The Herndon Climb Pits Plebes Against a Giant Greasy Pole
Every year, plebes attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, end their year with the annual Herndon Climb. Working together, these soon-to-be Fourth Class Midshipmen must ascend the Herndon Monument to complete the “Plebes-No-More” ceremony.
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The History of the Herndon Monument Climb
The history and traditions of the Herndon Monument climb can be traced back to 1950 when success was found by Frederick Graff, class of 1953. Others attempted the Herndon Climb, but it wasn’t until a decade later that the tradition as we know it today would become established thanks to the 12-minute climb completed by John Marlowe Truesdell.
Truesdell placed his cap upon the Herndon Monument, and ever since, it’s been a tradition held by many different classes of the U.S. Naval Academy. The event is used to create a sense of comradery, build leadership, instill teamwork, and hone organizational skills.
The USNA Herndon Climb isn’t as easy as it seems. For starters, shoes are a no-go. It’s also become a tradition for many of the plebes to donate shoes to charities throughout their years as part of the ceremony.
And as if scaling a 21-foot high obelisk shoeless wasn’t difficult enough, the Commander William Lewis Herndon Marker is slick with “approximately 200 pounds of vegetable shortening” that makes getting a grip quite a challenge.
The Herndon Climb is complete when the plebe “dixie-cup hat” that’s placed on top of the monument and replaced with a “combination cap.” Whichever Midshipman replaces the dixie-cup hat is given the Superintendent’s combination cover or shoulder boards and is said to be the first of their class to achieve Flag Rank, according to the legend.
Herndon Climb times continue to be recorded and are a major source of pride among the classes. Achieving the fastest time that you can is part of the challenge that sees human pyramid after human pyramid toppled as they all work together to reach the top.
What Is the Fastest Herndon Climb?
The fastest Herndon Monument Climb of all time belongs to Larry Fanning and the class of 1972 in 1969, with a time of 1 minute and 30 seconds. However, there is a big caveat to remember here: this time is for a non-greased Herndon Climb. The fastest Herndon Climb to feature a greased obelisk belongs to Midshipman 4th Class Michael J. Maynard and the class of 1975, which was completed in 20 minutes, ironically, in 1972.
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The Legacy of Commander William Lewis Herndon
Commander William Lewis Herndon served in the U.S. Navy as an avid explorer and would even serve during the Mexican-American War. Commander Herndon participated in expeditions through the Amazon and helped deliver major contributions to the understanding of the region.
Sadly, while commanding the USS Central America, the ship was hit by a three-day hurricane after embarking from Cuba. This would mark the demise of the vessel and hundreds of its passengers, including Commander Herndon, who was last seen in prayer choosing to go down with the ship and its lost members rather than save himself.
The shipwreck produced some survivors who were eventually rescued by other passing boats, but most of those on board died. This crash helped contribute to the Panic of 1857 due to the loss of so much gold. The ship was found as part of an expedition in the late 1980s.
Today, the monument, constructed by an unknown sculptor, serves as a reminder of his bravery and selflessness. The Naval Academy climb embodies the spirit of putting others before yourself and is a proud tradition throughout the U.S. Navy.
How To Watch the Herndon Climb
While the honors of participating in the Herndon Climb go to those serving in the Navy, you can still get in on the action. The Herndon Climb attracts viewers from all over the country every year to watch the madness live. But getting to Annapolis, MD, can be a hassle for many. Not to worry, the Herndon Climb is also broadcast online and is billed as “one of the greatest struggles you’ll ever see.”
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