Fear: Stories of daring adventures in science

This week, in honor of Halloween, we're presenting two stories about facing fears for science.

Part 1: As a newly minted PhD student in geology, Erik Klemetti starts to question his decisions when Aucanquilcha, a 20,000-foot volcano in Chile, proves difficult to tame.

Erik Klemetti is an associate professor of Geosciences and volcanologist at Denison University. He works on volcanoes all over the planet, from Chile to New Zealand to the Cascades of Oregon and California. His research focuses on how crystals record the events inside a volcano before and between eruptions. For the past 9 years, he’s been teaching all the “hard rock” classes at Denison. He also writes for Discover Magazine. His blog, Rocky Planet, have been running since Fall 2017. Before that, he wrote Eruptions, a blog about volcanoes, for Wired Science for 9 years. You can also find him on Twitter (@eruptionsblog), variously tweeting about volcanoes, baseball (mostly Red Sox and Mariners) and his love of punk.

Part 2: Explorer George Kourounis finds himself growing increasingly anxious as he prepares to enter a fiery sinkhole known as the “Doorway to Hell.”

George Kourounis is a renowned global explorer and storm chaser who specializes in documenting extreme forces of nature including: tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, deserts, caves, avalanches and more. He is an Explorer In Residence for The Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Chairman of the Explorers Club Canadian Chapter, and has received several awards and medals for his efforts. He frequently finds himself driving into the eye of fierce storms, or descending ropes into actively erupting volcanic craters, often while hosting television programs including “Angry Planet” and others.  He has given four TEDx talks, and has addressed the United Nations Environmental Emergencies Forum. George’s expeditions have taken him to 65 countries on all seven continents to such far-flung places as: Madagascar, Turkmenistan, Vanuatu, Greenland, North Korea, Myanmar, and Antarctica.


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Erik Klemetti

So it all started on a snowy day in Philadelphia.  I graduated college about eight months earlier and I was making a living writing about Thomas Paine because my history degree, rather than my geology degree, is what got me my first job. 

The phone rang and on the other end is Dr. Anita Grunder from Oregon State University.  See, I had applied to graduate school in geology and I wanted to work with her because she worked on volcanoes and she worked in South America. 

I had grown up much of my youth at my grandmother’s house in Columbia surrounded by volcanoes and that’s what I wanted to do.  I wanted to study volcanoes.  So when Anita says, “I got this project in Chile.  Do you want to work on it?”  That was it.  My future was planned, ready or not. 

Six months later I was boarding a plane to go to Aucanquilcha, this volcano the size of Dinali down in the high Andes of Chile.  On that eleven-hour flight to Santiago, I’m sitting there thinking, you know, I’m heading by myself to some place I have never been to meet people I've never met, to do something I've never done, collect all the data that I would need for my PhD, all at great expense to my brand new PhD advisor. 

I'd done field work before but that was on a lovely stretch of Maine coast.  I had a house and a bed every evening.  We even had lobster.  And I had help along the way.  But this time I was on my own.  I had to go find the rocks, and find the right rocks at that, and not perish.  Everything else I was just making up as I went along. 

So I get down there and I meet up with Jorge, our driver/cook, and two colleagues from Montana State and we went to Calama to go collect all the gear and equipment we need to spend a month in the field.  I had never done that sort of purchasing before. 

I remember the first thing we went to is this bakery and we’re going to get a bag of bread.  Literally, that was a garbage bag full of bread.  Jorge walks in, the six-foot-five Chilean, looks at the baker, smiles, pulls out the bag and just starts loading it with rolls completely full.  That was all the bread we'd have for a month until it was these little hockey pucks. 

So it was meat, fruit, mate de coca, box wine, fifty gallons of fuel, fifty gallons of water, some pisco to bribe the military police along the way.  It was so much stuff because when you're out there in the middle of nowhere, you can’t just pop back to the shops if you forget something.  We crammed it all into the truck, I jammed myself in next to the bag of bread, and off we went. 

That drive from Calama to Aucanquilcha was possibly one of the most amazing drives I have ever been on.  We had come up into the dessert and there are volcanoes as far as the eye can see.  I remember coming by and there are these two, giant twin volcanoes.  The whole valley floor is filled with these deposits from a big explosive eruption.  There's a little cinder cone up at the top that’s sort of mantling the whole area with this dark frosting.  It was like a volcanic Disneyland. 

