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Q&A: Explorer Describes 'Sensory Overload' From Descent Into Fiery Volcano

Surrounded by the churning waves of a fiery, molten lake and dangerous, falling rocks, adventurer George Kourounis has safely returned from his recent descent into the Marum volcanic crater with only a small hole singed into the sleeve of his rain jacket.

"Marum crater is on the island of Ambrym, which is a remote island in the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu," Kourounis said. "It lies between Fiji and Australia. Most people have never heard of the place. We were on the volcano for the better part of a week, camped out at the summit at the end of August. In total, we made two descents to the bottom."

Kourounis, who lives with his wife in Toronto, specializes in documenting the extreme forces unleashed by Mother Nature, including hurricanes, volcanoes, tornadoes, avalanches and blizzards. The explorer and storm chaser has photographed and filmed many of Earth's most extreme locales.

"We actually had our wedding ceremony on the crater's edge of a different exploding volcano in 2006," he said. "As we exchanged our wedding vows, the volcano put on quite a show with numerous explosions."

Trekking across the globe to all seven continents, Kourounis' adventures have taken him to 50 countries.

"Most of the time, when I undertake a big expedition like this, it's typically for a TV show that I might be hosting, but not this time," he said. "I just jumped at the opportunity to get inside because it is exactly the kind of thing that I love to do. My friend Sam Cossman and I filmed the whole thing, but I didn't have a TV crew with me like I normally would have."

What were your motivations for the journey into an active volcanic crater?

I've known about the Marum crater for many years, and as a volcano aficionado, it was always on my bucket list to go down inside. There are about five locations on Earth with active, persistent lakes of lava, and I've been to four of them now. The final one is in a very remote part of Antarctica.

How long did it take to prepare for the descent into the crater, and how long were you away from home?

Well, it takes years of dreaming and planning, but we were very lucky in that the weather was good. Usually the summit is shrouded in cloud with howling winds and rain. Once the ropes were rigged, it only took a few hours to rappel to the bottom of the pit. It is very deep, about 1,200 feet. In almost two months, I've spent three nights in my own bed. I was in Peru for three weeks, then briefly at home in Toronto. From there it was immediately off to Vanuatu via Fiji, then to the volcano, then to Los Angeles via Auckland. From here I still need to go to Vancouver then Edmonton. I travel a lot.

Who accompanied you on the adventure, and could you tell me a little about them?

Joining me was fellow adventurer Sam Cossman from San Francisco. We'd never met before but had corresponded about adventure ideas. We had discussed going to Marum many times and when the opportunity came up, I called him and we made arrangements. He's the one in the video with the GoPro camera on a stick. I'm the guy in the aluminum heat suit. Sam is the one who edited the viral video together and uploaded it. Millions of people have now seen it. There were seven of us in total at the summit camp, plus some local guides. The entire team was great to work with.

How hot is the lava in the crater and what unexpected dangers can catch you off guard?

I'm guessing the hottest parts are probably over 1,500 degrees. We measured a cooled sample that landed nearby with a laser thermometer, and it was over 600 degrees. The radiant heat at the closest point to the lava lake was so hot that it melted the lens hood of my camera in a matter of seconds. Without my protective heat suit, I couldn't stand at the edge for more than about four seconds. I had one "interesting" moment down there. I had removed my heat suit and was packing things up, and a large splash of lava managed to reach high enough to get to where I was. I looked up and saw a shower of glowing, orange lava spatter coming towards me. I only had enough time to turn my face away from it. As the pieces landed around me, one small piece hit my arm and melted a small hole in my rain jacket. Luckily, the splash wasn't any bigger than it was.

What are some of the hidden dangers people may not know about when you make your way into an active volcanic crater?

