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Grease returns to plebes' Herndon climb

Mar. 23, 2011 - 01:36PM   |   Last Updated: Mar. 23, 2011 - 01:36PM  |  
2009 Herndon Climb
2009 Herndon Climb: Plebes climb the Herndon Monument at the U.S. Naval Academy.
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Midshipman 4th Class Jamie Schrock celebrates victory at the Naval Academy's 2007 Herndon Climb. After a one-year grease-free challenge, the climb will return to its slippery state, Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael Miller says. (Navy)

What do you think?

Does the return of grease make this a ritual hazing, needlessly exposing midshipmen to humiliation and injury? Or is it a worthy test of teamwork for naval officers in training? Email staff writer Sam Fellman with your opinion.

For Naval Academy midshipmen trying to finish their grueling first year, their final challenge just became a little more slippery.

That's because — after a one-year hiatus — the year-end ritual of climbing a 21-foot obelisk, which marks their transition from plebes, will be complicated by grease.

Last year, then-Superintendent Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler ordered upperclassmen to keep the Herndon Monument grease-free to prevent injuries. But his relief, Vice Adm. Michael Miller, has brought it back for commissioning week festivities this May.

"After careful consideration, I have decided to reinstitute the practice of applying grease to the Herndon Monument as part of the annual Plebe Recognition Ceremony," Miller said in a statement. "Conducting the ceremonial climb in the same manner as so many previous classes helps to instill spirit and camaraderie among plebes and better links them to the many classes that have gone before them. The Herndon Monument climb serves as a useful event in reinforcing teamwork, organization and leadership."

Miller said that the event will also have "safety zones," water and cooling stations, and on-hand medical teams to handle any injuries that arise.

"I also recognize that the plebes are extremely athletic and in good health, and routinely demonstrate their physical resilience in a variety of equally challenging athletic events and extracurricular activities throughout the year," he said. "As in past climbs, the degree of direct involvement by plebes will be a personal decision."

The return of the slippery contest was first reported by The Annapolis Capital newspaper.

Fowler, in his final year as superintendent, outlawed Herndon grease because it caused too many injuries and had been superseded by Sea Trials, a 14-hour-long course that plebes must also complete. Fowler said he believed Sea Trials should be the event on which midshipmen should focus.

He also said midshipmen, upon assessing the risks of the climb the same way they'll need to use operational risk management in the fleet, will "probably abolish it on their own."

"We're trying to get our young people to make wise decisions here," Fowler said.

Academy spokesman Cmdr. Joe Carpenter said Sea Trials will "remain the capstone, end-of-year training event for plebes."

In 2008, ambulances took away four midshipmen who had been injured in the 2½-hour greased climb, Carpenter said.

By contrast, there were no injuries last year and the plebes completed the climb in two minutes and five seconds.

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