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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As an explorer and adventurer, George Kourounis has seen many wild natural events. He has chased tornadoes across the American Midwest. He even got married on an erupting volcano. However, a trip to the Central Asian country Turkmenistan may have been one of his most exciting. While there, he was the first person to reach the "Door to Hell." It is a pit of fire, about 30 meters (100 feet) deep. It is a crater in a large natural gas field. The pit has been burning for decades. It is said that an old Russian oil drill fell into the crater in 1971. Scientists were worried the pit was releasing poisonous gases. The scientists decided to set the pit on fire. They thought the gas would burn off quickly. Yet the fire continues today. Kourounis isn't sure if the drill story is true. Still, he now knows the place is real. Burning Challenges The fiery heat of the pit was not the greatest challenge. Just getting to it was the hardest part, Kourounis says. Turkmenistan is very hard to get into. Its government does not often give people permission to visit. The crew finally entered Turkmenistan in 2013. Kourounis says the crater looks like a volcano in the middle of the desert. It's about 76 meters (250 feet) wide, nearly as long as a football field. "Day or night, it is clearly burning. You can hear the roar of the fire if you stand at the edge," he said. He added that being near the heat is unbearable. "There are thousands of little flames all around the edges and toward the center. Then there are two large flames in the middle at the bottom," he says. This is probably where natural gas used to be drilled for. Before going into the burning pit, Kourounis got his equipment together. This included a climbing harness made out of Kevlar, a very hard material. He also had a breathing machine, similar to a tank for scuba diving. His rope and suit were made to resist heat and flames. The suits look like aluminum foil, Kourounis says. They are used by workers who are often near flames, like firefighters. They help reflect a lot of the heat off of you, but Kourounis said he still felt like a baked potato wrapped in his foil suit. Another special tool that Kourounis brought was to stick in the ground to measure heat. "It sort of looks like a sword," Kourounis says. It could wirelessly send the temperature of wherever he was. Entering The Door To Hell Kourounis says he was very nervous to visit the Door to Hell. Still, the adventurer went down into it. "It wasn't dark at all," Kourounis says of the crater's insides. Everything around it has an orange color, he said, as you are surrounded by flames. The most important part of the mission was to take some samples of the soil and sand at the bottom. Then they could see if there were any tiny bacteria living at the bottom. These life forms could provide clues about life in extreme environments, Kourounis says. These tiny bacteria are microorganisms called extremophiles. They are called this because they survive in extreme environments. Extremophiles survive in incredibly hot, cold, salty or dry conditions. There's a good reason for Kourounis to do this risky work. He says it could help us learn about possible life on other planets. Many faraway planets have hot, desertlike environments. They are not too different from the fiery crater, he said. He wants to know if any life out there has found a way to survive in such extreme places. The soil samples were given to a scientist on the trip who studies tiny life forms. It turns out there were extremophiles in the crater. They were able to survive the high heat in the Door to Hell. The fiery pit feels like being on another planet, Kourounis said. Its orange and red soil reminds him of Mars.

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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