On Beacon Hill 4 – Raymond Bicknell 1875-1927


Marcus’s grand-father Raymond was killed in the Alps at the age of 52. The Aiguille d’Arves (3570 metres high) is 35 km West of Grenoble, just West of the ski resort l’Alpe d’Huez. The ordeal suffered by his eldest son Peter (age 20 at the time) who was with him on the climb, is described in candid detail in this Alpine Journal article, reproduced for the first time from a copy made available by Raymond’s second son Claud. The glowing obituary in the same journal is in stark contrast to the implications of the third article here, on the dangers of climbing. – MB

From The Alpine Journal, VOL.  XXXIX – N° CCXXXV – Accidents in 1927. 
Reproduced by kind permission of the Alpine Club, 1997

Photo of Raymond Bicknell, bw    On July 31, at 3 a.m., Raymond Bicknell, his son Peter, A. F. Procter, and Sir J. W. L. Napier left Valloire to traverse the Aiguille Méridionale d’Arves to La Grave: it was proposed to ascend by the N.E. face direct from the head of the Glacier de Gros Jean to the Brèche in the S.E. arête, and to descend by the ordinary route.

‘By  10 a.m. we had reached the head of this glacier, where we were able for the first time to decide on our exact route. Our objective, the Brèche (marked Brèche Supérieure in the illustration, La Montagne, 1910, facing p. 344 – Editor), was at the head of a snow and ice couloir, some 1000 ft. high, flanked by broken faces of rock.  It was decided to ascend by these rocks, keeping as far as possible close to the couloir.

‘For 3 hours we made slow but steady progress, though the rocks from the start proved to be loose and rotten.  By 1 p.m. we had reached a point where the rocks became more difficult, being, actually at the sides of the couloir, quite impracticable.  At this point the couloir contracted, and, for about 50 ft., was distinctly steeper.  The best route appeared to be straight up the couloir until over this step, and then to take once more to the rocks on the side.

‘With this in view we cut stops across to an island of rock which divided the couloir, and as Bicknell would have to lead nearly 80 ft. from this island before reaching a secure enough position from which to bring the second man on, our second 80 ft. rope was attached between him and Napier. ‘Bicknell then traversed the gentle ice slope to the true right bank of the couloir and proceeded up the steeper ice, cutting steps with his right hand and holding the rocks on his left with his other hand.
During this manoeuvre the position of the three of us was as follows: Napier, second on the rope, was at the top of the island and had a small belay for the rope, but was otherwise in a poor position; Procter, third, 10 ft. below Napier, was on the right of the island, and though in a physically uncomfortable position was well placed to hold a pull from the left; Peter, at the foot of the island, a few feet below Procter, was in a good position where he was able to belay the rope round his ice-axe, which was inserted in a crack right up to its head (See La Montagne, 1910, pp. 321-59, 397-440, especially the marked illustrations facing pp. 338 and 344.  In the latter, the scene of the accident is about two-thirds of the way up the extreme left-hand ice couloir.  The route attempted is a variation of the right-hand one shown on the illustration facing p. 338. – Editor).

From the original Alpine Journal article. Raymond’s position is marked with a dot in the middle of the ice couloir. The other three are shown on the rocks dividing the couloir.
Map of the accident site‘We consulted as to which side of our rock a fall might occur and Napier arranged his belay accordingly, i.e. to safeguard a fall to the right – the likely direction; without the assistance of this belay he could not hope to hold the rope in case of a fall.  During this time we began to suffer slightly from cold and mild cramp in the fingers.  As cutting steps with one hand proved a tedious job, Bicknell’s progress was very slow.  On one occasion he asked us whether, in view of the lateness of the hour, we should prefer to turn back.  We replied that we left it entirely in his hands; he decided that it would probably take less time to complete the traverse to La Grave than to return down the loose rocks up which we had come.  He appeared quite confident, and on two occasions said that a few more steps would get him over the difficulty.

