After more than two hours of trying to climb a 21-foot obelisk covered in grease, it wasn’t looking good for the U.S. Naval Academy’s freshman class.
Many had lost their shirts. Patience was wearing thin. Their backs, heaving as they tried to scale each other’s bodies to reach the top of the Herndon Monument, were bright red — from the sun or the friction, or both.
The annual Herndon Climb separates plebes, or first-year students, from the rest. At the end of the school year at the military academy, freshmen are tasked with working together to remove an underclassman’s “Dixie cup” hat from the top of the Herndon Monument, which on Monday was greased with more than 50 pounds of butter, shortening and oil.
The plebes must replace it with an upperclassman’s hat. Once they do, they move past the arduous first year at the academy, becoming “plebes no more.”
This year, it took 2 hours and 9 minutes to complete the task. It wasn’t a fast time.
Anything more than two hours, several upperclassmen said, is considered slow. Two years ago, the freshmen were able to supplant the cap in 1 hour and 12 minutes.
But it was exactly the kind of climb many had come to see: A fight to the end. Bitter and challenging and definitely not pretty.
By the time Peter Rossi managed to land the upperclassman’s cap on top of the slick statue, several of his classmates had tried and fallen. Rossi managed the feat by using what he had — filthy wet T-shirts, which he hurled over the peak and used to get the hat to stick.
“Everyone’s working together and just doing what they can to get it done,” Rossi said. “It’s a cool feeling to be the one, no matter how you do it.”
Heading into the big event Monday morning, the Class of 2021 had a plan. As they waited for the cannon to signal the beginning of the climb, dozens of plebes ripped their shirts and tied them together to create bands they would use to wrap around the obelisk, pulling themselves to the top.
It worked for a while and buoyed their spirits. Some guessed they would achieve the fastest time in decades.
But soon, the plan — like the pyramid of plebes attempting to execute it — collapsed.
“They can’t be plebes forever, or can they?” mused an upperclassman as two young men sunk dramatically down the human ladder around the two-hour mark.
The Herndon Climb has been completed by thousands of underclassmen in the name of teamwork and character-building.
The monument is named for Cmdr. William Lewis Herndon, who went down with his ship, the SS Central America, during a hurricane in 1857. It was erected three years later and has sat in the center of the Naval Academy’s campus for 158 years.
The tradition of climbing the monument began in 1940. Nine years later, the upperclassmen began greasing it down with lard to make the task more difficult.
In 1976, women joined the scrum for the first time. No woman has ever been the “capper” who places the upperclassman’s hat at the top.
On Monday, several members of the Naval Academy’s Class of 1971 sat in folding chairs, hoping they would witness history.
“We’d love to see a woman get it this year,” said Ken Marks, 70, of Norfolk. “When we did it, there weren’t even women at this school. And now I look around and see all this diversity — men, women, different races. It’s great.”
Though several women came close, balancing precariously on the shoulders of their peers, it was Rossi who completed the job.
He climbed up the shoulders of his roommate, he said, who had been one of the first freshmen to attempt to scale the monument using the rope of shirts. Rossi credited his classmates beneath him for holding him up long enough to hoist the hat to the top.
Legend has it that the plebe to place the hat on the top of the obelisk is destined to become the first admiral of that graduating class. However, in the nearly 80-year history of the climb, that has never happened.
“I have high ambitions in the military, but I am not going to be the first admiral in this class, so I just went in there wanting to support everyone,” said Bryce Beckish, who stood at the base for nearly an hour as his classmates climbed up his shoulders. “When you’re down there, it feels like you’re at the bottom of the sea with 1,000 pounds pushing down on you.”
Students and alumni know the spectacle is a strange one. But, they said, it’s part of what sets graduates of the Naval Academy apart.
Plus, alumnus Bob Stuart, 69, said if they didn’t do it, they never would have been able to move on.
“Without this,” he said, gesturing to the chaos around him, “we’d still be plebes.”