Our research indicated that no one’s tried Stand Up Paddle boarding (SUP) at very high altitudes. And that’s exactly what drove three surfers to try out the sun-and-sand kissed sport in extreme mountain conditions

Think SUP and images of chiseled athletes tackling beach waves on a board may swim through your mind. But, the latest endurance water-sport was taken to new heights recently by three surfers, including a short-haired blonde woman from the US. They hit the mountain trail to try out the Hawaii-originated sport in the ice cold river waters of the Himalayas in India.
SUP is standing on a giant surfboard (fibreglass or inflatable) and propelling yourself with a single-ended paddle… usually in warm waters, along beautiful beaches dotted with palm trees.
Kiran Kumar (one of India’s first surfers) and Rammohan Paranjape (surfer/shutterbug) teamed up with American April Zilg (SUP Class 1 instructor) to soon realise that the bone chilling waters of the Indus river, the Category 3 rapids and the washed out roads to get there was a 360 degree depart from the archetypal beach boy surfing experience that SUP usually offers.
After gasping for breath while SUPing on their 12×31 inflatable paddle boards at around 16,000 ft (4,876 mts) on Suraj Tal lake, possibly the highest ever, the three made a pit stop at The Outdoor Journal’s office for an exclusive chat about their ‘SUP Himalaya expedition’:
# Whose idea was it to go on this expedition and how did you three team up?
Kiran
It was April’s idea. She told me about it at the Spice Coast Open (India’s maiden surfing event held in Kerala earlier this year). She’d been planning a trip to the Himalayas for months. She called and asked me if I was interested in travelling with her and possibly creating a world record for SUP at a high altitude. Her vision was to explore North India for SUPing potential and conducting some workshops en route Ladakh. I left home, ‘Mantra Surf Club’, on June 15 to meet up with her for the SUP Himalaya expedition. SUP was not hard at all for me and I have been doing it for more than 3-4 years now in the coastal waters of South India.
Ram
I was told about this expedition in May during our surf event in Kerala and the moment I heard about it, I was completely sold to the idea of heading up to the altitudes for SUP expedition.
April
Ever since I arrived in India, people have been telling me about all these great places to SUP. I’ve checked out a few and some were really as great as the claims, and others left much to be desired. One spot that kept sticking out in my head was Ladakh. I was contacted by an expedition company from North India and presented with an opportunity to travel that area while giving SUP demonstrations. I told the company that it would be great if we could stop at the lakes and try some white water in the rivers. By January 2013, I was 100% sure that I would be going to SUP Ladakh.
# How/When did you get into surfing and then SUP surfing?
Kiran
Surfing Swami (Jack Hebner) introduced me to surfing back in 2000 and I got into the sport when I was 13. I took up SUP three years ago.
Ram
Surfing happened to me when I had just dropped out of college at the age of 16, I didn’t want to be in the rat race, doing a 10-5 desk job. Friends at Mantra Surf Club (Kiran and his elder brother Kishore) were already ripping some waves. Later, I was drawn to the camera, travelling and the growing surf scene in India. SUP is a new found interest to me and I have a long way to go in this sport.
April
In my case, SUP came first for me and I still have a long way to go in surfing! It started in Florida. Only in 2009 I tried my first stand up paddle-boarding on a lake. I enjoyed it so much that I decided to buy an SUP board when I got home. As a sort of recreational fitness, I would paddle around the marshes and waterways in Wilmington, NC. One day I got the idea that I was moving fast, so I looked up racing for SUP. As luck would have it, one of the biggest races in SUP, and certainly the largest on the East Coast was right in my back yard- The Carolina Cup. I entered the intermediate race and I came in dead last. (I don’t mean a close last or right there with the pack. I mean dead last, miles behind). After that humbling experience, I vowed to improve. One year later, I entered the exact same race and secured the 2nd place. After that, I continued racing up and down the East Coast, entering (and often winning) races and ended up ranked as the #1 paddler in my region. SUP surfing waves in the ocean has just been a hobby/cross-training activity to stay fit and work on balance.
 Jispa
# What was the first thing that crossed your mind when it came to SUPing in the Himalayas as this is originally a sea sport that you guys wanted to try out at high altitude?
Kiran
Taking SUP to a whole new level and creating a world record.
Ram
SUP is a very dynamic sport, although it is very much ocean-oriented because of it’s origin, it can be easily done anywhere. Probably, the first thoughts were about paddling at high altitudes in extreme weather conditions and terrains which was going to be quite challenging for ocean dwellers like us.
