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Q&A: The First-Ever Expedition to Turkmenistan’s “Door to Hell”

Explorer George Kourounis describes his descent into a fiery, gas-fueled crater

Christina Nunez

National Geographic

PUBLISHED JULY 16, 2014

More than four decades ago, a gaping, fiery crater opened up in the desert of northern Turkmenistan (map), likely the result of a drilling mishap.

The Darvaza Crater, more commonly known as the Door to Hell, still burns today, a surreal feature in an otherwise barren landscape.

Details on the origin of the sinkhole are sketchy, but the story goes that Soviet scientists set it on fire to burn off noxious gases after the ground under a drilling rig gave way. Perhaps the scientists underestimated the amount of fuel that lay below—Turkmenistan has the sixth largest natural gas reserves in the world.

In November 2013, explorer and storm chaserGeorge Kourounis, on an expedition funded partly by National Geographic, set out to be the first person to plumb the depths of the crater, which is 225 feet (69 meters) wide and 99 feet (30 meters) deep. 

At the bottom he collected soil samples, hoping to learn whether life can survive in such harsh conditions—and perhaps shedding light on whether life could survive similar conditions elsewhere in the universe.

His harrowing plunge is featured on the National Geographic Channel series Die Trying, which airs tonight, July 16, at 10 p.m. EDT. Kourounis, who’s based in Toronto, talked with National Geographic about his experience in Turkmenistan.

Tell me how this project got started.

The place has always fascinated me. The story behind how it came into existence has been sort of shrouded in mystery, and there’s no other place like it on Earth. It is very unique, in that there’s no other place where there is this pit of burning methane that’s being ejected from the ground at high pressure. It’s fascinating, it’s visually stunning, and there’s a lot that we can learn about this place.

What did you do to prepare for the expedition? How did you protect yourself?

There was about a year and a half of preparation and planning. Getting permission, getting all the logistics in order, getting the team assembled, getting the [National Geographic] Expeditions Council on board. In order to prepare, there was a lot of practice at first. We set up [a] rope-rigging system over a local river gorge and practiced out there several times, including with the full apparatus I was wearing: a heat-reflective suit, self-contained breathing apparatus, the climbing harness that I’m wearing. We had to get it custom-made out of Kevlar, because a regular climbing harness would just melt under the extreme heat.

I even went as far as to hire a stunt coordinator who does movie stunts for Hollywood films to light me on fire several times, in order to sort of prepare myself for not panicking being up close around flame.

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