Explorer and adventurer George Kourounis has had many memorable experiences in nature’s extreme environments—chasing tornadoes across the American Midwest, swimming with piranhas in Venezuela, even getting married on a crater of an erupting volcano in the South Pacific. But a recent trek to remote Turkmenistan may be one of his most exciting expeditions.

It was probably the only expedition where he admitted to feeling “a bit like a baked potato.” 

Kourounis was the first individual to descend into a 30-meter (100-foot) deep pit of fire known as the “Door to Hell.” The Door to Hell is a crater in a large natural gas field that has been burning for decades. It is said that a Soviet oil rig fell into the crater in 1971, and a geologist decided to get rid of the rig by setting the pit on fire. The resulting gas-fed flames continue burning to this day. 

Kourounis and his team were unable to verify the story behind the pit, but they definitely confirmed that the singular site exists.

The Canadian adventurer and former host of TV’s Angry Planet had wanted to visit the Door to Hell for years.

“Every now and then, I would look at pictures on the Internet of the place again, and it just never exited my mind,” Kourounis says. “It was there like a splinter in my brain that I couldn’t get rid of.” 


Burning Challenges and Bureaucracy

One might think that rappelling into a burning pit would be the main challenge of this expedition, but Kourounis notes that his crew met another formidable obstacle earlier on.  

“The biggest goal was just getting permission to get into the country,” he says. “That was our biggest concern because Turkmenistan is one of the most closed countries in the world.” 

The crew finally gained entry into Turkmenistan in 2013 after two years of trying to get into the country. Kourounis says the crater, which is about 76 meters (250 feet) wide, looks like a volcano in the middle of the desert.  

“It is burning with a tremendous amount of flame like there is a lot of fire down there,” he says. “Day or night, it is clearly burning. You can hear the roar of the fire if you stand at the edge. The heat, if you are downwind of it, is unbearable. There are thousands of little flames all around the edges and towards the center. Then there are two large flames in the middle at the bottom, and that is probably where the drilling rig hole was for the natural gas extraction.”

Before rappelling into the burning pit, Kourounis says he got his equipment in order. This included a custom-made climbing harness made out of Kevlar, a self-contained breathing apparatus (similar to scuba gear), fire-resistant ropes, and an otherworldly heat-resistant suit.  

“They [the suits] look like aluminum foil and actually that makes sense because they are made from an aluminized fabric,” Kourounis says. “These suits are used by some firefighters as well as steel-mill workers and volcanologists, any occupation where you need to be close to intense heat. They reflect a lot of the radiant heat, but you still get pretty hot inside. I did feel a bit like a baked potato in there.”

Another very specialized piece of equipment that Kourounis brought to Turkmenistan was a heat probe designed by the engineers who build National Geographic’s Crittercams. 

“It sort of looks like a sword,” Kourounis says. “It was able to transmit wirelessly back to the crater’s edge to a laptop. It could transmit the ambient temperature where I was as well as it had a long end on it that I could jam into the ground and get a reading of how hot the ground was.”


Entering the Door to Hell

Even after a few days of preparing, Kourounis says the idea of an actual descent into the Door to Hell was nerve-wracking

“I can tell you when you are standing on the edge of this gigantic crater filled with fire—it is intimidating,” he says.

Still, the adventurer did descend into the fiery hole.  

“It wasn’t dark at all,” Kourounis says of the crater’s interior. “As a matter of fact, you are surrounded by flames, so everything has this orange hue.” 

Once on the floor of the pit, Kourounis embarked on the scientific core of the expedition. 

“The most important part of the mission and the whole thrust behind this entire expedition was to take some samples of the soil at the bottom—sand, basically—and see if there is any extremophile bacteria living at the bottom that could give us clues to basically life in these extreme environments,” Kourounis says. “There are planets that have been discovered outside of our solar system that have a very hot, methane-rich environment kind of similar to what is in the crater. So, in essence, we were looking for alien life right here on Earth.” 

“It’s a very volatile place,” Kourounis says of the Door to Hell. “To give you an example of how volatile, at one point I kneeled down on the ground, and I’m digging in the sand to try and gather some samples from a little below the surface and as I’m digging with a small hand shovel, fire is coming out of the hole that I’m digging. I just opened up a new vent as I’m digging down there!”

The soil samples were given to Dr. Stefan Green, the microbiologist on the expedition. Green says that a few kinds of bacteria were discovered in the soil from the crater floor. These extremophiles appear to be what Green calls “enriched” by the Door to Hell’s high temperature and low nutrient levels, among other things.

Along with this discovery of unexpected life in one of the Earth’s most inhospitable places, the Door to Hell has an out-of-this-world tinge to it, according to Kourounis. 

