I abseiled into a 400°C flaming pit – otherwise known as the Door to Hell

I don’t know which part was more frightening. 

The surreal moment when I first laid my eyes on the intimidating Darvaza gas crater (also known as the Door to Hell) in Turkmenistan, or that instant when I had to trust my gear, and team, and step off the edge and dangle directly over the fire on a piece of rope. 

I felt like a piece of laundry being dried on a line as I slowly descended towards the heat.

When I eventually reached the bottom of the cavernous pit, it felt like I was a visitor to another planet with the orange glow of the flames enveloping me along with intense heat.

To say it was hot would be an understatement. 

At one point, I measured a ground temperature of 400°C. That’s about as hot as a pizza oven!

However, my descent into the Darvaza gas crater wasn’t a completely crazed idea.

I had ventured to the sinkhole on behalf of National Geographic as part of a project that involved going inside it and gathering soil samples for DNA analysis. 

This was to look for microscopic life forms that are capable of surviving in these intensely hot, dry conditions.

I had visited lots of wild places and many volcanoes before as part of my job as an extreme weather chaser and documentary maker but I’d never seen anything quite like the Darvaza crater.

The sinkhole measures 100 feet deep and 130 feet wide and formed when the Soviets were drilling for natural gas.

At some point, the leaking methane gas was set alight and the whole crater has been burning for close to 50 years.

Beyond the obvious hazard of the literal giant pit of fire, some of the other dangers we encountered while we were in Turkmenistan were not as evident. 

For instance, we had venomous snakes out there in the desert with us. 

Despite the circumstances, our 2013 expedition was a complete success. 

Firstly, I made it out alive and secondly, from the samples I collected we found extreme bacteria that was living in the hot crater.

Off the back of it, we made a really cool (probably the wrong adjective!) TV program out of the whole effort, and I was awarded a Guinness World Record for being the first person to ever set foot at the bottom.

I’d say that’s what makes that expedition to Turkmenistan a very memorable trip but I’m lucky to have had so many extreme adventures that it’s difficult to pick one.

I’ve just turned 50 years old and I started chasing my first storms back in 1997. From there, my interest in extreme landscapes such as caves and volcanoes also flourished. 

Over the years my expeditions have taken me to about 75 countries on all seven continents.

When it comes to the most spectacular place on Earth, for me, it would have to be the Naica Crystal Cave in Mexico.

The cave was accidentally discovered 20 years ago by workers in a silver and lead mine in the small, dusty town of Naica. 

The cave lies almost 900 feet below the surface of the Earth and contains the largest crystals known in the world, by far – over 36 feet long and weighing 55 tons. 

The moment I first heard about this place, I knew I had to go there. I didn’t know how or when, but I promised myself that it would happen. It took two years of planning and preparation.

It is still incredibly hot in the cave due to its proximity to a magma chamber deep underground. The air temperature is 50°C with a relative humidity of over 90%, making the air feel like an unbearable 105°C.

Entering the cave without special protective suits can be fatal in 15 minutes. 

To explore the cave, we had to wear special cooling suits with ice packs inside and a specialized backpack respirator that allowed me to breathe chilled air. 

Even with all this bulky equipment, we were still only able to stay in the cave for no more than 45 minutes at a time.

Wearing the suits, you feel like an astronaut that is about to go on a spacewalk. In reality, it is not all that different I suppose, considering the harsh environment!

Many of the crystals were so large that I couldn’t even wrap my arms around them and the terrain was so difficult to walk on that we had to be extremely cautious not to slip and fall. 

Doing so could get you impaled on a sharp crystal and would require a dangerous and difficult rescue.

Like many others, my life came to a screeching halt when the Covid-19 lockdowns began. 

In mid-March, I had just returned from Japan, where I was filming for a TV show aboard a scientific research ship, when travelling as I knew it came to an end. 

I don’t think I’ve stayed in one spot this long in well over 20 years! All my 2020 trips and expeditions including Iceland, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands have all been cancelled. 

Even now, because of travel restrictions and quarantines, I recently had to pass up on going to Louisiana to document Hurricane Laura. 

I don’t know when things will be returning to ‘normal’. 

For now, the memories I have from my wild escapades are keeping me going until I can get back out in the field again.

As told to Sadie Whitelocks

To learn more about George Kourounis and his work visit www.stormchaser.ca

My Life Through A Lens

My Life Through a Lens is an exciting series on Metro.co.uk that looks at one incredible photo, and shares the story that lies behind it. If you have an experience you would like to share, please email [email protected] with MLTAL as the subject.

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