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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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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