By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 18, 2008
In the name of safety, the U.S. Naval Academy is considering an overhaul of one of its most bizarre traditions: the annual ritual in which a thousand first-year midshipmen struggle to conquer a 21-foot granite obelisk coated with 200 pounds of lard.
The Herndon Climb has occupied a hallowed place in Naval Academy tradition for decades. For members of the plebe class, the climb represents what a former midshipman called "our final exam of all finals." The starter gun fires, and the plebes, working together, race to replace a blue-rimmed sailor's cap, known as a "dixie cup," with a midshipman's cap.
The scene is unforgettable to those who watch, as the sweating, grunting, red-faced midshipmen at the bottom, their arms linked, support a human pyramid surging to the top of the monument. The pyramid often collapses, but the plebes invariably make it to the top whether it takes them minutes or hours.
But at the ever-changing academy, the climb may be going the way of the sailing ship and the smoothbore cannon.
"Similar to how our Navy looks at all traditions in the Fleet, we are evaluating the Herndon Monument Climb to ensure the event remains a valid part of our heritage but it is conducted with professionalism, respect, and most important, safety in mind," the academy's public affairs office said in a statement.
It is unclear what changes might be imposed. This year's climb is scheduled for 9 a.m. May 15.
Deborah Goode, a spokeswoman for the academy, said that she could not recall any serious injuries resulting from the Herndon Climb and that the reevaluation was part of a broader reconsideration of the end-of-year events for plebes.
Alumni scoffed at the risk of someone's getting hurt, especially given the school's mission to prepare officers for combat.
"It's not dangerous. That's a lame excuse," said Dwight Crevelt, who made it to the top of the monument in 1976. Crevelt never graduated from the academy, because his eyesight went bad after two years at the school. But his memory of scaling the mud- and lard-spattered obelisk -- and the week of glory that followed as he was feted like an admiral -- remains strong.
"It's the wrong move to make," Crevelt said. "You're trying to build team spirit, camaraderie, and that's the ultimate in team effort. . . the team going after that."
Herbert McMillan, a 1980 graduate who became an airline pilot and Annapolis politician, also opposes a change.
"We're going to send these guys to war but they can't climb a monument because they might get hurt? Come on," he said. "It just seems like a solution in search of a problem."