5 Things You Learn From A Trip Into A Huge Chasm Of Hellfire
They call it the "Door to Hell." It's a giant 230-foot-wide flaming hole in the desert:
Note the tiny piece of equipment to the right, for scale.
If you see that and think, "I'd like to go walk around that shit," well, you have something in common with professional explorer guy George Kourounis, who did exactly that. Yes, in the 21st century, you can still get a job just going out and exploring things.
It All Started With A Catastrophic Drilling Disaster
The Door to Hell is a perpetually burning pit in the Turkmenistan desert, formed by the collapse of a drilling rig in 1971. Geologists immediately set the pit ablaze to prevent the spread of toxic methane, and it's still burning nearly half a century later. At least, that's what the internet says. George met some Turkmen geologists who insist the rig collapsed years earlier and was allowed to belch out gas and mud for decades until it was finally ignited in the '80s (records are sketchy, as Turkmenistan was part of the Soviet Union back then). Either way, from the air it looks like Earth was hit with a giant Independence Day laser:
National Geographic was looking for dangerous expeditions for a new program called Die Trying in 2014, and Kourounis knew exactly where he wanted to go (but wondered, "Who exactly is supposed be doing the dying here?"). Rumors were circulating that the days may be numbered for Darvaza (the local name for the crater), as the Turkmen president had recently visited the site, called it an eyesore, and declared that it should be extinguished and bulldozed. It's definitely for those reasons, and not because they secretly know a Balrog has awakened.
"The reality is that it poses no immediate threat, and has become one of Turkmenistan's few 'tourist attractions,'" says Kourounis. Still, time was running out to go frolicking around a gigantic bowl of hellfire, so he pitched the expedition to National Geographic, with the focus on looking for extremophile bacteria (bacteria that can survive inhospitable environments, which scientists always want to study).
See? It's all for science! His first step would be to practice setting his entire body on fire.
You Need To Practice Being Engulfed In Flame (Just In Case)
When you're literally dangling over a pit of fire, it stands to reason you'll be surrounded by, and potentially on, fire. To avoid panicking in that situation, Kourounis preemptively set himself ablaze. Note: Do not do this without the help of a professional. Or at all.
Kourounis found a stunt coordinator to help, and they held their "being engulfed in flame" practice session in a church parking lot (ironically or appropriately, we're not sure which). The first layer of clothing was a fire-resistant fabric, then a head-to-toe coating in a fire-resistant gel, and finally a thick layer of clothing that would intentionally burn.
"I don't know what magic substance this fire gel was made out of, but you could put it on your finger and hold your finger in a lighter flame without burning yourself," says Kourounis. "The gel worked so well that it actually sucks the heat right out of your body." (Note: This occurred on a cold night in Canada.) "It was getting to the point where I was like 'Can you guys light me on fire already so I don't freeze to death?'"
Another thing you'll notice if you're ever on fire is that it can be hard to breathe with flames eating up all of the oxygen around you. After a successful first run, the stunt coordinator gave him a tip for the second: If he lunged forward, he could snatch a breath and keep walking farther than the previous attempt. What Kourounis didn't realize was that if you stop moving forward post-lunge, the fire catches up and entirely covers your face.
He managed to suck down a tiny breath before that happened, so he avoided searing his lungs. His eyebrows, however, weren't so lucky. No matter! Successful test, time to move on to the next phase.
It Takes A Lot Of Special Equipment (That Hopefully Won't Fail At The Wrong Time)
The Door to Hell is about 100 feet deep at the center, so Kourounis would need a rig and fire-resistant ropes to get down there, using the most scientifically sound method and also the one that happens to look exactly like an action movie. So before flying to Turkmenistan, Kourounis and company assembled the rigging across a Canadian gorge to test everything in a safe-ish environment. You don't want to be lowering yourself into the pits of Hell when you first discover a terrible oversight with your setup.
What you're looking at above is the second test. George did one beforehand without the suit, and it went perfectly. But during the suited-up run, a valve in his breathing apparatus got stuck and started venting his air supply.
Something important to note: The mask had to be airtight. Considering the massive amounts of methane in Darvaza, the crew didn't know if the air would be breathable, so Kourounis had to bring his own air down with him. It also meant if his air ran out, he couldn't just yank off his mask. During the test, it was the same. He was wearing thick, cumbersome gloves, so he couldn't undo the clips holding the mask in place.
