Home > Paddling > SUP

19,000 Feet High on a SUP: How One Athlete Set a World Paddleboard Record

Mountaineer Andrew Hughes has raised the official bar for those wishing to paddleboard above the clouds.

(Photo/Marcos Terra)
Support us! GearJunkie may earn a small commission from affiliate links in this article. Learn More

On January 23, Seattle-based adventurer and mountaineer Andrew Hughes established a new SUP world record — paddling on the highest elevation flatwater lake recorded on Tres Cruces Norte in Chile. He also tagged the summit while he was there, at 19,780 feet.

Though technically on a desert plateau just West of the Andes mountains, Tres Cruces Norte has a sizable alpine lake. It sits between two notable peaks, Cruces Centro and Cruces Sur — the sixth-highest mountain in the Andes, and easily the most trafficked of them.

The “pond” at Tres Cruces Norte (officially 19,364 feet) is in Nevado Tres Cruces National Park. Located inside a volcanic crater, it’s easily one of the highest bodies of water on Earth. Hughes set his paddleboarding sights on it several years ago and embarked on the objective in late January 2023.

GearJunkie spoke to the record-setter himself to chat about the logistics of his historical climb, summit, and SUP record.

Setting the Highest Elevation SUP Record: Tres Cruces Norte

(Photo/Marcos Terra)

When it comes to paddling, there’s really no shortage of destinations. Long-time canoe and kayak enthusiasts will recognize names of places and rivers, like the Green River, the Colorado, the Grand Canyon, Brokeback and New River Gorges, the Boundary Waters … the list goes on.

But when it comes to alpine lakes, not rivers or tried-and-true whitewater destinations or even large flatwater basins, the amount of potential really skyrockets. You can paddle just about anywhere on a SUP. With paddleboards on the market nowadays weighing as little as 18-20 pounds, and being more packable than ever, most bodies of water are fair game — as long as it’s accessible by foot and trail to get you and your SUP there.

At 19,780 feet above sea level, Tres Cruces Norte in Atacama, Chile, sits higher up than Mount Whitney, all of Colorado’s 14ers, Mount Fuji (the tallest mountain in Japan), and Pico de Orizaba (the tallest mountain in Mexico), Mount Logan (tallest mountain in Canada and second tallest in North America), and Mount Kenya. It’s just shy of the elevation of Aconcagua, for context.

And, you can paddle on it.

Meet Record-Setter Andrew Hughes

Andrew Hughes with his ISLE Switch board, on which he completed the highest elevation SUP record; (photo/Marcos Terra)

Andrew grew up on a farm outside Seattle, and living on the Olympic Peninsula, he grew up kayaking, sailing, and fishing.

Despite the formative experiences he had on the water in his early years, he ventured down the climbing and mountaineering path and hasn’t looked back … until now.

“I always feel like the experiences we have when we’re younger influence our relationships with the mountains later,” Hughes said when he spoke with GearJunkie.

Hughes has summited all of the Seven Summits, the Seven Volcanic Summits, holds a Guinness World Record on Mt. Everest, and has climbed countless other notable peaks, including Denali, Aconcagua, Mt. Rainier, Elbrus, Kilimanjaro, and more.

“FKT and records are just entry points into deepening my relationships with the mountains, really just an excuse to explore new places and expand my experiences,” Hughes explained when asked what motivated him to chase records.

Then, about 4 or 5 years ago, a couple of friends got Hughes into paddleboarding. “I realized it was just another way to experience what’s around me, not just mountains,” said Hughes.

Andrew Hughes’ Logistics, Details, and Gear

Having summited dozens of peaks abroad, Andrew Hughes is no stranger to complicated trip planning and high-alpine logistics.

Still, before a few years ago, he had never set foot on a SUP. So, chasing this record also meant learning the ropes when it came to SUP-specific gear.

“The reason why I reached out to ISLE, in the beginning, was because it has all these initiatives, like 1% for the Planet, and lots of outreach as well,” Hughes told GearJunkie.

That’s how he decided on the ISLE Switch. The board weighs roughly 19 pounds; it comes with a three-piece paddle, lots of tie-downs, a carry pack, a manual pump, and a whole lot of modular accessories — most of which Hughes would ditch for the record attempt.

(Photo/Marcos Terra)

In addition to the board itself, Hughes used the ISLE Switch, pump, paddle, and pack, a minimalist Mustang Survival PFD belt, some neoprene boots, and O’Neill neoprene gloves for the attempt.

