The First Man to Descend into Turkmenistan’s Door to Hell

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. So Kourounis takes a deep breath to steady his nerves and then finally makes his first step to descend into north Turkmenistan’s blistering “Door to Hell.”

In the middle of the vast, sweltering desert that makes up much of Turkmenistan, there sits a tiny village known as Derweze, or Darvaza. Home to just 350 people, it’s a far-flung and remote corner of the planet that should have remained unknown to the world at large. However, back in the early 1970s, all that changed.

At the time, Turkmenistan was part of the USSR, and the great expanse of the Karakum Desert had come to the attention of the Soviets. Apparently, they believed that the inhospitable landscape could be hiding valuable oil reserves. So, in 1971 they established drilling operations at a site some 160 miles north of the country’s capital at Ashgabat – just outside the village of Darvaza.

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But according to Anatoly Bushmakin, a local geologist, it wasn’t long before disaster befell the Soviet operation. He told CTV News in 2014, “The boring equipment suddenly drilled through into an underground cavern, and a deep sinkhole formed. The equipment tumbled through but fortunately no one was killed.”

Now, instead of having a profitable oil field, the Soviets were left with a gaping hole in the midst of the Karakum Desert. But that was far from the end of their problems. Apparently, engineers grew fearful that lethal gases might escape from the crater and wreak havoc on local towns nearby.

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And so, a drastic decision was taken to ignite the gases in the hope that they would burn away. In fact, engineers optimistically estimated that the process might be over in a matter of weeks. However, decades later the fire is still raging – and the Darvaza Crater has developed a reputation as a gateway to an infernal hell.

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Technically speaking, historians seem unsure as to how long the fire beneath the desert has been burning. And while some claim that it was ignited soon after the sinkhole was formed, others believe that it was not sparked until some time in the 1980s. But whatever the truth, the fearsome blaze has attracted its fair share of publicity over the years.

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In 2010 for example, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, the President of Turkmenistan, visited the site of the epic fire. But even though he gave orders for the crater to be sealed off, no steps were taken towards this goal. Eventually, three years later he announced that the part of the Karakum Desert around the crater would become a nature reserve.

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But as the fame of the Darzava Crater continued to grow, no one was brave enough to venture into its depths. No one, that was, until George Kourounis. In November 2013 he prepared himself to drop directly into the fiery chasm, which now stretches some 230 feet across. Apparently, 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.

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According to Kouronis himself, it was an exercise plagued with doubt. He told Scribol, “I had a lot of unanswered questions. 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.”

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The crater is almost certainly the result of humankind’s interference rather than some unworldly evil. But it’s likely that this was of little comfort to Kourounis – the first man in history to descend to the bottom of the chasm. He admitted, “When we first walked up to the edge, it scared the hell out of me.”

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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.

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By exploring this uncharted territory, Kourounis hoped to find evidence of microbial life. And if he succeeded, it might some day be used in the wider ongoing search for living organisms on extra-terrestrial planets. And by understanding extreme conditions on Earth through these discoveries, we might learn more about how things could survive elsewhere.

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Kourounis then spoke of his passion for potentially life-threatening escapades – even one where the destination resembles a place of eternal torment. But, he explained, he tries “to do dangerous things in the safest manner possible.” He added, “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.”

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Fortunately, Kourounis is a man true to his world. In fact, his mission into the depths of the Darvaza Crater is far from his first extreme adventure. Apparently, he started out as a storm chaser, tracking tornadoes across the United States. And on his website, he recounted the terrifying experience of being trapped inside the deadly phenomenon.

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“Getting caught in a tornado was truly frightening,” Kourounis explained. “It was after dark and we were on the outskirts of Oklahoma City when the 2X4’s and the pieces of aluminum started flying towards my vehicle. The only thing I could do was floor it and take shelter behind a shopping mall. The debris in the air was incredible. It was like driving through a swarm of bees.”

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Then, in 2005 he embarked on another incredible adventure – this time a precursor to his Turkmenistan mission. That January, he traveled to the Danakil Depression, a volcanic region in the far north of Ethiopia. And there, he was lowered down into a lake of hardened lava while dressed in a special protective suit.

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In 2007 Kourounis then tackled another of nature’s terrifying phenomena – the Boiling Lake on the island of Dominica. A crack in the Earth’s surface stretching some 250 feet across, this deadly pool is the second biggest of its kind in the world. However, the explorer remained undaunted, and successfully traversed across its steaming waters.

