Image: George Kourounis
Image: George Kourounis
As he stands on the edge of a crater hotter than Hades, flames licking mercilessly just below his feet, George Kourounis feels fear strike into his very heart. After all, no one has ever done this before; no one even knows for sure if he will survive it. His mind races with doubts: what if the intense heat is too much for his protective suit? What if he somehow slips? Yet all such fears must be pushed aside. He has a job to do, after all. Kourounis takes a deep breath to steady his nerves then finally makes his first step to descend into north Turkmenistan’s blistering “Door to Hell.”
Canadian explorer Kourounis found himself in this very situation in November 2013 when preparing to drop directly into a notorious chasm stretching 230 feet across – and one which has burned continuously for four decades. He had decided to go down almost 100 feet into the crater’s fiery belly to see if any life forms could exist in such an unforgiving environment. “I had a lot of unanswered questions,” he tells Scribol. “How hot would it be? Were there any toxic gasses? Will the ropes be heat resistant enough? There were a million things that could’ve gone wrong.”
The origins of the “Door to Hell” are also somewhat enigmatic. Known as the Darvaza Crater, the blazing inferno is understood to be the result of Soviet scientists searching for gas in the early 1970s. Supposedly, they bored into a subterranean chamber by mistake and, triggering sudden subsidence, unwittingly created a sinkhole. This explanation, though, is disputed by local geologists, who insist the crater has been here since the ’60s but that it remained dark for two decades.
Concerned about the emission of toxic gases, the geologists reportedly set the cavity ablaze and imagined the fire would burn out sooner rather than later. Over 40 years down the line, however, Turkmenistan’s huge gas reserves continue to fuel the flames – and scientists don’t seem to be in a hurry to put it out.
While the crater is almost certainly the result of humankind’s interference rather than some unworldly evil, it’s likely that this was of little comfort to Kourounis – the first man in history to descend to the bottom of the fiery pit. “When we first walked up to the edge, it scared the hell out of me,” he admits.
A self-professed “adventurer and storm chaser,” Kourounis makes a living from discovering the wilder side of nature. Having decided a decade and a half earlier that his life’s goal was to “document the most extreme places on Earth,” the Canadian was naturally attracted to the crater’s core as one of the few spots where a human has yet to set foot.
By exploring this uncharted territory, Kourounis hoped that any evidence of microbial life he could retrieve – while noteworthy in itself – might some day be used in the wider ongoing search for extra-terrestrial life.
Speaking of his passion for potentially life-threatening escapades – even one where the destination resembles a place of eternal torment – Kourounis explains that he tries “to do dangerous things in the safest manner possible,” adding, “Nature is so amazing, I want everyone to see how grand and spectacular it can be, so I absorb the risk myself to showcase the planet’s most incredible sights.”
Indeed, Kourounis has also endured such daunting undertakings as leaning out over the mass of boiling lava in a crater in Vanuatu’s Mt. Marum and chasing tornadoes across the U.S. He decided upon the Darvaza Crater as a destination to explore back in 2012 – but it would take some 18 months’ worth of preparations before he was ready to make the infernal descent.
“We did several test setups of the rope system over the top of a river gorge in Canada,” he says. “I needed to be as familiar with the gear as possible so that it felt comfortable when the time came.” But it wasn’t just the equipment with which Kourounis needed to feel relaxed; it was also the fire.
“I even went as far as to hire a professional stuntman to teach me how to do a full body burn, like you would see in a Hollywood action film,” he reveals. “I was set on fire twice, for about 30 seconds each time. That was intense. I burned off most of an eyebrow and burned the tip of my nose. I wanted to feel comfortable around fire; I figured the best way was by being set on fire.”
Kourounis soon found that this expedition was to test the limits of everything he knew. “Every step of the way, there was always some reason to quit,” he explains. “I didn’t know if my heat suit was going to protect me; I didn’t know how volatile the crater was going to be.” As it turned out, the fiery opening was “a lot bigger and hotter” than the explorer imagined. “It was so intimidating,” he adds. “We immediately understood just how dangerous this was going to be.”