The lava was the most visually obvious risk; however, there are many dangers inside Marum crater that are not so obvious. Certainly, the most dangerous thing is the never-ending threat of falling rocks. The sides of the crater are very steep, and these cliffs are made up of a lot of very loose, volcanic rock. Many rocks came loose during our descent, and there is always the risk of a huge rockslide. Also, when it rains, the raindrops combine with the toxic sulfur gas to create very potent acid rain. It is so strong that it stings your eyes, burns your skin and corrodes anything made of metal. My heat suit got totally destroyed by the acid.

What precautions do you to take to prevent injury and death, and did you experience anything unexpected while in the crater?

Safety was our highest priority. Getting a rescue team down inside the crater if there was an emergency would be near impossible. Inside the crater we wore protective gear: helmets, gas masks, etc. And close to the lava lake, I had to don my aluminized heat suit to shield me from the intense heat. Rappelling down was challenging enough, but getting back up was the real trick. We used several gasoline powered, motorized rope ascenders to help haul ourselves up and out. While at the bottom, I broke the starter pull-cord on one of them. Luckily it started on that first try, otherwise, things would've turned ugly. I might still be down there. (laughs)

Could you describe the crater once you had entered and what kind of feelings you were experiencing in that given moment?

It was surreal. The crater is so massive, and the lava lake lights up the cliff sides and illuminates the clouds and gas plume like a giant, orange beacon. While descending, you can start to feel the heat before reaching the halfway point, and while descending, you can't help but constantly look over your shoulder to peek down at the lava lake as you get closer and closer. Being at the bottom was a sensory overload. The smell, the heat, the sound... I was just in awe. Few people ever get to witness such a dramatic spectacle of nature firsthand. It was an experience I will never forget.

What were the sights, sounds and smells of the crater and how long were you able to remain in there?

Looking at the lava lake is so surreal. I've seen our video 100 times, and it still doesn't look real. It's like a Hollywood special effect. The lava churns and rumbles all the time. It sounds like several oceans' worth of waves, all crashing against the shores all at once. I described it as the sound that the Devil's washing machine might make. The sulfur dioxide gas that comes out of the volcano is nasty stuff. We had to wear gas masks most of the time while down inside. The brimstone smell was overpowering at times, but I've come to love that smell. We were able to spend quite a bit of time at the bottom, at least an hour or so. Once you back away from the edge overlooking the lava, the heat becomes bearable. Of course, the longer you linger in a place like that, the more danger you find yourself in.

In comparison to other exciting adventures you have embarked upon in your lifetime, how would you say this experience compares?

Going into Marum crater was one of the highlights of my life. It was so dramatic and surreal that it might be tough to top. Last year, I descended into a fiery, gas pit in the Turkmenistan desert while leading an expedition for National Geographic. That was intense as well. I seem to find myself in all the Hellish places on Earth; it's strange!

Would you want to go back?

Absolutely! As a matter of fact, I have some ideas turning in my mind.

Adventurer Geoff Mackley made a similar descent into a volcanic crater not long ago, which aired on television. Do you know Mackley and was this the same location as his previous descent?

Yes, this was the same spot. And Geoff actually was instrumental in helping me get to the bottom. He contacted me and let me know that there was an opportunity to get down inside and asked if I would be interested in joining him on one of these descent expeditions. It took half of a second to make that decision. He and his team were absolutely vital in terms of arranging the logistics and getting the ropes rigged.

Did Mackley inspire you to follow in his footsteps?

Geoff and I have been colleagues for years. We both do very similar things, and we've both been jealous of each other's expeditions at times. This was the very first time that we've ever worked together on a project, and it was a great experience. He's spent years studying that volcano, and I had the benefit of being able to use his knowledge of the place to get to the bottom on my first attempt. I'm very grateful for him and the rest of the crew who helped make it possible.

What are your future goals and what do you strive to do next?

I want to keep on exploring extreme places on Earth and continue to share my experiences, photos and videos with the world. I love showing people some of the places they will likely never get to see for themselves firsthand. Soon, I will be heading to Madagascar on an expedition to explore a remote, and very impenetrable part of the island, the limestone labyrinth known as the Tsingy de Bemaraha. My goal is to uncover previously undiscovered cave systems.