Picture this: the plebe class has been overcoming obstacles all year long. From the moment they arrive on the Yard and are welcomed with a haircut and white works, to the grueling physical and mental demands of Plebe summer, to the academic rigors and additional pressures imposed by the upperclassmen throughout the year. By the end of May, they’ve made it through one of the hardest years anyone in the military can weather.
So they’re handed one last assignment as a class - to muscle their way straight up the 21-foot grey granite obelisk known as the Herndon Monument - and replace a plebe “dixie cup” cover with an upperclassman’s cover, to symbolize their transformation from plebes to fourth class Midshipmen. Did we mention that the monument has been slathered with 50 pounds of vegetable shortening?
They must show grit and teamwork like no other as they link arms and stand on shoulders to create a human pyramid, working together tirelessly to switch the hats on a hot May day over several hours. This struggle has lasted as long as four hours (when the dixie cup was glued and taped), and as short as the standing record of twenty minutes (for a greased obelisk) from 1972. Thousands will gather to watch.
Commissioning Week features many steeped-in-tradition events, and this is one of the most exciting, can’t-miss ones. This year, the Herndon Climb will happen on May 20th, and if you can’t be there in person, you can be there in spirit and live stream it from this site.
The Storied History of the Herndon Monument
The monument itself has an interesting story too. It was created to memorialize Commander William Lewis Herndon and his remarkable act of heroism on September 12, 1857, when his ship, the SS Central America, was caught in a three-day hurricane near Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. He went down with his ship in a Herculean effort to save it, all the while ushering all women and children and many other sailors to safety on another ship.
The monument was erected on the Yard shortly after the incident, and was dedicated to the U.S. Naval Academy by the class of 1860. Although it is traditionally cited as reaching 21 feet, actual measurements do put it at 33.33 feet. The sculptor is unknown. There is a plaque facing the Naval Academy Chapel that details Commander Herndon’s brave act, and includes the following statement by his brother-in-law and cousin (as well as co-worker), Matthew Fontaine Maury: "Forgetful of self, in his death he added a new glory to the annals of the sea.”
How the Climb Began
This famous “plebes-no-more” event started because the plebes were not allowed to date or fraternize with women in the early years of the Academy until they were Midshipmen 3rd Class. “Lover’s lane,” with benches and landscaped features, snaked along near the Herndon Monument, and Midshipmen could meet women there. In 1907, the plebe class of 1910 decided after graduation to celebrate the fact that they could now go on Lover’s Lane by whooping around the monument.
In 1940, they began to climb Herndon Monument after graduation. Greasing started intermittently in 1949, and they started recording climbing times as early as 1959. Since many of the first climbs did not include vegetable shortening, they were much quicker. In 1969, Midshipman Larry Fanning reached the top in a minute and a half. And earlier climbers could employ tools, like the cargo net used in 1962 by Midshipman 4th Class Ed Linz. This is no longer the case. Once the greasing started, Midshipman 4th Class Michael J Maynard of the Class of 1975 scaled the monument in 20 minutes in 1972. This is the current standing record.
Navy lore says that the Midshipman that actually replaces the dixie cup with the upperclassman’s cover will reach Flag Rank first. Although this has not yet happened, this person does receive a pair of shoulder boards to commemorate the achievement.
Getting to the Top and Giving Back
One other great tradition that has grown out of the Herndon Climb is the donation of the plebes’ athletic shoes to a number of charities. This is facilitated by the Midshipman Action Group, and it started because Midshipmen are required to remove their shoes prior to attempting the climb. With close to 1,000 Midshipmen vying for the prize, this left a lot of unclaimed shoes! What could be done with them?
But the biggest question remains as we draw closer to the climb - Will they break the record this year? Come by on May 20th to find out!