We make it over this ridge into the Salar de San Martin, which is this big salt flat, and there it was, off in the distance, Aucanquilcha.  It was inviting me.  It was telling me, come, figure out my secrets, find out how old I am.  What are the processes that made this happen? 

But at the same time, it was taunting me.  Because I’m looking and it’s bigger than anything else around it.  20,000-foot summit.  I’m wondering, “Oh, my God.  How am I ever going to tame this volcano and get everything that I need to make this work?”  I was equally thrilled and terrified at that moment. 

So we get up there, set up our canvas tents, 1960s-style canvas surplus military tents, and get ready for our first deep, dark night in the Andes.  You know, setting up camp at high altitudes that day kind of left me probably a little overconfident, but that first day in the field dispelled that rather quickly. 

I remember hiking back at the end of that day, my backpack was full of rocks because that’s what geologists do.  We go hiking and we fill our backpack with twenty pounds of rocks by the end of the day.  And did I mention that I had split the sole of my boot that day so it was duct-taped together? 

That moment there, walking back up to the camp was the first moment I had that fear crawl into my brain of, “What am I doing here?”  I mean, I had a good job in Philadelphia and here I am, boots duct taped together on the first day, backpack full of rocks, and all I wanted to do was sit down, take off my pack and question my career choices. 

So we get back up there and, in about a week, we headed towards our next campsite which is the highest one that we’re camping at.  It’s about 17,000 feet.  To give you an idea of what that’s like, imagine camping at the summit of Mount Rainier and then keep on going up another 3,000 feet, that’s where we were. 

Don’t get me wrong.  This was an amazing location.  I remember that first sunset.  The sun was glowing, making the volcano glow this brilliant pink and it was gorgeous.  But at those high altitudes, the weather does really weird things.  We’d start off every day the sky was blue and the wind was still.  But by the very end of that day, in the evening, the wind would be whipping.  We’d have to go crawl into our kitchen tent and look at our notes over propane lantern, maybe play some dominoes, listen to some cassettes.  And at night it would get so cold that we would wrap ourselves in these heavy-duty sleeping bags dressed completely in all of our clothes, jacket, wool hat.  We’d still have to fill up Nalgene bottles with hot water to put in the sleeping bags with us to stay warm.  And my contact lens case would freeze sometimes overnight. 

Photo by Timothy E. Black.

Photo by Timothy E. Black.

I remember sitting there in that sleeping bag, the wind flapping the tent that I had, in vain, duct taped to the post, and I had my headphones on.  I was listening to The Jesus and Mary Chain on my walkman and I was trying to drown out this noise.  Again, that’s the moment that the fear came creeping back into me again.  What was I doing here? 

I mean, I didn’t know what I was really doing.  I was collecting rocks.  Was I collecting those right rocks?  Did I even know what the right rocks were going to be?  What was I even thinking?  Was I wasting everybody’s time and money being here?  What if I break a leg and I mummify in the desert? 

It was more extreme than anything I'd ever done and I had those moments where I’m sitting there thinking, “If this is what life is like to be a geologist, maybe I’m just not cut out for this.”

Next up was probably our biggest challenge.  It was to get samples from the summit of the volcano 20,000 feet. 

So we’re driving up there and we stop part of the way up at this abandoned cable car that used to bring sulfur from the summit of the volcano down the slope.  Sitting there right next to it was a soccer field, at 18,000 feet.  This used to be the highest permanently-settled human habitation on the planet so I thought, “If Bolivian miners can place soccer in their breaks, this can’t be that bad, can it?” 

We kept on driving up this dusty slope.  We’re zigzagging up the side of the volcano, all covered in sulfur, and about three quarters of the way up the road just ends.  We get out and we have to hike the rest of the way up. 

Now, if you're a normal person, you'd think, “I’m going to go summit a volcano 20,000 feet tall.  I should probably train, maybe bring some oxygen with me…” something like that.  But oh, no, we’re geologists.  That stuff doesn’t matter.  We’re just here for the rocks, really. 