‘After about half an hour’s cutting, and when he was some 60 ft. above Napier, without a word of warning and with no apparent effort to stop himself, Bicknell fell from his steps and shot down the ice slope to our left.  When he had fallen the full 120 ft. of the free rope the strain came on Napier who, with his belay rendered useless, the fall occurring to the left, was pulled from his position. Napier had fallen some 25 ft. when Procter, dragged against the rocks to his left, held the rope, with the full weight of Bicknell and Napier on it; the rope, however, was drawn over Peter’s shoulders so that the latter could take some of the strain. (It is interesting to note that the rope – which rendered such invaluable service – was a light one by Frost, in its second season. – Editor)

Napier was lying on steep rock 20 ft. below Peter, with Bicknell hanging out of sight some 70 ft. below Napier.  The latter at once managed, by getting hand-holds on the projecting rock, to take some of the weight, while Procter secured the rope round a suitable belay.  As the full weight of Bicknell was still on Napier, it was necessary to see if Bicknell, from whom we had heard no signs of life, could be brought to rest on a ledge.  To do this, Procter eased the rope round the belay, while Napier lowered himself to a more secure ledge.  Bicknell’s full weight was still on the rope, and so Peter detached himself and climbed down to where his father was, using the rope between Procter, Napier and his father to lower himself by.  It was at once evident that Raymond Bicknell had been killed outright, as his skull was completely smashed in.  It was obvious, in fact, that he was dead before his fearfully rapid slide had taughtened the slack of the rope.

A few hours before the accident. Raymond (left) with Sir J.W.L.Napier, the Aiguille d’Arves in the distance.
A few hours before the accident‘It was essential for our own safety in descending that we should have the second rope which was attached to Bicknell.  We decided, accordingly, that the only course open to us was for Peter to detach the body and to allow it to slide down on to the glacier below.

‘With the help of the spare rope we made our way safely down on to the glacier, which we reached some 4 hours later, and leaving the body where it had fallen we returned to Valloire, getting there about 11 p.m.

‘It is impossible to state the cause of the accident. That Bicknell gave no warning cry, that he made no apparent effort to stop himself, and that his last remark was one of confidence, seem to indicate that it was not an accidental slip.  It would appear more probably to have been due to some form of heart failure, or violent cramp to which he had been subject as the result of an attack of phlebitis in the leg in the winter of 1924-25.

‘The climb itself cannot be described as easy, but in attempting it we were undertaking a task of no exceptional difficulty, especially bearing in mind the great reputation Bicknell held as one of the leading amateurs of the day.’

Map of FranceThe subsequent proceedings in Valloire were carried out with great despatch and Raymond Bicknell was buried there.

Monsieur Pierre Dalloz, the distinguished French mountaineer, gave every possible assistance.  He accompanied the search party of La Grave guides who brought the body down from its resting place on the Glacier de Gros Jean.  He then stayed the night with the relatives and accompanied them subsequently to La Grave.

M. Dalloz’s kind and disinterested behaviour will not be forgotten by the friends and relations of Raymond Bicknell, and the JOURNAL avails itself of this opportunity of expressing to M. Dalloz the grateful thanks of the Alpine Club.

As the narrative points out, the immediate cause of the slip will for ever remain obscure, but one possible charge against Raymond Bicknell – that of rashness in attempting an expedition beyond his party’s powers – falls automatically to the ground.  The performance of the young survivors was superb.  The feat of Mr. Procter in holding the fallen, Sir Joseph Napier’s own accomplishments, and last, but not least, Mr. Peter Bicknell’s courage in going down, unroped, to his father, and finally his skilful descent, shaken as he was mentally and physically, during that nightmare 4 hours, in the all-responsible position of last man, will stand high in the annals of modern mountaineering.  We can only add that the collective deeds of the party were worthy of any veterans or of their intrepid, erstwhile leader himself.

