April 05, 2024 12 min read

Mark Agnew is a British adventurer, writer, speaker and journalist. Having lived between the UK and Hong Kong, Mark has been able to spread his wisdom on resilience in adventuring far and wide and is an advocate for “stayventures”, aiming to make the outdoors more and more accessible for everyday use. In the summer of 2023, Mark and his team, the Arctic Cowboys, became the first people to kayak the Northwest Passage and Mark then went on to win ‘European Adventurer of the Year’ 2023. We were desperate to hear more about the expedition itself, as well as what motivated Mark to take on and complete such a challenge, so were very excited when he agreed to partake in an interview with us. Read the full Q&A to find out more about Mark Agnew’s inspirations, close encounters with nature, charity work, and exciting plans for the future.

Image: Matt Jones

Thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me today, we’re so excited to hear all about your experiences. I just wanted to start by wishing you a massive congratulations on being awarded European Adventurer of the Year.


Firstly, we’d love to know a little about your background. Can you tell us about life growing up in Scotland and how the great Scottish outdoors may have inspired and influenced you in any way?

I grew up in the centre of Edinburgh city but I had great access to the outdoors, the Pentlands, in particular, was a hill range very close to my house. And even now, as an adult, I cycle over the Pentlands there and then because it's so great. As a kid, I remember going up there as a family and I think we went most Sundays to the Pentlands, and then on the way back, we were allowed to pick a can of fizzy drink and go home and mum or dad would make us pancakes. So it was already this great positive experience and I seem to remember that my three sisters would force my dad to carry us, one on the front and one on the back, so kudos to him- but it was immediately a positive experience and the way that it influenced me now is that A) I love it. It makes me so happy and conversely, when I don't get out and do hikes for a while, I feel very anxious. B) it normalised it for me; I could turn up in Hong Kong and just, you know, get an app out and trust myself to say 'Let's try this hike' or 'Let's go camping here' despite never having been to this country because it wasn't alien to me. Even if it is accessible, even if there are hills next door, there's also a barrier to people who maybe don't have it normalised.


Did you have any other inspirations growing up that led you to want to complete monumental expeditions like this?

Yeah, so my other big influence was that I went to Hong Kong, initially to play rugby, and I loved that so much. I realised what I loved about that was the camaraderie of it because you're pushing yourself for a communal goal with a group of like-minded people and I think I've replaced rugby for adventures to source the camaraderie sense. I never do these things by myself and I like going outdoors, but I like going outdoors for goals. It's not necessarily that I'm competitive or I want to win or I want to set a record or whatever, it's more that that facilitates the camaraderie of us like doing something together; a shared goal and getting there. I had my teammates in the Arctic; the Arctic Cowboys, Wes Chep, and Eileen and they were fundamental to me enjoying it, not just winning or setting records.


You and your team recently broke the world records for the first people to kayak the Northwest Passage, as well as the first people to complete it in a single season by human power, what a massive achievement for you and your team!

Arctic Cowboys Northwest Passage Route

Could you tell me a bit about the process? Have you tried to complete it before? If so, what do you think it was that led you to successfully complete it this time?

I had attempted to row across the Atlantic twice before turning my sights to the Northwest Passage. Those first challenges ended in failure, embarrassingly close to the shore—two days out on the first attempt, and three days on the second. The second failure especially wiped out my confidence. I was left wanting to try again, yet at the same time, not wanting to face the possibility of failure again. It felt as though I had lost not only a part of my identity but also my direction, as I had shifted from playing rugby to embarking on these maritime adventures, and now, I seemed to have neither.

In hindsight, failing to row the Atlantic was beneficial, though it didn’t feel so at the time. It forced me to re-examine what I truly wanted and why. That’s when I realised that camaraderie, not competition, was what I truly sought from my adventures. I had misunderstood my own motivations; I thought I enjoyed the competitive aspect because it was akin to winning rugby games. This binary view of competition, win or lose, contributed to my devastation upon failing.


What kind of challenges did you face along the way?

Feeling adrift and humiliated, I was under the impression that I was the centre of ridicule, especially every time news emerged of someone successfully rowing the Atlantic. It seemed to me that my friends might think, ‘It’s so easy, how could he fail twice?’ This period of self-doubt and humiliation lasted a long time before I could find my footing again, just in time for the Northwest Passage attempt.

However, once I understood that camaraderie was my real motivation, everything changed. Remembering my intrinsic motivations rather than succumbing to external pressures gave me a second wind. It renewed my confidence, partly because I was now motivated by what truly mattered to me, and partly because, with intrinsic motivations, you can’t really fail. For instance, even if we ended up 200 miles short of completing the Northwest Passage, the camaraderie experienced would be my measure of success, not an external judgement.

