It’s that time of year again; flowers are blooming, summer is right around the corner and the U.S. Naval Academy plebes are climbing the 21-foot obelisk covered in vegetable shortening.

The plebes, or first-year Naval Academy students, have climbed the Herndon Monument every year since 1962 to signify the end of plebe life and the beginning of fourth-class midshipmen life.

They begin by building a human pyramid to remove the “Dixie cup” hat at the top of the monument and replace it with an upperclassman’s hat. A thick layer of vegetable shortening complicates the task — 150 lbs. of the slick substance is slathered over the monument. If this wasn’t difficult enough, the plebes are sprayed with ice-cold hose water as they claw at the greased-up sides of the monument. Switching the cap on top marks the end of the plebe life.

The ritual’s origin dates back to 1940, according to a history of the event by James Cheevers, the former senior curator at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. This task takes teamwork and perseverance to complete — last year’s climb took 2 1/2 hours to complete.

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“Push him up!” the plebes yelled as they hoisted Ben Leisegang, 20, onto their shoulders and up towards the top. Leisegang managed to place the cap on top, but failed to knock down the old one. A premature cheer erupted through the crowd but was quickly diminished once they realized they still had work to do. They once again hoisted Leisegang up towards the top where he successfully replaced the old cap with the new cap in a time of two hours, 19 minutes and 11 seconds.

Plebes use tee shirts to rub off the vegetable shortening to make the climb less slippery. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
It takes a little while to make sure the vegetable shortening is completely rubbed off. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Plebes are sprayed with ice cold water while they attempt the climb to the top.
Plebes are sprayed with ice cold water while they attempt the climb to the top. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Sarah falls from the pyramid and ends up with a bloody nose. “I’m ok!” she yelled and bounced back quickly. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
The teamwork it takes to build multiple levels of a human pyramid is a true testament to the level of physical fitness the plebes require to be successful. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Plebes complete the annual Herndon Climb at the Annapolis Naval Academy on May 15, 2024. The climb symbolizes their completion of their freshman year. This year’s class completed the task in 2:19:11. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
The freezing cold water from the hose on an already dreary day didn’t dampen the spirits of the plebes. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
A woman gets hit with a teeshirt from a fellow plebe trying to help her wipe off the vegetable shortening.
A woman gets hit with a T-shirt from a fellow plebe trying to help her wipe off the vegetable shortening. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Plebes on the bottom of the pyramid shoulder much of the weight of their peers. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Plebes complete the annual Herndon Climb at the Annapolis Naval Academy on May 15, 2024. The climb symbolizes their completion of their freshman year. This year’s class completed the task in 2:19:11 (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Despite a handful of boots and arm casts, the plebes still showed up to support their peers. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Plebes hold onto the obelisk as they catch their breath. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Plebes complete the annual Herndon Climb at the Annapolis Naval Academy on May 15, 2024. The climb symbolizes their completion of their freshman year. This year’s class completed the task in 2:19:11. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Ben Leisegang, 20, from California, completed challenge of replacing the cover on top of the monument. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Plebes hug, cheer, cry and scream after they complete the climb.
Plebes hug, cheer, cry and scream after they complete the climb. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)
Plebes celebrate as the milestone is achieved. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

Kaitlin Newman is a photojournalist specializing in multimedia coverage. Her main areas of focus are politics, conflict, feature and breaking news. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism and a Master’s Degree in Professional Writing from Towson University, which is where she is also the professor of photojournalism.

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