Earth’s 3rd Pole: Coupled Human-Natural Systems in the Khumbu Valley, Nepal

In light of the ongoing global COVID-19 crisis and worldwide travel restrictions, which are expected to remain in place for an indefinite period of time, Stanford University is suspending all BOSP Summer Quarter 2019-20 programs (see full announcement).


Important Notice

This Overseas Seminar is extremely strenuous and requires a high level of physical fitness and nutrition preparation. The seminar will take place at very high altitude (4,600’ – 18,300’) and will involve daily treks of approximately 4-9 miles, which will be very physically demanding at this altitude. Students that are accepted or waitlisted for this seminar must follow a strict fitness and nutrition plan in order to adequately prepare for the seminar’s conditions and activities. Students that are accepted or waitlisted for this seminar will be required to meet with a clinician at the Vaden Health Center and submit a medical authorization form signed by Vaden before being allowed to participate.  Please closely review the information on this webpage and give serious consideration to your readiness before applying. 

Seminar Quick Facts

Locations: Kathmandu and Khumbu Valley, Nepal

Faculty Leader: Rob Dunbar, Earth System Science

Arrival date in Kathmandu, NepalAugust 27, 2020

Departure date from Kathmandu, Nepal: September 18, 2020

Information Session: November 7 (12:15pm-1:15pm) in Sweet Hall rm. 020 (Please refer to the info session slide deck).

Program Cost: $600 program fee. Fee covers room and board, transportation and course activities during the program. Fee excludes airfare to/from the program location. Financial assistance towards the program fee and cost of travel may be available. Please visit the Overseas Seminar Overview webpage for complete information.

Academic Prerequisites
Spring Quarter 2-unit course (course title and number TBC). Students that will be off-campus in Spring Quarter will be expected to join the course remotely via Zoom.

Additional Program Requirements
1) Vaden Travel Health Orientation
2) Meet with a doctor at the Vaden Health Center and submit a medical authorization form signed by Vaden.
3) Follow a strict fitness and nutrition plan in order to prepare for the seminar’s conditions and activities.
4) Obtain all required gear prior to the seminar. BOSP will communicate complete gear requirements to seminar participants. Please refer to World Wide Trekking's Everest Base Camp Gear List to get a sense of the gear required for this seminar.
5) Ground Rules - In order to optimize safety during the program, students will be required to agree to and sign Ground Rules that may restrict behavior throughout the program. These Ground Rules are in addition to the BOSP Participation and Assumption of Risk, Release of Claims, Indemnification and Hold Harmless Agreement that all students sign and agree to at the time of program application. Students’ parents/families will also need to sign these Ground Rules to confirm that they acknowledge the specific dangers of travel to the program location.

Activity Level
Extremely Strenuous: Activities will include full-day hikes at high altitude and on steep, exposed terrain or full-day kayaking excursions or other physical activities. For a full list of program activity levels refer to the Overview page.

Center for Disease Control and Prevention: Health Information for Travelers to Nepal

US State Department Country Information: Nepal

Visa Information: Consulate General of Nepal

General Information: Visit the Overseas Seminars Overview page

Application Deadline: January 26, 2020 at 11:59pm (applications will open in December 2019). Please visit BOSP's Application Process page for more information.

Questions? Schedule an appointment with a BOSP staff member.

General Description

Through place-based exploration of the Khumbu Valley, Nepal, this field seminar focuses on the complex relationships between mountain and glacial geomorphology, culture and religion, land use in extreme environments, climate change, and sustainable resource development and management. An analysis of the coupled human-natural systems of the Khumbu Valley provides a unique lens for students to interpret broader resource management and conservation issues. The curriculum balances field exercises and explorations, classroom lectures, and meetings with government officials, NGO staff, national park managers, Sherpa leaders, and several Buddhist Lamas.


The high-altitude region of the Himalaya-Hindu Kush-Tibet is known as Earth’s Third Pole, as it contains the world’s largest store of snow and ice outside the Arctic and Antarctic.  It spans more than 4.7 million km2 across 10 nations and supports great ethnic and socioeconomic diversity – with more than 600 different spoken languages. The 3rd Pole contains the world’s highest mountains and they efficiently trap moisture from the atmosphere. Ten of the world’s largest rivers are sourced here, with more than 1.5 billion people dependent on their water in downstream basins. Mountains and high plateaus are uniquely sensitive to climate change at human and geological timescales. The rate of global warming over the 3rd Pole is higher than the global average and even more so adjacent to its large glaciers and ice caps because of albedo feedbacks. Climate change as well as ever-increasing tourism and a rising population collectively pose difficult challenges for the inhabitants of the region. A primary motivation for organizing this BOSP overseas seminar is the opportunity to bring coupled human-natural systems analysis to bear on these challenges. The 3rd pole is a huge region and is largely inaccessible to casual and transient visitors. The Khumbu region of Nepal is an exception because of tourist infrastructure developed around Sagarmatha National Park. The Khumbu Valley hosts a remarkable array of geomorphic features, with large glaciers and rivers, and elevations ranging from 1600 to 8850 meters (Mt. Everest/Sagarmatha). The valley is home to the Sherpa and Kulang people. Most Sherpas practice Tibetan Buddhism while some Kulang are Hindu. The valley is home to Tengboche monastery, a Buddhist Gompa – a word that translates loosely as an “ecclesiastical fortress”, providing an opportunity to probe Buddhist thought regarding the natural world and man’s place within.

