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Plebes No More
As they have for 70 years, students at the U.S. Naval Academy scale the 21-foot Herndon Monument to celebrate the end of their grueling first year, Monday, May 24, 2010, at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. The Herndon obelisk was not greased with lard as in the past. The Climb to the top to place an officer's hat on the tip of the obelisk, after removing a first-year student's hat took by 3rd Company's Keegan Albi from Eugene, Ore., two minutes and five seconds. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Why are Naval Academy freshmen scaling a greased-up obelisk? Behind the Herndon Climb


ANNAPOLIS, Md (Circa) - The Herndon Climb sounds more like a Virginia walking trail than it does one of the most beloved traditions associated with the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. But then again, nothing about the Herndon Climb makes a lot of sense... at first.

At the end of their "plebe" (or freshman) year, young Navy and Marine Corps officers-in-training will form a human pyramid at the base of monument greased up with about 50 pounds of vegetable grease with the aim of replacing a dixie cup at its tip with an upperclassman's hat.

Did you catch all that? Let's break it down. Back in the nineteenth century, after the Civil War, freshman at the academy were not allowed to date. Upperclassmen could socialize with women, and often did so on Sundays by walking with their dates down a particular path at the academy referred to as "Love Lane."

So what did freshman do at the end of their first year? Why, celebrate its completion by swarming the Herndon Monument of course. Eventually, this practice, referred to as "swooping out," evolved into a dance plebes would do to celebrate their newfound ability to date, according to The Washington Post.

Then, in 1940, the freshman, not satisfied with simply dancing or celebrating anymore, decided to begin climbing the monument. This practice begins to resemble the ritual we know today. Originally, the plebes would just try and seat one of their own at the top of the monument. Eventually, in 1947, a hat was placed on top of the obelisk.

Could the upperclassmen simply allow this ritual to cotninue unfettered? Why, of course not! So they began to grease the monument in 1949, and then began placing a dixie cup on top of the monument in 1962.

The academy began keeping track of the time it would take a particular class to complete the ritual. It took the class of 1962, about 12 minutes. The class of 1972 does boast the fastest time, a devastating 1 minute 30 seconds. However, no grease was used that year. Who has the slowest time? The class of 1998. Keeping with the theme of upperclassmen meddling, older students glued the dixie cup to top of the monument, causing the plebes to complete their daunting task in 4 hours 5 minutes and 17 seconds.

Legend has it that the plebe who places the hat at the top of the monument will becomes the class's first admiral. However, it has never happened. Maybe the lucky 2018 plebe will finally get it done? Hundreds watch the ritual live. And thousands more watch it online. You can watch it too, on Circa!

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