“Everything in the gear realm was about weight,” Hughes said. “And then all the [additional] gear I had to the take to the summit that was critical, like my sleeping bag, layers … just standard climbing gear.”

Asked about his choice of footwear, Hughes said he used a pair of SCARPA hiking boots.

“And then I lived off gels pretty much while doing the record,” he added.

Inspiration for the High-Alpine Paddle

Hughes visited the exact same region in Chile while on a climbing trip in 2017.

“[The lake] is just this gorgeous body of water in the middle of the desert,” he told us. “I remember sitting there at the lake, wanting to come back.”

But he didn’t look into the details until 2020, when he applied for the record, and was informed which bodies of water officially qualified.

“I wanted to SUP at this lake,” he recounted. “When I applied, there were certain bodies of water that were internationally recognized for high-altitude water records and some that weren’t. Most of them are in Tibet or the Andes.”

All the satellite imagery said the lake was at 5,915 m, but then Hughes arrived and saw that the water had evaporated — you could see the lines receding. Officially, it measured in at 5,902 m (or 19,364 feet).

Marrying Mountaineering With Paddleboarding

Andrew Hughes at a lake near basecamp in Atacama, Chile, beneath Tres Cruces Norte; (photo/Marcos Terra)

So, why the heck carry a SUP on your back up a massive mountain? Well, for one, it’s easier nowadays than a decade ago. The boards are slimmer and lighter. Recent innovations in SUPs have just made it possible.

As Hughes explained, “This was almost a proof of concept for me: can you integrate paddleboarding with high-altitude mountaineering? I wanted to figure out how to integrate paddleboarding into trips … I had never done SUP trips before. My question was: can this really work?

“Other people in the region were wondering why I wasn’t trying to run up every peak and chase summits …” Hughes admitted. “But I really wanted to experience the mountains in a new way. And these places are changing dramatically. So thinking about global warming … how can we keep exploring?”

Start to Finish: Record Time for Tres Cruces Norte on a SUP

(Photo/Marcos Terra)

When Hughes got to the salt lake, Laguna Verde, his basecamp in Atacama (literally, the dryest desert in the world), it was extremely windy. As far as the Andes go, it was still fairly accessible, but the conditions were not prime for paddleboarding.

The official world record starts from the entry point on the water. Then once there, it has to be 10 minutes of continuous paddle on the body of water. All told, Hughes spent a little over 14 minutes on the lake, according to his Garmin.

But that record doesn’t begin to reflect the amount of time Hughes put into the attempt. “I did tons of prep, and like 7,000 miles of travel to get down there. Then the airline lost my bag, so I didn’t even have some of my gear.”

“I spent a week doing acclimation hikes on lower peaks. Then I did some recon on what road I’d thought I’d need to take to get to [Norte]. We climbed and set up basecamp around 4,800 meters [15,748 feet]. Started our ascent, climbed, camped at an outcropping, then left the next morning for the summit and the lake,” Hughes recounted the timeline.

His record at the lake took maybe 45 minutes from start to finish. With the ascent and descent, maybe 36 hours total on the peak.

“The summit was beautiful, but the ascent with dust and dirt, it was scree-filled and awful. With the pack, the board, and all the gear in my pack, I was like a turtle going up that climb,” Hughes said. “So the best part was being on the water.”

I’m no stranger to backcountry pack paddleboarding myself, having paddled dozens of alpine lakes above 10,000 feet. But have I ever considered chasing lake destinations double that? No way. At least, not here in North America.

Now that I know that there’s such thing as the highest elevation SUP attempt, I may just have to branch out, and see where my feet and my SUP can take me.

Icy Kayaking: Aniol Serrasolses Styles 'World's Highest Glacier Waterfall Drop'

Aniol Serrasolses went on a glacial expedition, not to go climbing, but instead to find waterfalls to fall off of in a kayak. Read more…

A man wearing a running vest and visor tops a hill with mountains in the background, Jack Kuenzle FKT Presidential Traverse

FKT Smasher Jack Kuenzle Breaks His Own Record on Presidential Traverse

Ultrarunner Jack Kuenzle is something of an FKT phenomenon. And with this latest accomplishment, he shows no signs of slowing down. Read more…

Subscribe Now

Get adventure news and gear reviews in your inbox!

Join Our GearJunkie Newsletter

Get adventure news and gear reviews in your inbox!