Reaching New Heights

Alumnus scales world's most majestic mountains

Written by Tina Potterf
Photography by Mark Ursino
September 19, 2013
When Mark Ursino hit his mid-30s—or as he dubs the time, “looking at the wrong side of 35”—he decided he was going to do something he’d never done before. Career change? Nope. Buy a fancy sports car? No, not that. Ursino opted to take up the challenge put forth by his longtime friend Don who, since the two were in high school, prodded him to climb Mount Rainier.

“Neither of us had done a climb before,” says Ursino, a 1973 graduate of Albers. “I had to talk myself into climbing.”

The first attempt in 1986 didn’t go as planned as Don hurt his knee on the way up to the summit. While Ursino was able to reach the summit, the pair agreed to try it again in a year so Don could reach the top. This first climb piqued Ursino’s interest in climbing. He did some training and took mountaineering seminars to be better prepared for the next time.

One of the guides he met during a later climb asked Ursino if he would want to join a group of climbers for a future climb of Mount McKinley, the highest mountain peak in North America. In the nine years between his first climb and the ascent of McKinley, Ursino continued to train and was an occasional “weekend warrior” he says, climbing on local peaks. Ursino agreed to climb Mt. McKinley, figuring this was his “one great adventure of a lifetime.”

Climbing the famed mountain was especially impressive for someone as new to the sport as Ursino. “We spent 21 days on the mountain. It’s a whole different experience,” he says. “You get very close with your climbing partners, very fast. You are totally immersed in a world that if you haven’t experienced it you don’t know it existed.”

That climb was in 1995. In the years since, Ursino has climbed mountains on all seven continents, including ascending Mt. Rainier multiple times and making it to base camp at Mt. Everest.

Two of his most memorable experiences while climbing happened during a climb of Mt. Huascaran in northern Peru. It was the first time he came face to face with death on a mountain while having a hand in saving the life of another climber in distress.

“As soon as we hit base camp at 15,000 feet, we knew there was trouble as we were hearing that at 19,000 feet people were injured and sick,” recalls Ursino. “We got word that they were dropping like flies up there.”

Once Ursino and his climbing companions reached High Camp at 19,000 feet, after foru days of climbing, they decided to not risk the potential of injury or worse and stopped their ascent. That week, five people died on the mountain. During this time Ursino and the other climbers came across another climber at High Camp who was in bad shape and needed to be stabilized to be taken down the mountain for treatment after suffering pulmonary edema.

Ursino was among the climbers to come to his aide and help administer steroid shots while talking to the main to keep him conscious and breathing. The man survived and all made it off the mountain.

Although he has retired from expedition climbing, Ursino still climbs locally and does adventure treks.

While the memories of his many climbs are undoubtedly etched into Ursino’s mind, he has another way of recalling the details, the people and places that construct a vivid picture of this period in his life. When he was in a new state or country for a climb Ursino began spending time away from the mountain photographing locales and villages, and the people that made these areas interesting or unique. There are also plenty of shots of breathtaking mountain views shot in the midst of a climb, with Ursino capturing seemingly gravity-defying angles and formidable slabs of ice.

The walls of his home on the Eastside of Seattle, which he shares with his wife, Sue Ursino—SU Athletic Hall of Fame golfer—serve as a gallery showcasing his travels via an impressive collection of stunning and dramatic photos. He has opened his home to friends and family for showings of his work, from scenes of Moscow, the Swiss Alps, Antarctica and Mt. Adams to the crater rim of Mt. St. Helens and exploration on an African Safari.

“I feel so blessed to be able to do what I’ve done and be able to share my experiences with folks back home,” he says.

Beyond his accomplishments ascending some of the world’s most majestic peaks, Ursino has also reached high points professionally, particularly in the tech field.

When he graduated from Seattle University the job market was bleak. Having worked his way through high school and college in the restaurant industry he returned to his roots and took a job managing Ivars on Seattle’s waterfront.

After a couple years he entered the technology field with a job in the computer services department at Boeing, which ultimately led him to an opportunity with an upstart software company in Redmond, Wash., called Microsoft. Ursino was one of the original 37 employees of the company, hired as its first account manager.

“Microsoft was a young, brash company at the time,” he recalls. “It was all cutting edge stuff.”

After nine years he left Microsoft to go into business for himself. “I decided I was tired of working for billionaire geniuses,” he says with a laugh.

Ursino joined a friend’s consulting company that created executive training programs for business and organizations, with a focus on workplace culture and operations.

The program was presented by way of workshops offered at companies of various sizes, both locally and nationally. Although he no longer presents the program he helped develop, Ursino does on occasion offer his workplace training and management methods at local community colleges and for city governments.

In his free time, he enjoys photography and reading thrillers, which he calls his “mind candy.” He also trains climbers who graduate from the Seattle Union Gospel Mission’s recovery program, plus mission staff and supporters in an annual climb at Mt. Rainier.
Mark Ursino (right) with his brother Jeff at the summit of Ishinka in Peru. Jeff has accompanied his brother on many climbs.
In addition to shooting some majestic mountain shots, Mark also photographed some stunning images in the wild during an African safari.
A closeup from Mark's safari adventure.
And another sweet moment captured through the photographer's lens.
Whenever Mark would land on a continent for a climb, he would spend some time off the mountains, capturing scenes in remote villages and embracing the people and cultures.
A compelling photo—and moment in time—during one of Mark's multiple climbs.