Experiments preformed in the JHU refractive index matched facility examine flow phenomena developing in the rotor passage of an axial compressor at the onset of stall. High-speed imaging of cavitation performed at low pressures qualitatively visualizes vortical structures. Stereoscopic particle image velocimetry (SPIV) measurements provide detailed snapshots and ensemble statistics of the flow in a series of meridional planes. At prestall condition, the tip leakage vortex (TLV) breaks up into widely distributed intermittent vortical structures shortly after rollup. The most prominent instability involves periodic formation of large-scale backflow vortices (BFVs) that extend diagonally upstream, from the suction side (SS) of one blade at midchord to the pressure side (PS) near the leading edge of the next blade. The 3D vorticity distributions obtained from data recorded in closely spaced planes show that the BFVs originate form at the transition between the high circumferential velocity region below the TLV center and the main passage flow radially inward from it. When the BFVs penetrate to the next passage across the tip gap or by circumventing the leading edge, they trigger a similar phenomenon there, sustaining the process. Further reduction in flow rate into the stall range increases the number and size of the backflow vortices, and they regularly propagate upstream of the leading edge of the next blade, where they increase the incidence angle in the tip corner. As this process proliferates circumferentially, the BFVs rotate with the blades, indicating that there is very little through flow across the tip region.