April
The scenery doesn’t count as the first thing that crossed my mind. While preparing for the trip I had thoughts about the altitude and the cold water. A few times I had thoughts about the inflatable boards and wondered if there would be any issues.
# Did you find out if this has been done before at such altitudes?
Kiran
We did some research and nobody has come close to what we did, which is 16,000+ ft.
Ram
We looked very hard to find if it’s been done in Himalayas and we couldn’t find anything except there is a 16 second video of guys rafting in River Karnali in Nepal. I don’t think it was a proper expedition, since it’s not well documented. Coming to SUP paddling at altitudes, the closest we came was again 6,600 ft in Lake Utah. We are still trying to find some answers for highest altitude SUP paddling but we doubt if anything actually comes close to ours.
April
I’ve seen the River Karnali video on YouTube. Other than that, I can’t find any well-documented accounts of high altitude paddling. Most high-altitude paddles are in North America, and are based around the Sierra Nevada Mountains. All of these are under 7,000 feet. I’m still looking into it each day. I would love to get some feedback, and hopefully by getting the word out about this expedition, others may come forward and say what altitude they’ve paddled at.
# When did this expedition begin? And what was going through your mind about the thought of SUPing in Himalayan waters?
Kiran
June 17th I caught up with April in Chandigarh (North India) for the expedition. That’s when it began. I love trying new things in surfing and SUP.
Ram
Kiran and April held some SUP workshops in Chandigarh and soon started travelling up towards Himalayas. They had successful stints in Shimla, Dharamshala and Manali before I joined them in Manali and headed to Ladakh.
April
I was very upbeat about the fact that we will be doing something unique in these glacial waters/lakes and rapids just because of the varied landscapes, challenges it posed and the fun we were gonna have on this trip. I also knew in the end it was going to be very draining and exhausting.
It all began on June 18th. However, I think it truly began when the team was all together in Manali. Everything up to that point wasn’t very substantial. I couldn’t stop thinking about the scenery, the altitude, and the water temperature. I also couldn’t wait to bring a new sport to the area. SUP is just catching on down South (India), and to introduce it to people up North was very exciting to me. Everywhere we went, we got excellent feedback and people loved trying out SUP.
# What kind of study did you undertake of the region before the expedition began?
Kiran
I knew about Ladakh from my friends and I did minimal study on weather, food, lakes, altitude and hardest rapid in the rivers.
Ram
I have been to the region before and have some knowledge about the place but this time we were going at a very different time, when all the winter snow would be melting down the peaks with landslides, rains etc… Especially, after what happened in Uttarkhand (cloudburst/landslides killing thousands in June), many advised against going there at this time of the year. I don’t know how many calls or messages I received but fortunately our travel went smooth without any major issues.
April
Actually, this was part of the adventure for me. I hadn’t done much research because I was very busy with a few other projects. At first, I was relying heavily on the ‘outdoor adventure’ company that invited me to the area to provide me with the information I would need. When that company fell through and we were on our own, my study began at an expedited pace. I found out a lot about the area, the rain, the snowmelt, and all of the associated dangers – all once we were already en route! I was a little nervous, especially with the news from Uttarkhand. I, too, received countless messages asking if I was OK and to advise us to not be up in the area.
# Have you ever been to the Himalayas before?
Kiran
Yes I have been to Jomsom, Nepal in 2001 with a group of friends from the Ashram and it was Surfing Swami’s idea to go there. Well, we didn’t do much in the waters in Jomsom and instead we went horse riding, mountain climbing and sightseeing.
Ram
I have been to Ladakh, Zanskar mountain ranges but it was never an expedition or for trekking. It was 3 years back with couple of my friends and we visited monasteries, lakes, did biking. Nothing too adventurous.
April
Nope! I had never been to the Himalayas before.
# Could you tell us something about your other two SUP surfers (as people you have known and surfers)?
Ram
Kiran and I go back to our childhood days, where we grew up together, had many adventures and did many wonderful travels. He is India’s premier surfer, an aquaholic and a great athlete. He isn’t so talkative and remains quiet and calm.
April is someone whom I met through our surfing activities down south this year. Obviously she is a great SUP athlete and the sport’s ambassador here in India, she is quite determined about promoting the sport in the country. As a person, she is hyper energetic, fun and adventurous.