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Then, two years later an incredible opportunity arose. In the South Pacific, a volcanic eruption created a brand-new island some 40 miles off the coast of Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa. And amazingly, Kourounis became one of the first people to set foot on this fresh shore, swimming the last stretch after his boat struggled in the turbulent seas.

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By that point, Kourounis had developed a reputation as an adventurer. Moreover, he was the only man to have captured footage from within some of the world’s most extreme weather conditions: a volcano, a hurricane and a tornado. But what exactly is the appeal of risking his life in such extreme conditions?

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“There is very little of this Earth left to explore,” Kourounis explained on his website. “The North and South Poles have been reached. Even Mount Everest is the site of regular traffic jams on the side of the mountain during climbing season. I like to think of myself as an explorer that goes to new places in this world when they are under extraordinary circumstances. When the harshest storms are lashing the area or the mountain is spewing molten rock. These are the new frontiers of exploration in the 21st century.”

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In 2012 Kourounis decided to turn his attention to the Darvaza Crater – although it would take him 18 months to prepare. He told Scribol, “We did several test setups of the rope system over the top of a river gorge in Canada. 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.

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“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,” Kourounis revealed. “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.”

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Kourounis soon found that this expedition was to test the limits of everything he knew. The adventurer explained, “Every step of the way, there was always some reason to quit. 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. He added, “It was so intimidating. We immediately understood just how dangerous this was going to be.”

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Kourounis said “we” because of course he was not alone. 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. The latter would 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 the adventurer had something unforeseen happened.

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Unsurprisingly for such a treacherous task, parts of the journey down into the Door to Hell were fraught with danger and fear. As Kourounis explained, “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.”

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“Now I had two alarms going off and I was starting to overheat,” the Kourounis continued. “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.”

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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. He explained, “The place looks like something from a science-fiction movie. 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.”

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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.

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In this regard, was the mission a success? The data collected by Kourounis at the very bottom of the crater certainly suggests so. He told Scribol, “It was pretty amazing to find several different kinds of bacteria living in that hot, methane gas crater. 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.”

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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. The adventurer revealed, “Right now I’m in Southeast Asia filming a brand-new episode of the Angry Planet TV series. As soon as I get back home, I’m going to be ramping up for tornado season in the U.S.”

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“For the entire month of May, I go wherever the wind takes me, tracking the most intense storms on the planet,” Kourounis continued. “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!”

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But while Kourounis seems quick to move on to the next adventure, what of the blazing inferno that he left behind? Initially, it seemed as if there were those who wished to transform the phenomena into a source of income for Turkmenistan. Recognizing its appeal to adventure-minded visitors, the Central Asian country began looking to promote the crater as a unique tourist attraction.

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Apparently, there were even some enterprising guides who took it upon themselves to assist travelers in reaching the desert location – a long trek from where most tourist activities take place. And for a while, it seemed as if the “Door to Hell” might take its place alongside the Silk Road as one of the region’s best-known draws.

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However, just a few years later, it seemed as if the Turkmenistan authorities had begun to discourage visitors to the crater. In a 2019 interview with the Independent, photographer Alessandro Belgiojoso recalled the incident that had allegedly sparked the inferno. He explained, “This story is not something to be proud of and tourism is not really welcomed by the authorities.”

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Nevertheless, Belgiojoso was able to use a drone to capture some stunning footage of the crater – still burning fiercely some five years after Kourounis’ visit. And despite the photographer’s report on the region, it seems as if some tour operators are still offering adventures to the famously volatile site.

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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.

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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.

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Adventurous travelers wanting to catch a glimpse into the fiery abyss are not limited to Turkmenistan’s crater, however. In fact, the flames at Darvaza are a relative newcomer compared to the blaze at Baba Gurgur in Iraq, which some believe has been burning since biblical times. And over in Azerbaijan, a hillside at Yanar Dag has been consistently on fire, it is believed, since it was lit in the 1950s.

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In fact, from Pennsylvania to New South Wales, there are stories of eternal fires that began burning and never stopped. And while some are drawn to them as imaginary “Gates to Hell,” others are simply entranced by their otherworldly combination of beauty and terror. But whatever their appeal, it seems certain that these strange blazes will continue to inspire explorers for many years to come.

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.

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