Compass Blog

George Kourounis' Expedition To Turkmenistan's "Doorway to Hell" - Part 2

Locations: Turkmenistan

I had travelled halfway around the world from Canada to the Karakum desert of Turkmenistan with a mission, a rather insane mission… To become the first person to ever set foot at the bottom of the Darvaza crater, a deep sinkhole that has been burning for decades. A botched Soviet natural gas drilling project from the 1970’s, the flaming pit is fascinating, mesmerizing, and more than a little bit terrifying. Some call it a doorway to Hell, and I was about to knock on the door.

Obsession is a Hell of a drug. For years, I’ve been completely obsessed with travelling to the ends of the Earth, to the most extreme places I can find, especially those places where there is some kind of natural force at work, usually some kind of dangerous natural force, like a volcano, hurricane or tornado. It always starts off as a simple idea… “Hey I wonder if there is anything living in that flaming crater in the middle of nowhere?” It might be fun to try and find out, and maybe make an important discovery. The trouble with trouble is that it always starts as fun.

Months of preparation all came down to this final day at camp beside the pit. Over the course of almost a week surveying the crater, we’d learned that the hot air recirculates, like a giant convection oven. The hottest air was concentrated mostly around the outside edges of the steep crater walls, whereas in the middle, cooler air was descending into the depths of the pit, where it gets heated and rises up along the edges again. This was a significant discovery, which allowed us to plan the drop zone in crater’s cooler centre. The trick was going to be getting out over top, past the hot edges. The rope rigging system that we designed by for this task was complicated. We stretched special, fire resistant ropes across the entire span of the crater. These would allow me to go out on pulleys and position myself over the safest landing zone. Once overtop, my crew would then lock off the horizontal ropes, and I would be free to lower myself down to the bottom. This would not be so easy, because I’d be wearing a very bulky and uncomfortable aluminized heat suit, and a full-face mask connected to a tank on my back for the self-contained-breathing-apparatus that would supply me with fresh, cool air. The gloves I had to wear were so bulky, that performing any task that required even the slightest dexterity was difficult, and my range of vision was so limited that I could barely turn my head to see around me.

I suppose the alternative would have been to burn up, like a marshmallow that’s been held a little too close to the campfire. We knew that the chances of finding any kind of bacterial life at the bottom were going to be slim. The extreme heat and dryness of such a place doesn’t lend itself to being a cradle of life. However, if our hypothesis was correct, and there was something, anything thriving down there, then our understanding of where life in the universe could be found would suddenly expand to include planets that are potentially hot, dry and permeated by methane. The prospect was exciting, looking for “alien life” right here on Earth, but realistically, I had my doubts. Still, when it comes to science and exploration, even a negative result is a valid result, so I found that comforting.

There was a moment, right before taking that leap of faith and beginning the descent when I just stood there for a few moments to relax and let all the stress melt away as if the heat of the crater were melting the fear and worry from me. I remember the last few words I muttered under my breath. “I can do this”. Stepping off the edge and finally having all my weight on the ropes was one of the most frightening moments in my life, even though I actually had tremendous confidence in my team. Everyone knew his or her job, and we had tested the equipment extensively, so the safety factor was in place. However, when doing something that has never been done before, there’s always the worry that you’ll run into complications that nobody had ever anticipated before. At first, I dangled out there for a few seconds, feeling my weight shift and bounce in the harness. Gravity soon took over and I rolled down the rope on the pulleys to where the rope sagged in the middle. The sensation is difficult to put into words. I would try to look around, and below me, everywhere was fire. The flames licking up and dancing, I could feel the heat, even through my suit, but it was tolerable for now.

I could hear my teammates via the radio earpiece I was wearing, but it was very difficult for us to communicate. The heavy breathing from wearing the air mask, and the roar of the fire made communications difficult. We had to speak very slowly and deliberately in order to be understood. However, once over the designated drop zone, it was all up to me. I controlled the speed of my own descent. The system was designed in such a way that I had control going down, but if anything went wrong while I was inside the crater, they could haul me up and out without my assistance. I could even be completely unconscious, and they could theoretically, extract me as long as the ropes weren’t damaged. I tried not to think about that scenario much. Pulling the lever on my rope descender, I slowly dropped, losing sight of the surrounding desert dunes and found myself completely surrounded by flames. Touchdown!

Fortunately, there was a spot at the bottom where the ground was very solid, and no flames were present. Once I had both feet on the ground, I was so relieved. No matter what happened from this moment on, I will had accomplished one of the expedition’s main goals. One of my personal philosophies is that if you are the best at something, someone will always come along and be better than you. If you are the first to ever do something, no one can ever take that away from you.

The clock was ticking. There was a limited amount of air in my tank and a lot of tasks to perform at the bottom. The first, and most important was to grab a sample of sand. There had been much discussion amongst the team about where exactly to retrieve the sample from. Dr. Stefan Green, the microbiologist on the team, suggested a spot that had loose sand, and was close to, but not TOO close to an area with several small fires burning. As I crouched down and started digging with my small trowel, fire actually started coming up from the hole I was digging! Gas had started to seep from the new hole, and was ignited by a nearby flame! After jumping back, startled, I put the samples into a special collecting jar and moved on.

My next task was to gather temperature readings from near the largest, most violently burning vent, to see how hot the ground was. Walking up to it was like approaching a jet engine that was getting ready for take-off. The heat was intense. Without my protective layers, I would’ve been charred to a crisp. I jabbed a special temperature sensor, custom built for me by National Geographic, into the ground beside the vent. The temperature rose to 400 degrees Celsius, the flame itself was burning much, much hotter and it was difficult to stay close to it, even suited up. In addition to the science mission, I was able to capture some video images at the bottom, and even unfurl one of the historic flags of The Explorers Club, on loan to commemorate the event. I didn’t want to burn it up, so it came out for only a very brief appearance!

It didn’t take long for my time inside the crater to run out. My air quality alarm started beeping, which meant that either the oxygen levels were low, or there was a build-up of other gasses such as methane or carbon monoxide. This wasn’t too worrying since I was already wearing my own air supply. There could be no surrounding oxygen at all, and I’d still be OK. It was when my low air pressure alarm started to go off that I became concerned. THAT was the real indicator that it was time to go… Now. Returning to the drop point, I gave the team the signal to pull me up. From that moment on, my fate was out of my hands. There was nothing I could do to help with my own extraction so I decided to just relax, and basically go limp, slowing my breathing, and conserving what little air I had left.

Back on solid ground, it felt so good to be back on solid ground. The mission was a success. We were able to get me inside, get some samples & measurements, and haul me back out safely. It took several months for the DNA testing to be completed. Dr. Green was very pleased to report back that there was indeed, some extremophile bacteria living inside the crater, and that they were not found in the surrounding soil. The unique, extreme ecosystem inside the pit could, and DID support life, similar to that which is found in volcanic hot springs. It was even possible that some of these bacteria were actually feeding off the methane gas. The presence of these bizarre, microscopic organisms proves that it is possible for life to take hold in places that we might not expect. This is an encouraging small step in the long process of trying to find out if there are other planets in our universe that might also support life, even if it might only be bacteria.

Yes, the samples probably could have been collected using a robot, but that’s not the point. If you understand anything about exploration, you’ll understand why I had to go and do it myself. At least we now know more about some of the conditions where life could possibly evolve. I’ll probably never get the opportunity in my lifetime to travel to another planet and search for life, but this was about as close to that as I could possibly imagine, right here on Earth.

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