Dangling over a chasm, rapidly leaking his air supply, in constant radio communication with his crew -- Kourounis was basically living out a Stargate: SG1 episode. His crew pulled him back out and got the mask off in time (obviously -- it would be weird if the article just ended here), and they declared the test a success. "We knew what went wrong, and thought we knew how to prevent it," says Kourounis. "You really don't want that to be the last test, but we were pressed for time."
On to the Turkmenistan, location of Earth's beautiful, fiery butthole!
There Isn't Much In The Way Of A Plan B If Something Goes Wrong
According to Human Rights Watch, Turkmenistan "remains one of the world's most repressive countries. The country is virtually closed to independent scrutiny, media and religious freedoms are subject to draconian restrictions, and human rights defenders and other activists face the constant threat of government reprisal."
So there were a lot of conditional requirements to get permission from the government to perform research at the crater. Kourounis had to give a lecture at a nearby university. The producer had to give a presentation at the national television broadcaster. Oh, and they later found out that one of their drivers was secret police, and they were constantly being watched at Darvaza. "You'd walk away from the crater to use the desert ... facilities, and you'd see a pickup or SUV on a distant sand dune," says Kourounis. "And people would be standing there with binoculars, just watching you."
Under the careful eye of a government that surely wasn't worried the Devil himself would emerge from the pit leading an army of demons to take over the Earth, Kourounis' team made their preparations.
They first had to test the viability of sending a rescuer down to help, should something go wrong on Kourounis' end. "The most frightening part of the whole expedition was the moment when I first arrived at the crater. It was literally walking up to it, standing at the edge ... imagine opening your oven and feeling that blast of hot wind."
Kourounis measured the ambient air temperature. It reached the boiling point of water and was still climbing before the heat forced him back. Rappelling rescues were a no-go. He would be on his own.
So before the descent, the crew lowered a sandbag into the crater to test how quickly they could pull him out in an emergency. He wanted the time to be around five minutes, but it wound up closer to ten. "We had the idea of tethering the ropes to a vehicle to pull me out because that would be faster. But there was a bit of a language barrier between us and the drivers. I kept envisioning there being a problem, and one of the drivers just hammering on the gas and flinging me halfway to Tehran."
You Can Survive A Trip To The Bottom, But Can't Stay Long
The Door to Hell, unlike an actual door to Hell, gets cooler the further you go down.
Think of the air in the pit like a giant rotating donut. The heat is carried up and out along the walls (which is why it's so hot at the edge), and cycles back down in the center, pulling cool air with it. Kourounis had to punch through this boiling curtain as quickly as possible, then descend on one 7 mm thick piece of rope. More rope would have made it safer, but it also would've made the rigging more complex and potentially increased his already high escape time.
The "cool" landing spot was still 120 degrees -- a hot day in Death Valley, only if the air there was toxic to breathe. "You're spinning and dangling. You're not always looking the way you want to look. You really feel like laundry on a clothesline, drying in the sun." The moment he touched down, alarm bells started going off on the gas sensors. This just told Kourounis there was something hostile about the surroundings (as if the cauldron of fire wasn't enough), but whether it was carbon monoxide, high methane levels, or low oxygen, he couldn't say.
Kourounis walked around the flaming cathedral, taking samples and readings, culminating in a temperature reading at the base of a large fire jet (400 degrees Celsius, 752 Fahrenheit). In his words:
"Being at the bottom was as close to standing on another planet as I can imagine without leaving Earth. The glow of the fire on the crater walls lit the whole place. I'm glad I did it at night. It was surreal, almost Mars-like ... With the self-contained air supply, I couldn't smell much, but from standing at the crater's edge, I knew it smelled a bit like that moment when you're barbecuing, right between when you turn on the propane and light the grill. I stayed until the last moment my air supply would allow, knowing I'd probably never be standing here again. The flames were all around me. It was like a Colosseum of fire."
For now, the Door to Hell is still there. A few years ago, there was even talk of developing it into more of a tourist attraction -- just imagine the souvenirs. Meanwhile, the samples Kourounis recovered not only contained some extremophile bacteria, but species he says are completely new to the genetic library. That has implications for understanding what kind of life could survive on other planets, and how hot of a flamethrower we'll need to kill them.
That means the mission was a success. Though really, just escaping with all of his skin layers intact could itself have been called a success.
Kier also writes ghoulishly funny short stories. Here's one of them about a necromancer trying to run a hospital.
You know, you could just send a postcard from Turkmenistan, but George has always gone above and beyond in his adventuring.
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