While in India, I spent some time living in a surf ashram with Hare Krishna swamis whose daily practice was surfing. They also had a lot of interest in stand up paddling. After a long paddle one day, two of the swamis, Kiran and Rammohan, mentioned that there were many high altitude lakes in India that would be perfect for an expedition. I was intrigued by their ideas, and realized that the Hobie® inflatable SUPs would be the perfect boards to bring for easy transport, and to paddle both whitewater and lakes.
To prepare, we visited Dharamsala, the home of the Dalai Lama, and hit the trail for a hike—a low intensity way to start adapting to the increasing altitude. In Shimla, I really started to feel the effects of lower oxygen levels at 7,234 feet. The first time I fell in the water, which was all snowmelt, the cold took my breath away leaving me coughing and gasping.
After these two stops, we gathered our gear, thoughts, and transportation in Manali, at 6,727 feet above sea level. Later, I’d come to realize that nothing could have prepared me for the thin air and what we would find on the Manali-Leh highway.
The ‘highway’ was an adventure in itself. It is a gravel path only one vehicle wide in most places. We encountered mudslide after mudslide as the snow atop the Himalayas melted in the early summer months. Puddles large enough to swallow a motorcycle caused jams, holding us up for hours at a time.
Our final destination was Leh, nestled deep in the Himalayas at 11,483 feet. On the way we passed through a tent town named Zing Zing Bar at 13,382 feet. The road became very steep. Our vehicle slowed to a crawl as the tires spun in the gravel. I lost count of how many times the road cut back as I became a little spacey. We were headed straight up.
The road finally leveled, revealing an emerald green valley between snowcapped mountains. The dark waters of a snowmelt lake huddled beneath. A small rock painted with a yellow square proclaimed the waterbody’s name: Suraj Tal. The altitude was 16,020 feet. It was bone chilling outside.
We leapt from the car and scrambled down the loose boulders, our inflatable stand-up paddleboards in their travel bags, which we wore as backpacks. Our lungs were burning, our vision was blurring, and our minds were swimming.
Inflating the two Hobie SUPs brought even more exhaustion. When we were finally on the water, I relaxed. As I paddled, circling the lakeshore, it hit me. Kiran and I were paddling on top of the world. You can count on your fingers and toes how many other lakes in the world are higher up than Suraj Tal!
The wind picked up. We let it blow us back to the side of the lake we had launched from. Floating back to the start, I forgot that we were three miles up. I didn’t think about breaking down the boards or the hike back up the hill. I even forgot that I’d have to leave India soon. I was euphoric.
Little did I know that in these moments we were setting a world record on our paddleboards. I was also unaware that the beautiful breeze that eased us back to our starting point was the beginning of a blizzard, and we had gotten off the water just in time…
Follow April’s continuing high-altitude SUP adventures in The Road to Leh.
The Limca Book of World Records recognized April and Kiran as the SUP altitude record holders.