The editor of On Beacon Hill would like to express his gratitude to the Alpine Club Library (founded 1857) for the permission to reproduce this historic document. Articles in the Alpine Journal written by Raymond Bicknell, Sydney Algernon Bicknell, Claud Bicknell and Peter Bicknell, as well as alpine watercolours by Raymond’s wife Phillis, can be seen by appointment at the Alpine Club, 55 Charlotte Road, London EC2A 3QT (phone 0171 613 0755).


From The Alpine Journal, VOL.  XXXIX – N° CCXXXV – Accidents in 1927. 
Reproduced by kind permission of the Alpine Club 1997

Raymond Bicknell was born on January 3, 1875, and was educated at Wellington College and at Christ’s College, Cambridge. After some years of land agency he entered the employment of the Newcastle Breweries, and in 1916 became a director of that Company.  Not long after leaving Cambridge he married Miss Phillis Lovibond who shared and encouraged his enthusiasm for the mountains.
  This photo from the family collection has been made available by Raymond’s second son Claud. On the back of the photo is written in pencil “Raymond Percy Bicknell, born 1875, taken between 1912 and 1916. Photo by ‘Molly’, Mrs. Charles Trevelyan, at Cambo House, near Morpeth, Northumberland. Preparing to play tennis in the field over the kitchen garden fence”.

Raymond Bicknell preparing to play tennis

Norway first attracted him, and while still an undergraduate he had in the course of two summers climbed a number of Norwegian peaks.  In 1897 he had a most successful season, during which he made the first ascent of Mjölnir by its S.W. side (previously descended by Slingsby), the first ascent of the N. ridge of Store Midtmaradalstind (this is still known as Bicknell’s route), and one of the earliest traverses of Store Skagastolstind.  Then followed ten years during which he could not climb, but in 1908, 1909, and 1911 he was back in Norway.  Hitherto he had climbed with Ole Berge or any other guide whom he could pick up, but from 1908 onwards down to 1924 he climbed guideless and as leader of his party.  By the end of 1911 he had acquired a knowledge of the Jotunheim which could be rivalled by few and a considerable experience of neighbouring districts.  The most remarkable feat of these years, perhaps of his whole career, was the first ascent of the gully between Manden and Kjaerringen, in the course of which he was cutting steps in hard ice continuously for over nine hours.
Raymond left his wife Phillis née Lovibond (1877-1957), Ellen (1902-1994, see On Beacon Hill 3), Peter (1907-1995, see On Beacon Hill 2), Claud (born 1910 and living in Kendal in the Lake District) and Marcus’s father Nigel (1918-1990). This photo reads “Phillis, Mrs. Raymond Bicknell, probably 1947, or soon after. Photo taken by Paul Child in Washington D.C. She went there to stay with Nigel and Sally in their O Street home”. Marcus was born in Washington in 1948.

Raymond's widow Phillis

In 1912 he went for the first time to the Alps, and he was so impressed by them and by the more complicated problems of their ascent that he never again returned to Norway.  His first Alpine season was spent in the Mont Blanc district, but the weather was so bad that even the ordinary climbs presented conspicuous difficulties.

Next year was better and he made what is believed to be the second ascent of the N. face of the Plan by M. Fontaine’s route and found the N.W. ridge of the Ober-Gabelhorn in a condition that gave full play to his icemanship.  From this period onwards he went more and more frequently to the Lake District, which could be reached easily from his home, and also made occasional visits to North Wales.  He soon became very familiar with the difficult rock-climbing of these districts.

In the early part of the war he was over age for military service, but when the age limit was raised he at once obtained a Commission in a special service battalion of the Royal Marines.  From the Armistice to 1924 every summer found him in the Alps.  In these years he was at the height of his powers and climbed a large number of the great peaks of the Mont Blanc district, the Oberland, the Valais, the Dauphiné, and the Graians.  The season of 1920 was particularly successful, and included a great week during which he made the third ascent of Mont Dolent from France by the Brèche de l’Amône, descended into Italy, climbed the Grandes Jorasses, and returned to France over the Col des Grandes Jorasses.