“The orange glow from the flames makes the ground completely orange, and the walls of the crater look orange,” he says. “It really reminds me of being on a place like Mars, where you have that orange or red soil. It just has another-Earthly feel.”

 

Entering the 'Door to Hell'
George Kourounis was the first person to enter the so-called "Door to Hell," definitely earning his place in the organization whose flag he carries—the Explorers Club.
Warm to the Touch
George Kourounis had the distinction of being one of the first people to step foot on Hunga Ha’apai, a new island that formed from a volcanic eruption in the South Pacific island nation of Tonga in 2009. “I just happened to be in nearby New Zealand when it happened. We dropped all of our plans, flew out to Tonga, chartered the world’s most decrepit fishing boat, and went out there and actually had to swim ashore to this brand new island. It was still warm to the touch.”
Amazing Adventures
“I consider myself an explorer and adventurer. For me, I like to explore parts of the world that are undergoing extreme transitions. It is really hard to find new places to explore these days, because there are no new continents to discover, there is no undiscovered land on the other side of the horizon. So what I do is I travel to parts of the world where they are in flux or changing for some reason: a tornado is touching down or a hurricane is making landfall or a volcano is erupting. It is in those moments in time where the Earth is dynamically changing that I like to capture and then share what I’ve discovered and seen with the rest of the world, because most people would never want to go to these places or might not be able to go to these places or there is too much danger involved.”
—George Kourounis, explorer
ambient
Adjective

having to do with the surrounding area or environment.

Plural Noun

(singular: bacterium) single-celled organisms found in every ecosystem on Earth.

biologist
Noun

scientist who studies living organisms.

Noun

bowl-shaped depression formed by a volcanic eruption or impact of a meteorite.

Crittercam
Noun

camera designed to be worn on a wild animal, providing a "critter-eye view" of the animal's environment.

descend
Verb

to go from a higher to a lower place.

Noun

area of land that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation a year.

engineer
Noun

person who plans the building of things, such as structures (construction engineer) or substances (chemical engineer).

environment
Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

equipment
Noun

tools and materials to perform a task or function.

erupt
Verb

to explode or suddenly eject material.

expedition
Noun

journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

explorer
Noun

person who studies unknown areas.

extraction
Noun

process by which natural resources are extracted and removed from the earth.

extremophile
Noun

microbe that is adapted to survive in very harsh environments, such as freezing or boiling water.

fabric
Noun

cloth.

formidable
Adjective

intimidating, or causing fear or hesitation due to difficulty.

geologist
Noun

person who studies the physical formations of the Earth.

gigantic
Adjective

very large.

hue
Noun

tint or general variety of color.

inhospitable
Adjective

offering no shelter or favorable climate.

intimidating
Adjective

frightening, overwhelming, or discouraging.

Kevlar
Noun

brand of synthetic fiber noted for its strength and durability.

methane
Noun

chemical compound that is the basic ingredient of natural gas.

Midwest
Noun

area of the United States consisting of the following states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

Noun

type of fossil fuel made up mostly of the gas methane.

nerve-wracking
Adjective

exhausting or scary.

Noun

substance an organism needs for energy, growth, and life.

obstacle
Noun

something that slows or stops progress.

oil rig
Noun

complex series of machinery and systems used to drill for oil on land.

piranha
Noun

carnivorous, freshwater fish native to South America. Also called caribe.

Noun

large, spherical celestial body that regularly rotates around a star.

probe
Noun

thin instrument for exploring the depth or other qualities of a material.

rappel
Verb

to descend a steep slope by means of a double rope secured above and placed around the body and let out gradually.

recent
Adjective

new or happening lately.

remote
Adjective

distant or far away.

scuba
noun, adjective

(self-contained underwater breathing apparatus) portable device for breathing underwater.

soil
Noun

top layer of the Earth's surface where plants can grow.

solar system
Noun

the sun and the planets, asteroids, comets, and other bodies that orbit around it.

Soviet
Adjective

having to do with the Soviet Union and the areas it influenced.

specialize
Verb

to study, work, or take an interest in one area of a larger field of ideas.

steel
Noun

metal made of the elements iron and carbon.

Noun

degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

tinge
Noun

slight tint or color.

tornado
Noun

a violently rotating column of air that forms at the bottom of a cloud and touches the ground.

transmit
Verb

to pass along information or communicate.

trek
Noun

journey, especially across difficult terrain.

tremendous
Adjective

very large or important.

vent
Noun

crack in the Earth's crust that spews hot gases and mineral-rich water.

verify
Verb

to prove as true.

volatile
Adjective

able to easily change from liquid to vapor.

Noun

an opening in the Earth's crust, through which lava, ash, and gases erupt, and also the cone built by eruptions.

volcanologist
Noun

scientist who studies volcanoes.