Living and Travel Conditions

Nepal in its entirety is a US Travel Advisory Level 2 country. Over the course of the seminar, we will ascend and descend about 25,000 feet (often we must hike down to climb up). There are no motorized vehicles beyond Lukla, and we will hire Yaks to carry our over-night gear. Except for 4 nights in Kathmandu, all accommodations are in Nepalese Tea Houses, which generally means bunkroom or other shared rooms. We sleep on bunkbeds in our sleeping bags and eat meals from a limited menu. Meals, especially at higher altitude tend to be vegetarian. It will rain and snow on us when we are hiking, and temperatures can range from a low as 20°F at altitude to 85°F in Kathmandu. We must limit the cargo that our yaks carry and so all participants must pack efficiently and bring the right gear.

The class is open to students from any major. The primary health concerns are travelers' diarrhea as well as sun, cold, and altitude-related ailments. We minimize the risk of food-borne ailments by bringing our own cook.

BOSP will be working with World Wide Trekking to coordinate logistics for this seminar. Please refer to World Wide Trekking's YouTube channel for more information about the living and travel conditions on this seminar, including a Day-to-Day Everest Base Camp Walkthrough and Everest Base Camp Trek TipsNote: Our group's itinerary may deviate from the itinerary outlined in these videos. Please consider them a resource to understand general living and travel conditions in the areas that the group may be visiting.


Rob Dunbar helped design and led the 1st Stanford Travel Study Trekking Adventure to Everest Base Camp in 2015 (see for some Khumbu Valley drone video). He has worked in mountain belts of the world since 1984, when he launched a now 35-year field campaign in coastal Peru, the Andes, Lake Titicaca, and Patagonia looking at geology, stratigraphy, limnology, climate change, and the interactions between people and their landscapes. He started working in Antarctica in 1981 and has led over 35 expeditions and taught a Stanford undergraduate course there. Dunbar is trained in geology, oceanography, climate dynamics, and Earth System Science. Dunbar was the founding Director of the Emmett Interdisciplinary Ph.D. Program in Environment and Resources at Stanford in 2002 and is well-acquainted with human-natural systems research and pedagogy. He directed the Earth Systems IDP for 9 years and developed expertise in designing and teaching field courses that tackle Earth Systems problems.

Prerequisites and Expectations

Readings will be assigned prior to the seminar and students are expected to complete these assignments well before the seminar begins. The course is physically demanding, and all students are expected to embark on a conditioning program during the months leading up to the seminar. This will ensure that all hiking boots are well broken in and that all participants can complete the daily hikes as we move from village to village. All students will write several essays: before, during, and at the end of the course.

Application Process

The maximum number of participants is 15. Decisions will be based on the application materials. There will be no interviews.

Grading Basis

Letter Grade.

Passport and Visa

Students are solely responsible for obtaining their passport and visa (if applicable). Every BOSP participant MUST have a signed passport that is valid for at least 6 months after the scheduled RETURN date from the overseas program. Students who do not have a valid passport must apply for a new or renewed passport immediately. For information on obtaining or renewing a U.S. passport please visit the State Department website.

To determine whether a visa is necessary for your program, visit the Consulate General of Nepal. You may also consult with the recommended visa service providers listed below.

VisaCentral by CIBT
VisaCentral by CIBT offers online Stanford rates, or contact the local office:

In person: 555 Montgomery St. Suite 700, San Francisco, CA 94111
Walk-in hours: 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
By phone: (877) 535-0688

Health and Safety

Students on international programs should be aware that attitudes toward medical conditions, disabilities, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression and psychological conditions vary by culture and under the laws of the host countries. These differences impact the level of treatment and accommodation available abroad. Students should give serious consideration to their health and personal circumstances when accepting a place in a program and should consult with their clinician.

While the benefits of international travel can be enormous, it is often associated with certain health and safety risks. Thankfully, a number of interventions exist to mitigate these risks including vaccines, use of certain medications, and specific behavior changes. Health concerns vary by the particular destination, time of year, the health of the individual, type of accommodations, length of stay and specific activities. Participants should be up to date on all their regular immunizations, check the CDC website for vaccinations and immunizations. In addition, specific travel vaccines such as typhoid, yellow fever, or rabies vaccines may be indicated. Various types of medication may also be needed to prevent life-threatening malaria or altitude illness; or to treat traveler’s diarrhea. Finally, students should learn and utilize insect precautions, food and water precautions, and general safety precautions. These can prevent illnesses such as dengue fever, schistosomiasis, HIV; or accidents such as those involving motor vehicles. In spite of all the precautions, occasionally students do become ill or sustain an injury while traveling. Thankfully, most of these are minor. However, it is critical that students have a clear plan of care in case of an emergency on their trip. The travel clinic at the Vaden Health Center has produced an online travel health module that provides comprehensive strategies to help you stay safe and healthy while traveling.

Students must review the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website for complete information regarding the health concerns and vaccine recommendations specific to Nepal. Students must also discuss with the on-campus Vaden Health Center Travel Clinic or a travel health specialist about the best ways to protect their health.

Students must review the U. S. State Department’s Country Information for complete information on safety and security in Nepal.

As with any foreign travel, students are advised to be alert to their surroundings, and be particularly aware of any health and safety advisories for the area in which they will be visiting. Students should consult with their health care provider(s) to be prepared for potential illness. Additional issues of personal health and safety and precautions will be discussed in detail during the mandatory pre-seminar preparation and upon arriving in the country.

If you are uncomfortable traveling under such conditions, you should not apply to this seminar.

Program Modification and Cancelation

Stanford reserves the right to cancel or modify the Program before or during its operation for any reason, including natural disasters, emergencies, low enrollment, unavailability of facilities or personnel, or compliance with the University travel policy at