assured of that by Mike Stanford, who is an avalanche forecaster and control technician with the Washington State Department of Transportation. Welcome to the program…

Mr. MIKE STANFORD (Avalanche Forecaster and Control Technician, Washington State Department of Transportation): Thank you.

SIEGEL: …Mr. Stanford. Tell me what it looks like, that thing you took a picture of.

Mr. STANFORD: It looks exactly like you described it, like a tire in the snow - covered in snow.

SIEGEL: And it is entirely ice and snow?

Mr. STANFORD: Yes, that's correct. Yes, it's entirely snow - solid.

SIEGEL: How did it get that way?

Mr. STANFORD: Well, it's formed by a clump of snow falling off of a cliff or a tree into the snow pack. And if the conditions and temperature are just right, as gravity takes over, it pulls the snow down, and it rolls back on itself. And usually, the center collapses, and it creates what we call a pinwheel. And I'm sure everybody has seen pinwheels in the springtime in the snow. And this time, every - all the conditions were just right. And it rolled around on itself and left the center open, and just continued to roll down the slope.

SIEGEL: You've been working up there for many years, I gather?

Mr. STANFORD: Thirty years.

SIEGEL: And among the things you've seen made of snow, how often have you seen a snow doughnut like this one?

Mr. STANFORD: I've never seen one this well defined, and this big.

SIEGEL: How big is it, actually?

Mr. STANFORD: The one we've photographed there on the picture is, about 24, 26 inches tall.

SIEGEL: And the hole at its center is, well, it looks perfectly proportioned like an inner tube, say.

Mr. STANFORD: Yeah. It is. And absolutely is. The hole is about - well, I could just barely get my face on the other side of the hole. So it's about six or eight inches in diameter.

SIEGEL: Should I infer from that that there's also a photo of your face in the middle of the hole of the hole of the snow doughnut?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STANFORD: There is a photo, but I doubt if you're going to be able to see that one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: You're not disseminating that one on the World Wide Web?

Mr. STANFORD: No, I didn't let that one out.

SIEGEL: And the picture that I've seen reflects no doctoring, no alteration, no improving of definition of what you actually saw?

Mr. STANFORD: No, absolutely not. You can see in the photo that there's no footprints, or like you say, no doctoring. It's completely natural.

SIEGEL: A couple of weeks later, and you would have had the April 1st problem that…

Mr. STANFORD: Exactly.

SIEGEL: …people would assume this is some kind of hoax that you're perpetrating. But it is not, you're telling me.

Mr. STANFORD: No, it's not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. STANFORD: Absolutely natural.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks a lot for talking with us. That is Mike Stanford, avalanche forecaster and control technician with the Washington State Department of Transportation. Mike, you're speaking to us from your office, is it in Stevens Pass, Washington?

Mr. STANFORD: Correct, I am.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. STANFORD: Thank you, Robert.

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