So I’m standing there and I’m watching my colleagues.  I feel like they're skipping up the mountain side and Jorge, he's smoking as he's hiking his way up.  And I’m trudging step by step with this sulfur dust blowing in my face.  It was one of these most incredibly painful moments yet I’m in this incredibly beautiful setting. 

I take a step and I look up.  The summit doesn’t look particularly closer. 

I take another step.  What am I doing here?  Do I love volcanoes this much? 

I take another step.  Okay, if I just sit down right now, no one is going to care.  Heck, no one is probably even going to notice. 

I take another step.  All right, no, I can’t do that.  No.  Anita spent a lot of money to send me down here.  I have to get these samples, and if I don’t, she's going to drum me out of grad school or something. 

I take another step.  Okay, now, the summit looks a little closer but what am I really closer to?  Just more rocks? 

My heart is beating reverberating in my chest and I’m beginning to see lights in my eyes.  I remember right before I left, Anita pulled me aside and she's like, “You know, there's this thing that happens to men at high altitude.  Their heart explodes and they die.  Don’t have that happen.”  That’s very comforting. 

I look off in the distance, I see this plume of dust and it’s one of these big copper mines that they have in that part of Chile and I think that’s the closest doctor that there is to me.  It wasn’t the most comforting of moments. 

The cast of our Denison University show with Story Collider artistic director Erin Barker. Photo by Timothy E. Black.

The cast of our Denison University show with Story Collider artistic director Erin Barker. Photo by Timothy E. Black.

This sort of behavior is not what normal people do.  Here I am, hiking up the side of the volcano, un-oxygenated, untrained, just to get these samples.  And I sit there thinking, “All right, as long as I can make it up to the top of this, get these samples, I might have a chance.  This might be my chance to actually make this geology thing work out.” 

Well, let me tell you.  There's been no one in the history of the planet that has enjoyed lying in a pile of sulfur more than I did that afternoon with a bag next to me full of rocks from the summit of that volcano. 

Let’s flash forward six months.  I’m back in Corvallis.  I brought back 300 pounds of rocks from this volcano, including those ones from the summit, and I start that four-year process of just picking them apart.  The mineralogy, the age, the composition. 

Anita was there.  When I got back, Anita was very impressed that I had survived being in the Andes for a month and she actually thought I had done a pretty good job. 

I never told her about those moments of fear and panic that I would have on the side of the volcano.  And those moments of fear and panic about my career choice, they had come back later on.  It might have been when I was working two spring breaks, working sixteen-hour days in the lab until the day that I accidently broke the furnace and shut the lab down for a week.  It might have been that time that I gave my first big talk at an international geology meeting about these same samples that I'd brought back from Aucanquilcha, and I got some of the minerals wrong during the presentation.  Those moments still leave this pit in my stomach when I think about them. 

But I can always fall back, even today, to that month in the Andes and realizing that I could just make it through that, persevere, and take whatever this discipline was going to throw at me.  Thanks.


Part 2: George Kourounis

Yes, I am an explorer.  I've got the world’s craziest job description.  Basically, it’s my job to go to the most hellish places on earth specifically. 

Imagine this.  I travel the world documenting the most extreme places, so rappelling down inside active volcanoes and standing in the eye of hurricanes and tracking down and chasing the most massive tornadoes on earth, that’s my day job.  It has taken me from North Korea to Antarctica, from Timbuktu to Siberia.  It’s just every corner of the planet. 

Now, as an explorer, the most iconic brand for me to associate myself with is National Geographic, of course.  Years ago, I pitched an idea to Nat Geo and they're probably still regretting that they said yes to this.  I wanted to go to the country of Turkmenistan. 

Show of hands.  Who’s been to Turkmenistan?  Really?  No one?  North Korea gets three times the number of visitors every year. 

It’s in Central Asia just north of Iran and Afghanistan, so you know it’s in a good neighborhood.  It’s such a strange country that the former leader decided to outlaw men having long hair or beards.  He made it illegal for news reporters to wear makeup stating that Turkmen women were already beautiful enough. 

He also renamed all of the months and the days of the week after his family members and his favorite books.  The normal stuff a crazy dictator would do.  He also erected a giant gold statue that always turned to face the sun, so basically makes North Korea seem normal. 

