Compass Blog

George Kourounis' Expedition To Turkmenistan's "Doorway to Hell" - Part 1

Locations: Turkmenistan

The locals call it the “Doorway to Hell”, and rightfully so. Deep in the barren Karakum desert of the former Soviet republic of Turkmenistan is a place of wonder, mystery, and dangerous beauty that few people have heard of, and even fewer still have ever set eyes upon.

The Darvaza flaming crater looks like a volcano, but it isn’t. There is no molten rock here, no risk of a Vesuvius-style eruption to bury any nearby towns under a blanket of ash. There’s not even any town nearby if it did. The burning pit is a unique anomaly… part natural phenomenon, part manmade eco-disaster. The desert, north of the capital of Ashgabat used to be a seabed. Millions of years ago, an ancient ocean sprawled across what is now a vast nothingness of sand, rock and fossils but part of that ocean remained. The organisms that once thrived there now make up one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world. Fast-forward many millions of years, to a time before the fall of the iron curtain. The Soviets were drilling for this natural gas and something happened. A sinkhole formed, swallowing up the drilling rig and creating a vast, deep, steep-sided pit. Various reports conflict as to the exact date and circumstances, but during the mishap, the natural gas that they were drilling for started leaking into the air. It ignited, likely lit on purpose, and an unquenchable inferno was born. It has been burning for over four decades now!

The crater itself is about 225 feet across & 100 feet deep and is filed with thousands of fires where the natural gas (mostly methane) comes to the surface, at quite high pressure in some areas. I’ve known about Darvaza for years, and I’ve dreamed of going there. The logistics were daunting. Turkmenistan is one of the most closed off, and least visited nations in the world, with a reputation for red tape. When I learned that the president of Turkmenistan had visited the crater site himself and declared his wishes for the fire pit to somehow be extinguished and buried, I knew I had to act fast.

I teamed up with the National Geographic Society to mount an expedition to Darvaza, not just to visit the place, but to become the first person to ever go INSIDE the flaming crater and set foot at the bottom. The end goal was to gather soil samples to have DNA tested to see if there was any microscopic life forms thriving in the hot, methane rich environment. This could give us real clues as to the possibility of life on planets outside of our solar system that have similar environments. My mission was essentially to look for alien-like life here on Earth, in one of the most extreme places on our planet. A Hell on Earth to most, yet Heaven for a person like me who loves to spend time in extreme environments such as volcanoes, and lakes of sulphuric acid. I feel that sometimes I’m not too different from the extremophile microbes I would be looking for in the pit. I also teamed up with Kensington Tours, who supported the expedition from the start, and provided a lot of on-the-ground logistics and resources for this most challenging mission. As an “Explorer in Residence” with them, we were also breaking new ground as so few travelers ever visit Turkmenistan. It is among the least visited countries in the world.

Ashgabat, one of the strangest cities I’ve ever been to is actually quite beautiful. It has the largest concentration of marble-clad buildings of anywhere in the world. These are mostly government buildings, fountains, or monuments to the greatness of past & present leaders. The architecture is remarkable; I never really expected the capital to look the way it did. The natural gas industry has been good to the country, however I don’t know how much of that money actually makes it to the citizens though. While spending a few days in the capital, we experienced the oddities of Ashgabat. For example, very so often, everything would grind to a halt. The doors to our hotel would become suddenly guarded and we’d not be allowed outside for 10-20 minutes. This was a common occurrence and as we later found out, coincided with the president driving past on his way to or from the nearby presidential palace. I don’t know why this was really necessary; the streets were mostly empty anyway. I’ve never been to such a large city and seen so few people on the street. Where was everybody? Another mystery to be examined at another time perhaps…

After several days in the city, sorting out transportation, equipment, translators, and camp supplies, we finally made it out to the Darvaza site. It was about a four-hour drive north of Ashgabat, into the desert. I’d been studying the crater as best I could from home for years, but even though I knew exactly what it was going to look like, nothing could prepare me for the sensory overload of finally stepping up to the edge and looking straight down into the abyss. The crater was FULL of fire, not so much one single blaze, but thousands of fires, some small, some very large. Interestingly, there was almost no smoke at all; the methane gas burns off so cleanly that no smoke or soot is really created in the combustion process. There was a slight odor of natural gas, and that made us cautious of any other, potentially deadly gasses that might be present such as carbon monoxide or dioxide. The sound of the crater was something else. There was a rippling, combustion sound from the flames licking at the steep crater walls, but there was also a roar. The gas is under pressure, so when it reaches the surface, it sounds like a low-pitched jet engine. Satan himself could have stepped out of the crater, and nothing would have seemed out of place.

My plan was to go inside. I must’ve been simply mad to ever dream up such an idea. But after all the planning and preparation, I was finally here, at the edge, and as terrified as I’ve ever been. I had a huge team with me of rope experts, scientists, guides, drivers and a big TV filming crew. Was I in over my head? This project had too much momentum to back out now. Luckily, after staring at the crater long enough and discussing the plan with the rest of the team, we started to get a feel for what was going on inside. The fires didn’t move around, so we could see “safe” areas where there were no flames at all, where the temperature was probably going to be tolerable (at least in my protective, heat-resistant suit). The wind currents were also pretty regular, giving us even more confidence. By the end of our initial investigation, I was convinced that I could do it. The attempt to reach the bottom was officially a “go”. However, I gave the entire rope rigging team the instructions that if they felt uneasy, or if anyone felt that it was becoming too unsafe, that any member could call off the descent attempt at any time, for any reason.

We spent the better part of a week out in the desert, our campsite overlooking the crater that burned so bright at night that you could easily see the light through the tent walls. Each day we’d set up more of the rope rigging needed for the descent. Tests of the safety systems would be practiced, the crater was measured and numerous temperature readings were recorded. Our thermal imaging camera maxed out at 670 degrees C. We had no way of knowing exactly how hot the hottest parts were.

With me was Dr. Stefan Green, a microbiologist from The University of Illinois in Chicago. His job was to analyze the samples from the crater, provided I could get any. He had never been on an expedition like this before, let alone to such an alien-looking place. His tent was a mini-laboratory, filled with vials, samples and other equipment that would allow him to stabilize any DNA in the sand for transport back to the USA for final analysis. The trick was actually getting the samples themselves. A robot could have been used. That would be the safer option, but the risk of a malfunction amid the flames would be high, plus having a real, live person down there would make it easier to get the exact samples we wanted, quickly. Plus, there’s the attraction of the pure exploration side of things, to set foot where no one has before, just because you can. There are not too many places like that left on Earth, especially places so spectacular. The time had come, and now there was nothing left to do but step off into the abyss.

To be continued in Part 2...

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