Image: West Hansen

And of course, there must have been some amazing and diverse wildlife out there, for example, polar bears, did you have any up close and personal experiences?

I'm a big fan of sea life and the first half was seriously wildlife-rich, especially around the ice edges. It seems like the ice edges are a vibrant ecosystem. We saw bowhead whales, they were these huge creatures and the whales were just a few metres away, bobbing there, blowing through their blowholes. Narwhals were all around us at one point; they lined up in front of Eileen and me and stayed parallel to us for a while until one put his head down as if signalling, and they all rolled away and disappeared. Then, beluga whales, the white ones that look like they’re smiling, were there too. We even bumped into some beluga researchers, the only people we’d seen for weeks, and they gave us insights into beluga whales.

And then polar bears, we saw so many polar bears. Our attitude towards them changed dramatically. One morning, we were all lying in our tents, the alarm had gone off, but we were feeling lazy. Suddenly, the tent began to shake. A polar bear was pressing against it. The others didn’t believe me at first when I said I thought it was a polar bear, but then we heard it. That was scary. We ran out and started screaming at it, but it just wouldn’t leave for like five, or ten minutes. Initially, we’d react to polar bear sightings with screams and flare guns. But I remember one time, after seeing what felt like dozens of polar bears, there was a clang outside our tent. Jeff, the most chilled-out Texan you'll meet, sticks his head out and casually says there’s a polar bear just three metres from us. He starts shoo-ing it, ‘Go on, get,’ and eventually, it leaves. Being from the UK, I was the most paranoid about polar bears. In contrast, they're used to wildlife like grizzly bears, mountain lions, or wolves.


I read that you raised over £10,000 for Wilderness Foundation UK, how incredible! What was it that drew you to want to raise money for this charity in particular?

Yeah, the amount raised was something like £10k, which was amazing and it's actually now over 15,000 pounds I think.

After the second failure to cross the Atlantic, I felt completely adrift and worthless. A big part of clawing my way back was re-engaging with nature. The ultramarathons I ran, which were fundamentally about being outdoors, played a significant role in getting me out of that funk. This aligns with the Wilderness Foundation UK's mission. They focus on bringing people into the wilderness to support their mental health, especially targeting those from backgrounds who might not have easy access or clear pathways to engage with nature, unlike me. Their work resonated with my own experiences, making it a natural choice for me to support them.

When I'm outdoors, that's when I do my best thinking, far more than at any other time. It's almost common knowledge now that spending time in green spaces is beneficial for mental health. And I really feel it—I start getting anxious if I'm away from nature for too long. I recently read an article suggesting that blue spaces, like coasts and rivers and lakes, might be even more beneficial. Though, I think it's a bit arbitrary to start categorising like that. If you love green spaces, go to green spaces; don't worry too much about whether it's green or blue.

You’ve spoken about the importance of failure in life in leading you to success. Can you tell me about some failures you experienced that ultimately led you to the success of completing the Northwest Passage (and other successes in your life!)?

Yeah, initially, I believed it was all about resilience. I became obsessed with the idea that resilience is something you can develop through putting yourself in challenging situations. So, with ultramarathons being quite accessible in Hong Kong, I signed up for several. I had never attempted them before, and while they were tough, they seemed achievable. Even when I injured my knee, I kept pushing forward, determined not to let anything stop me. This phase significantly boosted my confidence, as I no longer saw myself as incapable.

This mindset was crucial during my Northwest Passage expedition. However, it wasn't until I understood the importance of intrinsic motivations that everything truly clicked for me. It felt like a major turning point in my recovery journey, marking one of the best moments in my life, alongside becoming a parent and achieving records.

My kayaking experience further solidified this realisation. On my first attempt, I ambitiously covered 26 miles to a remote beach. The return journey was challenging, with dangerous waves, yet it was also beautiful. After overcoming these hurdles, it struck me that the adventure wasn't about setting records or proving something; it was purely about the experience. Despite my initial perception of the conditions being difficult due to my inexperience, I recognized this as the essence of true adventure. That revelation was a significant moment where everything came together for me.


Clearly you’re a highly experienced kayaker, but do you have any favourite kayaking spots here in Scotland that are maybe slightly more doable than the Arctic’s Northwest Passage? Some places our readers may like to try out?

It really depends on the weather, but if you're kayaking in the summer when it's calm, that makes a big difference. Also, the type of kayak you have matters. An inflatable kayak, for example, is quite limiting—I wouldn't trust it for going far distances. In East Lothian, off North Berwick, there's a spot if you paddle out to the Lamb, which is about two to three kilometres offshore. If you're aiming for Yellowcraigs or trying to reach the closest point, it's pretty manageable. You can easily paddle around that area, and it's absolutely beautiful in the right conditions.