Now, my plan wasn’t just to go there and visit like some tourist.  No.  I had a mission.  Years ago, Turkmenistan was drilling for natural gas out in the desert and the drilling rig collapsed into a sink hole.  That was about 100-feet deep and 230-feet across and it started leaking methane gas.  If that happened here in the West, we would send in some kind of special response team.  They would deal with the environmental outcome of this.  They would cap the well.  Not in Turkmenistan.  They did things a little differently there. 

They lit it on fire thinking it would burn off in a couple of days.  That was in 1971 and it’s still burning to this day.  It’s called Darvaza.  You may have seen pictures of it on the internet.  It means ‘doorway’.  The locals refer to it as the Doorway to Hell.  So when people tell me to go to hell, I can say, “Yeah, I've been there.  Done that.” 

But it totally looks like a doorway to hell.  It’s this circular, burning mass in the desert that’s totally you expect Satan himself to jump out of this thing with his pitchfork and his horns.  And imagine if Mother Nature went to Taco Bell and ate too much.  That’s kind of what it smells like. 

The plan was, because there's a reason here.  There's an actual purpose so bear with me for a second.  Why go here? 

Well, NASA has telescopes and they have discovered planets outside of our solar system.  Some of these planets have a hot methane-rich environment.  So if I could go to this Doorway to Hell and find anything living at the bottom of this crater, anything at all, even if it’s a tiny microbe, bacteria, it could give us clues as to where we could broaden our look for life in the universe. 

So my pitch to National Geographic basically was looking for alien life here on earth.  Cool.  They loved it.  So I got a science grant from them, I had a TV crew that was following me around. 

By the way, the TV show was called Die Trying.  Wait a minute - I was kind of upset with the executive producer - I’m the guy that’s trying.  I did not tell my mom the name of the show until the day before it aired. 

The idea was to go there and try to document this crater and then go to the bottom, gather samples and see if we could find anything living down there. 

I had a team.  I had three rope-rigging guys who were part of the team and their job was to get me down inside the crater and out safely.  I had a microbiologist from the University of Illinois and he would tell me where to go at the bottom of this flaming crater.  And he would take the samples back to his lab and he would do a DNA analysis and sequence all of it to try and basically tell us what we found.  So we had a really good plan. 

Of course, I've done a lot of expeditions to a lot of places like volcanoes so there were some similarities between what I've done before and what I was doing here.  I've already rappelled down inside volcanoes in places like Congo, Vanuatu, Guatemala, but this was just different enough.  It scared the crap out of me, to be honest with you.  It was fucking scary. 

So we arrive in Turkmenistan.  We get up to the edge of the crater and it is hotter than I imagined.  It was bigger than I imagined.  It was more intimidating than I ever imagined.  It was one of the scariest things I had ever witnessed in my life.  When you stand on the edge and you smell that acrid, smoky smell and you look down and you think that your job is to go down inside this crater and right now you're basically past the point of no return.  There are too many people counting on you to do this. 

I suppose I could have canceled out at the last minute but I had almost two years’ worth of planning and preparation and the work of hundreds of people behind me at this point so I was like, “Okay, we’re going to do this!”  Sometimes you have to be afraid and go through it anyway. 

We spent the better part of about a week camped out beside the crater and we did things like taking temperature measurements, we tested out the ropes, we did all the stuff we had to do to try and figure out how we’re going to conduct the science to find these samples inside the crater and try to do it safely. 

I tell you, it was the best campsite at night.  Our fire pit was the best in the world.  The one thing I forgot to bring was a long stick with marshmallows.  Seriously, it was on my list of things to bring and I completely forgot. 

Photo by Chelsea Humphries.

Photo by Chelsea Humphries.

So the plan was, and we actually did have a plan, stretch fire-resistant ropes across the entire span of the crater.  Then I would go out to the center on pulleys wearing a special heat-protective suit, self-contained air, the whole works.  Then I would descend down into the middle of the crater. 

And my climbing harness is made out of Kevlar which is the same material that they make bullet-proof vests out of because a regular climbing harness would have completely melted from the extreme heat. 

Then I would touch down at the bottom, gather up all my soil samples, take a few temperature readings and then get the hell out of there.  That was the plan.  Doing it, oh, so intimidating. 

