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Descent Into The Flaming Gas Crater: The "Doorway To Hell"

Darvaza, Turkmenistan - Nov. 2013
One of most incredible adventures! I had the great honor and privilege of leading a National Geographic Society expedition to go to the rarely visited nation of Turkmenistan to do something no one has ever done before.
The mission: To descend down inside the mysterious, flaming, Darvaza gas crater (Sometimes referred to as the "Doorway to Hell") and gather soil samples from the bottom, then get the samples analyzed to see if there are any extremophile bacteria or other microbes living in the hot, methane rich environment. There are planets outside our solar system that are hot, with an atmosphere rich in methane gas, and any life we find here could give us clues to life on other planets.
 
It's like looking for alien life, right here on Earth.

Darvaza, Turkmenistan - The "Doorway To Hell"

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In the Capital of Ashgabat, preparing the supplies for the trip out into the desert. We spent several days in the city, buying equipment & supplies, and attempting to get my air tanks filled.
The road to Darvaza, about 4 hours from Ashgabat.
Our first glimpse at the Darvaza flaming gas crater. It has been burning for decades.

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As night falls, the entire area takes on a surreal scene, like something from a science fiction film.
What a view!
Nothing for miles and miles, then a flaming crater.

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Shadows and the crater.
Every now and then, a herd of camels would just appear out of nowhere and wander across the desert.
The first test of the heat suit at the crater. Just approaching the edge to see how much heat there was.
The crater itself is steeped in mystery. A few things we know for sure: It formed when a sinkhole formed underneath a natural gas drilling rig. The entire thing collapsed, leaving a crater 100 feet deep and 225 feet wide. It was leaking natural gas (methane). Some say that it was lit on fire in 1971. We spoke to geologists from the Turkmenistan government who say that that is not the case, and that it formed in the 1960's but didn't catch on fire until the 1980's. They also claim that for quite some time, a mixture of clay like mud and gas was bubbling up from the crater before it caught fire. There is evidence of this around the crater, but the truth may never be known. We tried to get our hands on any official reports or records, but it happened so long ago that they had nothing to give us.

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Looking down into the crater at night. The sound of the jetting methane gas and the sight of the dancing flames was hypnotic.
Joe Legate, standing at the edge, looking into the fiery abyss.
The light from the crater fire illuminates the surrounding hills at night.

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The stars and crater glow in the Karakum Desert.
This was probably one of the most surreal campsites ever!
Crater glow at first light.

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With flag #150 from the Explorers Club.
The stark beauty of the desert at dawn.
The rigging team, and TV crew as I get ready to head inside the crater.
The expedition was filmed by a National Geographic TV film crew, and became one episode of the series entitled "Die Trying". We spent about 2 weeks in Turkmenistan, including a week camped out beside the crater. The entire planning and execution almost 2 years from start to finish. One of the hardest parts was getting the proper permissions in place from the government. Turkmenistan get about a third of the visitors each year that North Korea gets.

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Last minute equipment checks.
Stepping off into the unknown.
Descending down from the high line.

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With limited air in my tank, I had to get to the bottom quickly.
Looking down to make sure we've chosen the best drop zone.
Getting closer to the bottom.

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Touchdown. The first person to ever set foot foot here, amongst the flames.
Gathering soil samples from the bottom of the crater for later DNA analysis.
As of this day, 12 people have set foot on the moon. Only one has stood in this place.

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Looking around was like coliseum of fire.
Gathering temperature data with a custom-made probe.
I'm just a speck next to the main fire vent. Look closely to spot me.

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Sunrise at the crater.
There were other hazards, besides the fire crater.
There are actually several craters in Turkmenistan. This one does not have fire in it. It's filled with water.
So many people were a part of this expedition. I wan to thank my team - Frederick Schuett, Joe Legate, Peter Klose, Robin Brooks and Dr. Stefan Green for coming with me, for helping out, and for keeping me alive.

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