Midshipman Claire Pelletier-Heblock predicted the time that the 17th Company would need to scale the Herndon Monument on Wednesday morning, a bold statement.

Photos: Freshmen complete greasy tradition

“Two hours,” she said.

Her company was designated the Iron Company on Tuesday night, winner of the 14-hour Sea Trials — a grueling obstacle course that marks the culmination of the plebe year for the Class of 2026. That gave Pelletier-Herblock and her company mates the honor of rushing the monument first on Wednesday morning.

Their strategy for scaling the 21-foot granite obelisk was to use their t-shirts to wipe off the 150 pounds of vegetable shortening applied to start at 4 a.m., make a pyramid with “big guys” on the bottom and “little guys” on top. It’s a tradition for plebes that stretches back to the mid-1950s.

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“It’s shared experience like this that keeps us together, generation after generation,” Vice Adm. Sean Buck, academy superintendent, said at the start of the annual event.


A signal gun announced the start of the climb, and all those strategies, all those predictions were put to the test. The 17th company rushed the monument, quickly followed by the rest of the class.

The goal is to remove the “Dixie cup” hat at the top of the monument and replace it with an upperclassman’s hat, called a “cover.”

And while the strategy was right, it took 2 hours and 31 minutes by the official clock. It was Chris Paris of Louisville, Kentucky who ultimately reached up from a stack of his classmates, extended a white and black cover in his hands to the pointy end of the monument and placed it on top.

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“Plebes no more!” Buck shouted later as he raised Paris’ hands up from one side while Marine Col. James McDonough did the same from the other.

Cheers rose and fell from a crowd of several thousand proud parents, alumni and curious onlookers for the duration of one of America’s quirkiest traditions.

Paris, part of the 28th Company, said he spent time at the base of the mid-pile, and in the middle tier, too. He even found himself on top once or twice before making the exchange.

“I happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Paris said.

Midshipman 2nd Class Paul Neale, commander of the event, said his crew got up at 4 a.m. Wednesday morning to cover the monument and stack 300 pounds of water bottles for what would be thirsty work. It required two ladders and lots of dirty hands.

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“We did it out of love for them so they have a good time, a hard time,” Neale said.

Neale and his team of sophomores and juniors carved “76″ in the shortening to mark a link with that graduating class 43 years ago. It’s another academy tradition.

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The monument is named for Navy Cmdr. William Herndon, who went down with his ship, the SS Central America, during a hurricane in 1857 off the coast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. With him went scores of passengers from California and 15 tons of gold. His widow raised funds for a monument, and the academy agreed to place it in front of the Naval Academy Chapel.

Plebes used to rush the area after finishing their freshman year because it had a reputation as a lover’s lane and they were prohibited from dating until they became sophomores.

By the early 1950s, freshmen began climbing the monument, and greasing the granite became a tradition. When commencement ceremonies were moved from June to May in the 1980s, the two events merged in the public mind.

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This year, Buck moved the climb up several days to have it follow the Sea Trials, the grueling, 14-hour obstacle course that plebes run as a much more serious end-of-year ritual.

Plebes take part in the Herndon Monument climb at the U.S. Naval Academy on the morning of May 17, 2023.
Plebes take part in the Herndon Monument climb at the U.S. Naval Academy on the morning of May 17, 2023. (Rick Hutzell/The Baltimore Banner)

That didn’t make it any less special for Tom and Judy Flaherty of Colorado, who have visited Annapolis more than six times since their son, Ryan, was inducted into the academy last fall.

A member of the 11th company — each company is made up of about 120 mids — Ryan told them he was looking forward to the end of his plebe year and the climb.

That has included academic challenges, which are notoriously rigorous. The Flahertys said their son figured that one out by the end of the year. As they watched from behind a barrier as a crush of midshipmen waited their turn at the front of the scrum, they predicted he would again.

“He always enjoys a challenge,” Tom said.

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Reunited with parents after the climb, and a dunk in the fountain at Radford Terrace overlooking the Severn River, Ryan offered a cold-skinned handshake and a big smile. He’s not sure what he wants to do after graduating in three years.

“Naval aviation maybe, or the Marines,” he said.

He’s got time to figure the next challenge out.

Commissioning week begins Monday and includes a show by the Navy’s Blue Angels flight demonstration team and wraps up May 26 with graduation ceremonies. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is scheduled to speak.


Rick Hutzell is the Annapolis columnist for The Baltimore Banner. He writes about what's happening today, how we got here and we're we're going next. The former editor of Capital Gazette, he led the newspaper to a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of the 2018 mass shooting in its newsroom. 

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