But fate was soon to restrict his physical abilities.  In the winter of 1924-5 he all but succumbed first to typhoid, then to appendicitis; phlebitis followed, and for a time it seemed probable that serious mountaineering would not in future be possible for him.  In 1926, however, he was again in the Alps, but this time with a guide.  Though still somewhat lame he traversed the High Level route and succeeded in ascending some big peaks.  In 1927, again with a guide, he crossed a number of passes and peaks from Saas to the Dauphiné and found that his old powers were rapidly returning.  He had been going so well that when after a month his guide had to return home he felt himself strong enough to lead his party up the S. Aiguille d’Arves.  To those who have climbed with him it must be hardly credible that he can have fallen for any other reason than some sudden physical failure resulting from his illnesses of 1925.

He was elected to the Alpine Club in 1911, before he had ever been to the Alps.  From 1920 to 1923 he was a member of the Committee, where his services were of great value, and in 1926 the Club elected him to the Vice-Presidency.  In addition to occasional notes he contributed to the ALPINE JOURNAL two papers on Norway, entitled ‘ Two Norwegian Couloirs‘ (vol. 25), and ‘The Horunger’ (vol. 34), which every climber contemplating a first visit to Norway should read, and three papers on his Alpine experiences, ‘The North-West Ridge of the Ober-Gabelhorn’ (vol. 28), ‘Mont Dolent and the Col des Grandes Jorasses ‘ (vol. 33), and ‘ The Jungfrau from the Wengern Alp, Schalligrat, and other climbs in 1923 ‘ (vol. 36).

Mountaineering was the dominating passion of his life.  When possible he would undertake long and arduous expeditions, the achievement of which would call for the exercise of his full powers. When these were impracticable he would climb lesser mountains or preferably cross easy cols, for he never liked to tie himself to one centre.  When conditions were too bad even for these he would walk over grass passes in rain of snow.  When he could not get to the Alps he would go to the Lakes or North Wales.  For single days he would go to the Northumbrian hills and moors.  No one has more ardently sought the delight of the hard-won ascent, but to him the mountains were not a mere glorified gymnasium.  In bad weather as in good he loved their form and colour, the slowly changing perspectives of the long hill walk as well as the near detail of clean-cut slab or delicately moulded snow.

He was in every sense a great mountaineer.  Before each season he would plan carefully the climbs he proposed to make and familiarize himself with their history (it was indeed for this purpose that he compiled the index to the later volumes of the ALPINE JOURNAL which is shortly to be utilized by the Club).  He was a born leader, and in the general plan of campaign as well as in the actual working out of each ascent his friends always followed him readily – even when his arrangements involved such inconveniences as a bivouac without special equipment on the Schallijoch or the ascent of a 4000 metre peak as a training climb.  The efficiency which brought him such success in his career was noticeable in his management of the details of the night in the hut and of the early morning start.  He had the temperament and the skill of the great master of mountain craft.  While his massive build militated against his being in quite the first rank of rock-climbers, there can have been few amateurs who were his equals on ice or as all-round mountaineers.  No one who has ever seen it can forget the sight of his purposeful back as with the short pick of his antiquated axe he would cut his way up some formidable ice-slope, or the resourceful caution with which in storm and gathering darkness he would steer his party into safety.  The hard common sense which was such a conspicuous feature of his character enabled him to weigh chances and risks in a just balance, and often to snatch a victory where others might have been deterred by apparent rather than real difficulty or by the loudly announced sentiments of their predecessors.  For such laurels as fall to the mountaineer he had nothing but contempt, especially when those laurels were earned by expeditions where the dangers were outside the climber’s control, or, to use his own words, by “those mistakes which it has now become the fashion to classify as variations” on great routes.

But beyond this Raymond Bicknell was an original and dominating personality’ at once masterful and lovable.  He had supreme qualities, a courage to think out his own opinions and to abide by them, combined with human kindliness and utter loyalty.  He possessed a unique type of humour which he sometimes employed with devastating effect against pretension or sham or slackness of thought.  There was a bigness about him – physical, mental, spiritual – so much so that he seemed to many of us to be almost a permanent part of the universe.  Whatever he did he did with his might, whether it were the climbing of a mountain, or the study and photography of medieval architecture, or the organization of a week-end camp with his family on the Cheviot, or even the driving of a motor-car.