Kourounis says “we” because of course he was not alone. Indeed, the expedition party to Turkmenistan comprised six people: Kourounis, two riggers in charge of the rope system, an expedition coordinator, a logistics manager, and a microbiologist to collect samples from the crater’s edges – and analyze anything Kourounis retrieved from its lowest extremity. Together, they orchestrated the inaugural manned expedition into Darvaza’s depths. None of them, though, would have been able to save Kourounis had something unforeseen happened.
Unsurprisingly for such a treacherous task, parts of the journey down into the Door to Hell were fraught with danger and fear. As Kourounis explains, “At the very end of the descent, things started to get a bit crazy. My air quality alarm started to go off as I got close to the largest flames. That wasn’t so bad, though, because I had my own air supply with me; the real issue was that after about 15 minutes into the descent, I started to run low on air.”
“Now I had two alarms going off and I was starting to overheat,” the adventurer continues. “The crew started to haul me up on the ropes, and all I could do was just try to relax and slow my breathing down. But trying to relax while dangling over fire with a low-air alarm going off is not a simple task.”
One would forgive Kourounis for being preoccupied with staying alive rather than appreciating his otherworldly surroundings; fortunately, though, he was able to take everything in. “The place looks like something from a science-fiction movie,” he explains. “The flames sound like a jet engine, especially when up close. I tell people that standing at the bottom was like being in a coliseum of fire. What a view.”
But Kourounis wasn’t there purely to experience the adrenaline rush of getting up close and personal with a uniquely infernal panorama – though his exploits have no doubt inspired thrill-seekers around the world. No, he was also there for the science of it all.
In this regard, was the mission a success? The data collected by Kourounis at the very bottom of the crater certainly suggests so. “It was pretty amazing to find several different kinds of bacteria living in that hot, methane gas crater,” he says. “The organisms there were not found in the surrounding soil, so there’s a real, exotic ecosystem going on down there. The findings have been checked against the existing DNA database, and the closest match to what we found was bacteria that live in places like volcanic hot springs and underground coal fires. Real extremophiles.”
For Kourounis and his team, then, the outcome of the expedition was worth the risk. In fact, he’s already planning the next in his series of daring adventures. “Right now I’m in Southeast Asia filming a brand new episode of the Angry Planet TV series,” he reveals. “As soon as I get back home, I’m going to be ramping up for tornado season in the U.S.”
“For the entire month of May, I go wherever the wind takes me, tracking the most intense storms on the planet,” he continues. “As soon as that is finished, I hop on a plane to Norway where I’ll be giving an address to the United Nations’ Environmental Emergencies Forum in Oslo. After that, we have three more Angry Planet episodes to film. I’m basically booked solid with adventures until the end of summer!”
In the meantime, the future for Turkmenistan’s ever-blazing inferno looks, fittingly, bright. Recognizing the appeal of the crater to adventure-minded visitors – though perhaps not quite to the same level as Kourounis – the Central Asian country is looking at promoting it as a unique tourist attraction.
With enterprising guides on hand to get tourists to the desert location – which lies some 170 miles from Turkmenistan’s capital, Ashgabat – it may not be long before the “Door to Hell” takes its place alongside the Silk Road as one of the region’s best-known draws.
It may be best, then, to visit it now in its entirely natural setting – without any barricades or safety restrictions. As Kourounis explained in a previous interview, “You can drive up, get out of your car, walk over to the edge, and jump right in, if you want.” This, however, is not recommended.
And for those who do make it this far and gaze over the edge into the depths below, a healthy level of respect must remain for George Kourounis and his team. After all, it really was a case of boldly going where no man had been before.
Special thanks go out to George Kourounis for permission to use the images that appear in this article and for kindly answering our questions in such vivid detail.