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Navy plebes have smooth climb up lard-free Herndon Monument

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 25, 2010; B01

First-year students at the U.S. Naval Academy clambered to the top of the 21-foot Herndon Monument on Monday in near-record time, a memorable performance in one of the most storied traditions at the Annapolis service academy.

But something was missing.

Two hundred pounds of lard.

The Herndon climb is a rite of passage for Navy freshmen, known as plebes. At the end of their grueling first year, they gather, 1,000 strong, at the foot of the monument and work their way to the top in a greasy human pyramid, fighting gravity and slogging through mud as upper-class midshipmen spray the greasy throng with hoses. This year, the hoses, too, were absent.

A plebe reached the top of the obelisk Monday afternoon in two minutes, five seconds. No one was injured. No one even got particularly dirty. The sense of collective letdown might have been captured best in the words scrawled onto one midshipman's T-shirt: "Where's the grease?"

Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler, the departing academy superintendent, instructed the midshipmen not to grease the obelisk this year. It was a gesture of his dissatisfaction with an event that, for all its rich, greasy history, has raised safety concerns with academy leaders. In 2008, four midshipmen sustained injuries in the climb serious enough for ambulance trips to the hospital. All four recovered.

"Admiral Fowler made the decision this year that it would be safer for the midshipmen to climb the monument without grease," said Cmdr. Joe Carpenter, an academy spokesman. He noted that no one was injured in this year's ascent.

The first mid to the top plants a midshipman's cap. According to legend, not yet fulfilled, he or she will be first in the class to attain the rank of admiral. It's a triumph of teamwork and grit and a sight to behold. Spectators have watched plebes struggle for four hours to reach the top. No class has ever given up.

Academy alumni are outspoken in their defense of beloved Annapolis traditions, and some who have scaled Herndon are outraged at the thought that the climb is being cleansed.

"It's political correctness gone overboard," said Dwight Crevelt, a former midshipman who reached the top of the monument in 1976. "They've eliminated the challenge; they've eliminated the excitement. Next thing, I think they'll just eliminate the event."

The outgoing superintendent signaled he was reconsidering the climb in a media briefing earlier this month. Academy leaders said it might be supplanted by the Sea Trials program, a 14-hour regimen of physical and mental endurance tests that includes a hill assault, simulated bridge defense and demolition and lots of running and calisthenics.

Academy alumni have generally scoffed at the notion that a few midshipmen might get hurt climbing the monument, a concern that has percolated among academy leaders for the past few years. Herbert McMillan, a 1980 graduate, put it this way in a 2008 account in The Washington Post: "We're going to send these guys to war but they can't climb a monument because they might get hurt? Come on."

Carpenter said the question is not just safety but merit: Fowler, he said, believes the Sea Trials have "significantly more training value" than the Herndon climb.

Fowler wasn't specific on who might end the climb, or when. He leaves the academy this summer. Any decision about next year would fall to his successor. Rear Adm. Michael H. Miller is nominated for the post and awaits consideration in the U.S. Senate.

The monument climb has its origins in the prohibition against first-year midshipmen fraternizing with women. The monument sits in a part of campus known as Lover's Lane, a favorite spot for older midshipmen to take dates on Sunday afternoons. The plebes of 1907 started a tradition of swarming the monument to celebrate their entree to Lover's Lane. They began climbing the monument in 1940. Around 1947, plebes began leaving a hat to document the ascent. Grease first appeared in 1949.

The shortest climb, an ascent of 90 seconds in 1969, came in a year when, according to academy historian James Cheevers, the statue was "either lightly greased or not greased at all."

In other words, Carpenter said, this is not the first time the academy has held the lard.

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