Herndon climb could slip away

Academy superintendent says Sea Trials could eventually replace climb, in which mids have been hurt

May 12, 2010|By Andrea F. Siegel, The Baltimore Sun

The Naval Academy's traditional Herndon climb — a scramble to replace the hat at the top of a 21-foot-tall, lard-coated obelisk — may slip-slide away.

Vice Adm. Jeffrey L. Fowler, departing superintendent of the Naval Academy, said Wednesday that the greasy climb that signals the end of freshman year every spring has an uncertain future.

Though the traditional competition will take place later this month, there have been concerns about injuries as the plebes trample and tumble over each other to replace the plebe "Dixie cup" hat at the top with an upperclassman's hat. Some plebes have been hurt, but none seriously, as the midshipmen step on faces, heads and shoulders.

But Fowler said, "I think it's appropriate to have a culminating event to mark the end of the plebe year." He added that he thinks that the competitive Sea Trials may be a better and more appropriate team challenge at the military academy in Annapolis than scaling the Herndon monument.

The Sea Trials, which include endurance races, obstacle courses and aquatics challenges as well as other events such as paintball and pugil stick jousting, have been a focus of the close of plebe year since they started in 1998.

"I think it will replace it," Fowler said in his end-of-year meeting with reporters.

That decision will probably not be up to Fowler. Rear Adm. Michael H. Miller was nominated by President Barack Obama last month to be the academy's next superintendent; he must be confirmed by the Senate.

Fowler also acknowledged that in talking with alumni, many don't want a tradition that is one of their most vivid recollections to vanish. Most living alumni either climbed or cheered on climbers in an event that, according to an official history, began in 1940. Still, Fowler said, when the rationale is explained, many understand, he said.

Clearly, though, not all of them do, and it's not just because of the legend that says the plebe who scales Herndon will be the first in the class to attain the rank of admiral. That hasn't happened. Yet.

"I have a hard time believing that is going to fly," said William Ferris, Class of 1970, noting that more than half a century of grads consider the climb a serious milestone at a school whose branch of the service is steeped in tradition. "I would be very surprised if there wouldn't be a very significant outcry among the alumni."

Alumni said that the spontaneity of the climb cannot be replicated in Sea Trials and that the climb was one of the most memorable events of their time at the academy.

"I think that would be a mistake," said retired Gen. Charles Krulak, Class of '64, former commandant of the Marine Corps, adding that he would be "sad" to see the climb go.

"Herndon is a celebration of the end of a very grueling first year at the Naval Academy," he said.

In contrast, Sea Trials, the 14-hour contest in which companies of plebes are rated, are an important competition that speaks to the midshipmen's training and values at the academy, he said.

"The two are totally different and are not interchangeable," Krulak said.

Whether they got squashed by climbers or soaked by hose-carrying upperclassmen, academy grads consider the slippery climb a major rite of passage. Or, in Krulak's case, he said he was mashed into the mud at the bottom: "I was 6 foot 4 before I did the Herndon climb. After, I was 5 foot 6."

Douglass Lamartin, Class of '70, said in an e-mail that the shared planning and memories of the milestone forge a deep bond among classmates.

"Every Plebe looks forward to the challenge and relishes the achievement. Once they climb Herndon they can proudly claim that they are plebes no more, and they are ready to become upperclassmen themselves. Ever after the Herndon Climb binds a class together as a shared memory of what they accomplished on their own," he wrote.

"It would be a shame if such a popular event were replaced by a scripted activity designed, managed and scored by the Academy."

"I would hate to see it change," said Mitch Henderson, Class of 1965. But, he said, that is purely an emotional response. "I would certainly be open to what the vice admiral is saying," he said.

Alumni said they understood the concerns over risking serious injury, though some noted that the academy is preparing students for military roles.

Fowler has made changes to the climb since his arrival in 2007. He has done away with the tradition of upperclassmen drenching plebes while they try to climb and has added 30 mids as safety officers.

Fowler said he "wouldn't be surprised to see" the climb return to its roots. Originally, the tradition was more of a gathering.

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