Entering the 'Door to Hell'

Entering the 'Door to Hell'

The Door to Hell is a continually burning crater located in remote Turkmenistan. Adventurer George Kourounis describes being the first person to enter the Door to Hell and what he found when he reached the bottom.


3 - 12+


Biology, Earth Science, Geology, Engineering, Experiential Learning

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George Kourounis has chased tornadoes. He even got married on a volcano. However, a trip to Turkmenistan was especially exciting. It is a country in Central Asia. While there, he was the first person to reach the "Door to Hell." It is a fiery pit in a large field. There is much natural gas there, which fuels the fire. People have said that a Russian oil drill fell into the pit in 1971. Scientists worried the pit was releasing poisonous gases. They set the pit on fire. They thought it would burn off the gas quickly. But the flames continue today. Kourounis is not sure if the drill story is true. Still, he now knows the place is real. Burning Challenges Kourounis says the pit looks like a volcano in the middle of the desert. It is about 76 meters (250 feet) wide. That is nearly as long as a football field. It is about 30 meters (100 feet) deep. The fire inside burns day and night, Kourounis said. He added that being near the heat is unbearable. There are flames everywhere. Before going into the burning pit, Kourounis got his equipment together. One tool was a harness. He strapped it on and used it to climb down. It was made out of Kevlar, a very hard material. He also had a breathing machine. It is similar to a tank for scuba diving. His rope and suit were made to fight heat and flames. The suit looks like aluminum foil. It helps reflect heat off of you. Kourounis said he felt like a baked potato wrapped in his foil suit. Entering The Door To Hell Inside the crater, everything looks orange because of the flames, Kouronis said. He thinks it feels like being on another planet. Its orange and red soil reminded him of Mars. Kourounis had a team with him. Their goal was to get bits of soil from the bottom of the crater. His team was looking for tiny life forms inside the soil. These microorganisms are known as extremophiles. They are called this because they survive in extreme conditions. Extremophiles survive in incredibly hot, cold, salty or dry environments. There was a good reason to do this risky work. Kourounis says it could help us learn about possible life on other planets. Many faraway planets have hot, desertlike environments. These are not too different from the fiery crater, he said. He wants to know if any life on Earth has found a way to survive in such extreme places. It turns out there were extremophiles in the soil. They were able to survive the high heat in the Door to Hell. This could give us clues to what life is like on other planets.

Fast Fact

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

Fast Fact

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.”

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Stuart Thornton
Jeannie Evers, Emdash Editing, Emdash Editing
Kara West
National Geographic Society
Last Updated

April 29, 2024

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