Mountaineering no longer stands in need of defence or justification.  We know that its risks are small, infinitesimal when compared with the reward it offers.  But now here, now there, the great mountains exact their price.  In Raymond Bicknell we recognize the essential good, developed year after year by the toil, the struggle, the danger, the beauty of the hills.  The foreknowledge that from him some day the price was to be exacted would, we believe, have caused him no hesitation, have drawn from him no complaint.  To us remain the memory and the regret. C. A. E.


From The Alpine Journal, VOL.  XXXIX – N° CCXXXV – Accidents in 1927. 
Reproduced by kind permission of the Alpine Club 1997

Once again the list of accidents makes sad reading.  The Alpine Club has lost a Vice-President, a mountaineer of great experience and distinction as also one of its most invaluable ‘Himalayan’ members, but we may consider ourselves fortunate to have escaped comparatively lightly.  The greater number of accidents has occurred, as usual, in the Eastern Alps.  The vast majority were, we regret to say, easily avoidable.  The numbers of guileless climbers – we have heard of no fatal accidents to guided parties – have increased beyond all reckoning.  We can also add that the number of capable members of these guileless parties is, probably, higher now than it ever has been.  But it still remains a fact that the percentage of competent to incompetent parties is far too low.  There are reasons for this disastrous state of affairs.  Before the war beginners were wont to acquire their mountaineering experience under competent professionals; now, with increased guides’ tariffs and decreased incomes, most beginners prefer to learn their business with amateur leaders often nearly as inexperienced and sometimes more reckless than themselves.  Quite casually they start their career with the most difficult ascents – ascents which thirty years ago the aspiring mountaineer would never have dreamt of undertaking before his third or fourth season.
Logo of the Alpine Journal
We ourselves beheld such a party of four gaily setting forth for a difficult ice and rock mountain with only one competent member, the others freely confessing their lack of knowledge of icemanship or ropecraft.  Caught in bad weather on an ice slope, after many hours of ascent, but still thousands of feet below their summit, they were able – providentially – to return in safety.  To such parties the use of CRAMPONS is a snare and a delusion.  They have read foolish tales by enthusiastic mountaineers declaring that experts can mount or descend ice slopes of 70° without step-cutting, even without the support of the axe (see Alpinism, No. 7, pp. 211-33, translated from D. & Œ.A.V. Zeitschrift, 1925, pp. 204-24, with preposterous illustrations).  It is to be noted that these ‘experts’ never give the height of the ice slope of 70°, which, axeless, they propose to ascend or descend on their crampons.  You can be very bold if the probable fall will not exceed 8-10 ft.  Such flagrant nonsense encourages the beginner to think that he can move safely, without serious previous practice, on slopes of 45°.  He finds that he cannot, and ‘another Alpine disaster ‘ is too often reported.  Such a one occurred last August low down on the Z’mutt ridge of the Matterhorn, the victim being armed only with an umbrella and – crampons.

Another fruitful source of accidents is the modern craze among amateurs for climbing in bad weather.  This evil is becoming ever increasingly prevalent, and too many persons who have successfully climbed Welsh, Lakes, or ‘Saxon Switzerland’ boulders in rain, imagine that serious expeditions may be attempted with similar impunity in the High Alps.

Of four accidents that occurred in the Valais within the space of 10 days, three were caused solely by starting and continuing to climb in absolutely hopeless weather conditions.

Raymond Percy Bicknell
born 3 January 1875, Beckenham, Kent
died in the French Alps 31 July 1927. 
An occasional newsletter about the Bicknell family worldwide, designed to promote sharing of the study of the family genealogy
On Beacon Hill – Newsletter Index
Edited by Marcus Bicknell, Homefarm Orchard, Threehouseholds, Chalfont St.Giles, Bucks HP8 4LP, U.K. mBicknell@compuserve.com

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