On Monday afternoon several hundred Navy plebes worked together to scale a 21-foot obelisk slicked with lard on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. It is a thrilling event. Here are the plebes running to the Herndon Monument.
And here is the obelisk, the plebes and the lard — technically vegetable shortening, but that doesn't sound visceral enough — a couple minutes into the climb.
This is an annual tradition. Plebes, at the end of their first year at the academy, must replace an underclassman's "dixie cup" hat at the top of the monument with an upperclassman's hat. Only then can they begin their summer.
The trick is to beat and scrub the lard off with shirts and rags, and to build a human pyramid to hoist someone in striking distance of the top.
They got close early on…
…but didn't quite make it.
Last year's freshman class accomplished the feat in one hour, 38 minutes and 36 seconds.
The tableau is one of agony.
It's like "Guernica"….
…meets "American Gladiators"…
…meets, like, the Stations of the Cross.
Spectators cheer and snack and photograph and gasp.
Chris Bianchi, 19, made a solid run at the top shortly after the first boom of a cannon, signaling 30 minutes had passed.
The tattoo on his back honors his father Kevin, who graduated from the academy in 1985 and died in a helicopter crash in 2003, when Chris was 7 years old, according to the Navy Times.
But, like many before and after him, Chris took a tumble.
This woman had the best attitude of the class: all smiles as she scrambled for a shot at the dixie cup.
But the men underneath were not on firm footing.
After the second boom of a cannon, signaling an hour, Bianchi made a second run at the top.
Bianchi hails from Virginia Beach, Va. His tattoo features his father's name, the words "God," "Family" and "Country," and a chapter and verse from the Gospel of John ("Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends"). After a couple pushes, he nudged the upperclassman's hat onto the top.
Here's a wider iPhone shot of the moment, to give you a sense of scale:
Bianchi, who is five-foot-three, celebrated before the fall back to Earth. The climb took one hour, 12 minutes and 30 seconds.
Classmates congratulated Bianchi afterward. According to academy lore, the achievement means he'll be the first member of the class of 2019 to reach the rank of admiral.
"I'm just glad that I'm a little guy," Bianchi told the Navy Times. And there was much rejoicing all around.
UPDATED Tuesday, 9:15 a.m.