When it came time to take all of my weight onto that rope, that one big step, sort of like Neil Armstrong’s first step on the moon, was frightening.  You’re putting all of your trust in your teammates, in your equipment, in this harebrained idea that a whole bunch of people have said yes to that no one has ever done before, and you are the human guinea pig.  As I brought myself out to the center of that rope, I felt like a piece of laundry being hung out on the line to dry in the heat. 

And as I started to descend down, I could see my teammates get smaller and smaller and smaller as I basically descended down into what was essentially an oven.  But setting foot at the bottom was something I'll never forget. 

I'll probably never get the chance to go to Mars, hopefully, but probably not, but this has got to be the closest parallel that you can experience here on earth.  The glow of the crater, the fire, the smell, the heat, all of it was absolutely like being on another planet.  Imagine being transported to an alien world where you find yourself standing in a coliseum of fire.  That’s what it was like. 

Of course, time was limited.  I had just over 15 minutes worth of air in my tanks to do everything I needed to do and then GTFO so I had to get busy. 

So I’m digging in the ground gathering these soil samples and as I’m digging, fire is jumping out of the hole that I’m digging.  This is crazy.  All caught on video.  GoPro cam, amazing. 

So I gather up my samples from various spots around the crater and I've got a few minutes left.  So I decide to walk over to the biggest flame, about 15-feet high.  It doesn’t sound like a campfire.  It sounds like a jet engine roaring.  And the heat is so intense I can feel it on my face and my body through my protective heat-resistant clothing.  I'd measured the ground temperature at 400 degrees Celsius.  That’s more than hot enough to bake cookies, like burn cookies. 

At that point, that’s when my first alarm went off.  On my harness I got a special gas monitor and it tells me if I experience deadly levels of carbon monoxide, methane gas, or levels of oxygen get too low.  Once it started beeping it made me really happy that I had a self-contained air system.  If something were to go wrong with that, I would be inhaling superheated gas. 

If the ropes had burned, I would have plummeted to my death and the fall would have killed me, let alone the heat.  If I twisted my ankle at the bottom, I probably would have had to fill out a change-of-address form to Doorway to Hell, Darvaza, Turkmenistan.  But I took those last few minutes to just savor the experience of standing in a spot and seeing a view that I know that no human had ever seen before. 

That’s when my second alarm went off.  This was my low-oxygen alarm.  This one was far more urgent.  The pressure in my tank was getting dangerously low and my team still had to pull me up and out of the crater so I think it was time to retreat.  What do you think? 

So I gave the signal to the crew.  They started to take up the slack in the rope and pull me up.  As my feet lifted off the ground, I could feel myself starting to get light-headed.  I don't know if it was the adrenalin or the heat or a combination of the two.  Then as they started to pull me horizontally towards the extraction point, I felt like I was going to pass out.  At this point, there was nothing I could do.  I had no control over my own extraction so I just let go and just relaxed. 

And it was peaceful, surprisingly peaceful.  But there's no better feeling in the world than having your teammates grab you by the harness and haul your ass out of that crater.  It was awesome standing on the edge.  There were so many hugs and high-fives all around. 

So did we find what we were looking for?  Bottom line, yes!  There were several species of bacteria that we found at the bottom of that crater that were not found in the surrounding soil.  It was a major discovery.  We don’t know how they got there or why they're there but there they are.  Some of them were similar to the kind that you might find in deep sea volcanic vents or hot springs, like Yellowstone, or in underground coal fires.  Some of them, we believe, were even consuming the methane gas as food, so this was a major discovery.  But none of them were found in the existing DNA database.  So we found new life.  Amazing. 

Of course this raises more questions than answers.  Why are they there?  How did they get there?  How did they evolve in what is basically the most harsh environment on planet earth?  We don’t have all the answers, but the cool thing is we can now take this information and hand it off to future generations so that they can use this information to try and target where to look for life on other planets. 

Now, I don't know if I’m going to be alive long enough to see that discovery be made but two cool things did happen.  Just today, and I’m not even kidding, just today I got word from the folks at Guinness.  They are acknowledging this feat with a Guinness World Record. 

Another cool thing, twelve people have stood on the surface of the moon but only one has been to the Doorway to Hell.