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USNA reconsiders Herndon Climb

The Herndon Climb is a signature annual event at the United States Naval Academy. Each May, a thousand first-year midshipmen surge to the top of a 21-foot granite obelisk coated with 200 pounds of lard. The first mid to the top plants a midshipman's cap. According to legend -- never yet fulfilled -- that mid will be the first in the class to attain the rank of admiral.

In a Wednesday media briefing, the academy's outgoing superintendent hinted that the institution may be reconsidering the Climb, an event that sometimes leads to minor injuries. The climb has taken as little as a minute and a half and as long as four hours. The first-year "plebes" never stop till they reach the top, in a greasy human pyramid.


A followup statement clarified that Vice Admiral Jeffrey Fowler believes the Herndon Climb may eventually be supplanted by the Sea Trials program, a 14-hour regimen of physical and mental endurance tests including "hill assault," a two-mile regimental run, simulated bridge defense and demolition, pull-ups and something called "pugil stick jousting," This year's Sea Trials is set for Tuesday. The Climb takes place May 24.

Fowler did not say that he would end the Climb. He's leaving the academy this summer.

The academy has had official doubts about the event since at least January 2008. A Washington Post article from that month quoted an institutional statement that leaders were "evaluating the Herndon Monument Climb to ensure the event remains a valid part of our heritage but is conducted with professionalism, respect, and most important, safety in mind."

The Climb has its origins in the prohibition against first-year Mids dating or fraternizing with women. The monument sits in a part of campus that became known as Lover's Lane and has been a favorite spot for older midshipmen to take their dates on Sunday afternoons.

The plebes of 1907 started a tradition of swarming around the monument to celebrate their new-found privilege to walk Lover's Lane, according to a brief history of the Climb written by James Cheevers, senior curator at the USNA Museum.

"Impatiently we waited for the word 'dismissed', and then what a race for the hitherfore forbidden precincts of the Lane!" Cheevers wrote, quoting the yearbook of the Class of 1911. "How we sang and capered round the monument!"

The singing and capering apparently included a ritual snake dance. Around 1940, plebes began climbing the monument itself. The original goal was to place a member of the class atop the obelisk. Around 1947, plebes began leaving a hat behind to document the ascent.

Grease first appeared on the statue in 1949. The record, 90-second climb of 1969 came in a year when, according to Cheevers, the statue was "either lightly greased or not greased at all."

Academy alumni have generally scoffed at the notion that a few Mids might get hurt climbing the monument. Herbert McMillan, a 1980 graduate, put it this way in the 2008 Post account:

"We're going to send these guys to war but they can't climb a monument because they might get hurt? Come on."

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By Daniel de Vise  |  May 12, 2010; 5:15 PM ET
Categories:  Administration , Students  | Tags: Fowler USNA, Herndon Monument Climb, Herndon obelisk climb, U.S. Naval Academy, USNA  
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Harmless to self, Check
Tradition, Check
Hurts no one else, Check
Discriminatory to no one, Check
Photogenic, Check
Popular with tourists, Check
Leads to mystique of being a Plebe, Check
Rewards those who chose public service, Check
What's the issue?

Posted by: ChrisW1958 | May 13, 2010 3:50 AM | Report abuse

I'm sorry but a hundred guys crawling all over each other is just gay. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But in my school, U.Md. College Park, we took exactly one column of humans to reach any given height. It's called acrobatics, folks. And USNA ain't got it.

Posted by: Religulous | May 13, 2010 8:47 AM | Report abuse

We didn't have Wussies in the Navy back during Vietnam when I served. Now the officer corps is all whimpies - especially the flag rank PhD "warriors".

No wonder we can never win any modern conflicts. Wait till China hears about this.

Thanks much. HLB

Posted by: HLBeckPE | May 13, 2010 9:44 AM | Report abuse

"something called pugil stick jousting?"

I would have sworn de Vise was a fan of American Gladiators if only for the burly men in tight spandex unis.

It's shame that the men and women of America's armed forces have to be dragged down to the level of the denizens of America's newsrooms.

Posted by: meow1 | May 13, 2010 10:28 AM | Report abuse

For those who appeal to "tradition" to justify this particular bit of unsafe hazing: the article clearly describes an even older tradition, of having plebes sing and dance on Lover's Lane. Why don't you advocate for a return to that fine old tradition instead?

The Academy is there to train officers, not to indulge alumni's nostalgia for 1940s-era mass grabassery.

Posted by: kcx7 | May 13, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

@kcx7 - "unsafe hazing?" Are you kidding? As Mr. McMillan correctly notes these are future soldiers and sailors who will be subject to combat situations. What exactly is the problem with this event?

Posted by: briansp | May 13, 2010 1:43 PM | Report abuse

@briansp: after these middies graduate into the fleet, if they try to set up a similar "training event" for their sailors, the very best they could hope for is a stern talking to from the Old Man for their extremely poor judgment.

Civilians seem to feel that the military is casual about safety just because they have a dangerous job. The exact opposite is true: the military knows its job is dangerous enough without adding on unnecessary risks.

The Navy takes training safety extremely seriously. No commanding officer wants to explain why one of his sailors was hurt doing something stupid.

Posted by: kcx7 | May 13, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

I guess since Don't Ask, Don't Tell is on the cusp of being repealed, USNA feels it's no longer necessary to find clever excuses to allow young, oily men to climb up phallic shaped objects.

Posted by: alc0f7 | May 13, 2010 2:31 PM | Report abuse

I'm pretty sure that the fact that I'll miss looking at the (surely unintentional, but seriously HOT!) annual pics accompanying each year's inevitable news article isn't quite going to be enough to stop the Naval Academy from altering the tradition.

But what the heck. I'll say it anyway: Please don't deprive us loyal patriot gay men the smokin' treat that are these pics!

Posted by: smckel | May 14, 2010 6:44 PM | Report abuse

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