I once went when the weather was not ideal, and the big swells from the North Sea knocked both me and my friend out of our kayaks in the middle of winter. Suddenly, two kilometres felt like a life-threatening distance. But, in the summer, when it's warm, and especially if you have a plastic kayak, or at least a sit-on-top, it's a different experience. The Lothian Sea Kayaking Club is very welcoming. If you're looking for advice, a Facebook message to them could be quite helpful. I believe I came across their page once when we were organising events that involved sea kayaking.

Image: Matt Jones

Despite clearly being capable of one of the toughest adventure’s in the world, are there any micro adventures that you enjoy that you can recommend to our readers?

Even though I've tackled some of the world's toughest adventures, I'm a big advocate for micro-adventures as well. Living in southwest London, I was pleasantly surprised by the accessibility of hiking. Just about 25 minutes away, I can reach sections of the North Downs Way—a 100-mile trail that's beautifully segmented. Contrary to what one might expect, these aren’t just small paths through fields but genuinely beautiful trails with trees and rolling hills. It's not necessarily epic on a grand scale, but it's genuinely awesome in its own right. Accessibility is key, and even without a car, it's quite easy to catch a train from Vauxhall to get close to these hiking spots. It's all about integrating these activities into your daily life. For example, you could start a hike early in the morning and still have plenty of your day left for other commitments.

I particularly enjoy the North Downs Way for its versatility. It’s more accessible than many might think, with parts of it, like the section through Box Hill, offering short loops for a quick 5K or 10K hike. The entire trail spans 100 miles and is conveniently segmented near train stops, making it easy to tackle in parts, whether you’re walking, cycling, or even considering an ultra-marathon challenge. My personal goal is to complete all sections of it before I leave London.


Do you have any favourite Scottish places in Scotland that you love to explore and go off on adventures?

In Edinburgh, there's just so much to explore. I have a fondness for Arthur's Seat, which might seem ordinary to locals, but for me, it's anything but. Even after living in Hong Kong and returning, the awe of having such a landmark within the city amazes me. I've climbed it around three times already and am keen to do it again. It's so accessible; I used to just run up from my house. Recently, when we were back in Edinburgh, I took the opportunity to run up Arthur's Seat again. It's such a constant presence that you might not think to actively go and explore it, making it a unique micro-adventure right in our backyard. Then there's the Pentlands, particularly a spot called the Valley, which holds a special place in my heart from childhood—playing in the river, walking up the stream, and rolling down hills. The Pentlands are incredible. A friend of mine lived just a couple of minutes from the base, so I found myself there almost every other day last summer.

Talking about micro-adventures, there's a common misconception about the Highlands and Munros being far off. But places like Ben Lawers on Loch Tay are surprisingly doable for a day trip. It's quite accessible, with a car park and clear paths. You can start out early in the morning and still make it back to Edinburgh by dinner, having completed a Munro. Similarly, the Trossachs, only a three-hour drive away, prove that grand adventures are much closer than one might think.

Image: @adventureagnew

And lastly, is there an adventure you’re working towards completing next? Or anything exciting coming up for you that you’d like to share with us?

Well, I've just signed my first book deal, which is quite exciting. It's with Icon Books for a project on the Northwest Passage. Apart from that, I'm also working on another book titled 'Stay Ventures.' The idea is to inspire people to seek adventure within their own country. Often, when I talk about Stayventures, people draw parallels to Al Humphrey’s micro adventure concept. However, I aim to challenge the notion that adventures must be either micro and domestic or massive and international. I argue that you can have significant, epic adventures domestically. For instance, circumnavigating the British mainland by kayak would surpass the distance of the Northwest Passage. This illustrates that one doesn't need to venture far to engage in substantial adventures. I've interviewed several individuals who have undertaken remarkable expeditions right here in the UK, lasting up to a month.

There's a common misconception that after completing something like the Northwest Passage, the next logical step would be something as grand as travelling to the moon. However, I'm equally excited about exploring the West Coast of Scotland. It may not sound as grandiose, but it offers its own set of challenges, dangers, and natural beauty. 


You can find out more about Mark Agnew and his exciting career in adventuring via his Instagram, @adventureagnew, and website , where you’ll also be able to keep an eye out for book updates! We hope the impressive nature of Mark’s feats has provided you with some inspiration to get out into the outdoors, no matter the size or scale of your adventure. Don’t forget to add #everydayadventures to your exploration pics so we can see what you get up to!... Happy Adventuring!

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