April
As for Ram and Kiran, I couldn’t have asked for a better pair of people to come on this expedition with me. Kiran was right there through thicks and thins, and when I thought it all wasn’t going to work, he had the faith. Ram is very patient and gets things done when the language barrier (or the talk to women barrier) seems to be an issue. I haven’t seen Ram in the water much and we only spent a little bit of time together back in Kerala. But I stayed at the surf ashram with Kiran for over a month. I always felt like he was up for adventure, my kind of person! He’s an excellent surfer and a damn good athlete. The first long distance paddle I ever went on, he immediately wanted to go – no questions asked. He hopped on to my small board and paddled 12 miles out into the middle of the ocean to a set of rocks with no GPS and no complaints!
# How did you guys decide to fund your expedition and what was the total cost incurred per person?
Kiran
Well, at first we were told that we will get sponsored and the guys that we were working with turned out to be a big scam and later on we put money from our own pockets. April Zilg sponsored me and Ram, who is my good friend, was sponsored by Mantra Surf Club, Surf Adventure Enterprises. For Ram it costed him Rs 60,000 (USD 988) because he joined us from Manali, where as April and I started the expedition from Chandigarh, so I think it comes up to Rs 1 lakh (USD 1,646) each.
Ram
Well, Initially we were supposed to be funded by certain individuals who were interested in promoting the sport etc… but it turned out to be a big scam. In the end, we ended up paying for our own expedition, pretty much. April covered Kiran’s costs and I did mine.
April
Same story as Ram, the ‘outdoor company’ had arranged sponsors and opportunities for Kiran and I to give instructor certifications to make some money to offset the cost of the expedition, but that fell through. I know that we all paid a little more than we had bargained for, and if you take into account that I purchased the 4 SUP boards for this trip specifically.
# Where did you guys begin SUP surfing from (during this trip) and how did you chose the first spot?
Kiran
Well, April and I began Stand Up Paddling from Chandigarh with the help of local river guides/ rafters. Most of the time we had no idea what was coming for us but we preferred not knowing because its more exciting.
Ram
The expedition began from Shimla, Dharamshala and later I joined them in Manali to head towards Ladakh. Ladakh was always going to be the highlight and the expedition would actually begin on the way to Ladakh from Manali.
April
We started stand up paddling in Chandigarh on a lake there. The real adventure began from Manali. The night we stopped for our first camp, the river alongside the camp looked very nice. We decided to wake up early and charge!
# Any curious tourists/ locals approached you to find out what the hell you guys were doing?
Kiran
There were some tourists interested in SUPing on the way to Tsomoriri Lake. Some local kayakers in Ladakh were very interested and in fact they even charged the class 4 rapid with us, but sitting.
Ram
More than tourists, we had a lot of curious locals coming out cheering and trying the SUP themselves. One of the objectives of this expedition was also to promote SUP locally in the region. We even had mountain nomads in far east Ladakh trying SUP.
April
I was usually in the water, so I didn’t get a lot of questions. I heard locals cheering from the riverbanks when we were on the rivers. At a small lake before Tsomoriri was where I got the most questions. A couple from Europe had stopped and asked what tour I was on and how they could do SUP in the Himalayas! At this stop, some of the kids herding goats also stopped by and tried the boards out.
 Indus Crew
# What is the basic difference between SUPing in warm ocean currents and in high altitude lakes / gushing white water / glacial melt water?
Kiran
One of the thing was any water activities you do up in that high altitude and in freezing condition it just drains your energy twice as faster and I got into the water few times to test how long i can survive in that freezing water. I dont think I could last over 5 minutes. It was a little bit of a problem when we were charging white water that it was not that easy to flip our board and get back on the track, expecially in class 3 to 4. When we were in Pangong Lake, I went out swimming and I had issues there, I couldn’t breath nor could I feel my legs or my hands for 10 minutes!
Ram
SUPing in warm waters of ocean is obviously a little easier and comfortable since it’s our familiar ground. Where as, mountains and high altitudes is a bit out of comfort zone… where, from weather to terrain…everything is different. The effort you put in high altitudes is 10x times more than what you do at sea level.
April
Falling in. In the warm southern oceans, falling in is just a part of learning. It’s fun, and sometimes you welcome it because you’re hot. The first time I fell in at the Indus, even though I had my wetsuit, it was an absolute shock. It took me a minute to catch my breath.
# The toughest places you guys SUPed in the Himalayas!
Kiran
I would say Suraj Tal was the toughest and also the whitewater in Indus River.
Ram
Paddling at Suraj Tal at 16,000 ft was definitely very challenging. The weather was quite treacherous, we barely escaped a snow storm and it was middle of nowhere.
April
Kiran and I had to climb down a rocky slope to get to the lake. Once there, it was freezing and the wind was howling. Then, while we were packing up and had to ascend the rocky slope, it started to snow! Turns out there was a storm brewing. Of course, though, trying to stand up through a class 4 rapid in the freezing Indus wasn’t easy either.
# Do you see this as a potential sport (individual or part of a multi-disciplinary event) in the near future?
Kiran
Yes, Stand Up Paddling has potential, no doubt. We are looking forward to holding events in the near future. Surfing Swami is already planning a trip next year.
Ram
Of course, we had an SUP race, SUP surfing at our inaugural surf event in Kerala. We hope to take this sport to every corner of India where ever there are water bodies. It is the fastest growing water sport currently in the world and we hope it catches up in India too.
April
100% yes! This is the world’s fastest growing watersport because it appeals to such a broad audience. People that get hooked will inherently want to enter some competitions, even if it’s just for fun.
# Fill in the blanks: SUP surfing to me is _______. SUP surfing in the himalayas is _____!
Ram
Fun & Enthralling
April
Freedom. Exciting.
# What do you do on regular days (when not surfing)?
Ram
A lot of planning, meetings and busy etching out the future of surfing in India.
April
Paddling is my regular day! When I’m done paddling, I’m designing some western beachwear and accessories that are made in India with Indian fabrics. The funds from this are going to make very modest swimsuits for underprivileged girls in India that take up surfing (right now, the suits will go to the orphans from Homes of Hope that participate in the yearly IndoJax Surf Charity).
# Which are the other places in the world that (you think ) are conducive for high-altitude SUP surfing?
Ram
Definitely South America! It’s got the world’s highest lakes. There is Gurudongmar at 17,100 ft at Indo-Tibetan border. There are a few more impressive water bodies in Tibet.
April
Agree with Ram. However, if you do some searches for high altitude SUP, most are in the 7,000 ft range. We’re interested in going higher, and maybe hosting a race at a higher altitude.
 Sarchu Valley
# Describe your gear and equipment?
Ram
My camera gear had Canon 7D, with wide angle lens 10-22 mm, 18-200 mm, 70-200 mm. We had Go Pros, a water camera.
April
Apart from that, we had four inflatable Hobie SUP boards which was quite a task to lug them around. Helmets, wetsuits, life jackets, first aid. For SUP we had 4 Hobie 12’6” Inflatable boards with 3 piece adjustable paddle, removable fin, and pump. Each paddler in whitewater was fitted with a life vest and helmet. The life vest is also somewhat SUP specific, being that most of the floatation is in the chest and shoulder area, leaving the space below the arms clear for paddling motion. In the white water we also ran 3mm wetsuits.
Under my wetsuit I had put on my Under Armor compression leggings and Arc’Teryx base layer. To keep my feet warm, I also had 5mm Xcel split toe surf booties on. Feet are the first thing to get cold, so a thicker layer down there is a MUST. Also, I prefer the split toe design for SUP because it’s a little more like bare feet and you can get better balance by having some more freedom in your big toe.
I also brought my GoPro Hero and GoPro Hero 3 cameras to film a lot of the action. However, in terms of water cameras – I really love my Nikon Coolpix AW100.
# Any injuries sustained during the expedition? What was in your medical kit and survival kit?
Ram
Fortunately no big injuries, only bruises. April had some knee issues at the end. I think we are good at handling ourselves and taking enough precautionary measures. We had a basic medical kit.
April
No injuries. I think my knee hurt because I sat on a motorcycle in an odd position for about 6 hours! Basic medical kit. The good thing about SUP boards is that they actually double as so many different things! They are great for water rescue (same as a life guard rescue board essentially), can be used as a backboard for spinal injuries or even used as an air mattress in a cold camping situation!
# Any scary / memorable moment you can share while SUPing the Himalayas?
Ram
Kiran and April sliding down the snow on their SUP’s was quite a memorable moment. Kiran went topless too in freezing conditions. They might have had some moments while coming down at class 4 rapids on their SUP’s too.
April
I did enjoy taking the board out in the snow. However, I’d have to say the first time I came around the bend in the rapids and didn’t know what to expect. I lined the board up wrong and ended up broad side getting turned over into the first class 3. The shock of falling in such cold water literally took my breath away.
# Fill in the blanks: I am ______? 
Ram
An intrepid traveller who got a new nick name MOMOS (Tibetian steamed dish) on this trip.
April
A crazy blonde chick.
Image Courtesy © Rammohan Photography
Place: New Delhi

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