Naval Academy Class of 2027 Scales Herndon Monument in 2 Hours, 19 Minutes

The annual climb of Herndon Monument is a tradition for first-year students at the Naval Academy.
The annual climb of Herndon Monument is a tradition for first-year students at the Naval Academy. (Paul W. Gillespie/Capital Gazette)

It was a tall and slippery climb up the Herndon Monument, but Ben Leisegang did it twice.

Balancing precariously on the shoulders of two Naval Academy plebes stacked in a human pyramid at its base, Leisegang outstretched his arms around the greasy 21-foot granite obelisk, clenching an upperclassman's cap in his teeth. He shifted along one side, then supported only by one set of shoulders. Extending his right arm upward, he placed the cap atop the monument.

Success, or so the academy's Class of 2027 thought. While the upperclassman's cap was in place, a plebe's hat known as a "Dixie cup," which was to have been removed, also remained secure at the pinnacle, held in place by several pounds of thick grease.

"We have to go back up," another plebe at the base appeared to mouth to his classmates below, making slashing and pointing motions with his hands.

Now knowing that they needed to replace the Dixie cup with the upperclassman's cap to succeed, the second climb was better. Stacking and lifting each other up once more, within 15 minutes, victory was theirs.

In all, it took 2 hours and 19 minutes for the plebes to raise Leisegang, 20, of Rancho Santa Margarita, California, to the top of the monument and complete the Herndon Climb.

"I feel amazing," he said afterward. "It's just like a culmination of the whole year, so it's just awesome. Everyone was so hyped to be there and we all got into it, so it's just the greatest experience of the year so far."

The annual climb is a tradition for first-year students at the Naval Academy. Together, the plebes scale the monument, typically covered in vegetable shortening, and replace the Dixie cup with an upperclassman's hat. After completing the climb, the plebes are referred to as fourth-class midshipmen.

The climb is not without challenges, however. To reach the peak, plebes stand on top of one another, sometimes losing their balance from the grease and falling backward onto their classmates at the base. Plebes on the ground throw their T-shirts to those higher up the pyramid, who use them to wipe off the grease. Throughout the climb, upperclassmen spray the plebes with water. Those on the outskirts of the group clustered around the base were shivering.

Families, friends and other spectators watched closely as the plebes scaled the monument, taking photos and videos.

Lisa Kendall flew in from Wisconsin to watch her son, Kieran Kendall, take part in the climb. Proudly wearing a golden "Navy Mom" pin, she remembered asking her son if he had a plan of attack to reach the top ahead of time.

"He's like, 'No, we're just going to show up,'" she said.

Herndon was also particularly greasy this year. Midshipman 2nd Class Kai Sung, who led the team of upperclassmen organizing the climb, said they placed 300 pounds of grease on the monument -- an amount that may be a record, according to Sung, who rose well before dawn to prepare it. The Dixie cup was filled with vegetable shortening as well, Sung said, pointing to a lip of grease visible under the brim.

"I shook it and it wasn't moving," he said. "So they [may] have to physically remove it with their head."

On his second climb, Leisegang nudged the small white hat off the peak using the upperclassman's hat as a countering force. As the crowd roared with excitement, he flashed a thumbs up before placing the second hat atop the monument, raising his fist in celebration.

The Class of 2027's feat comes less than a day after they completed Sea Trials, a 14-hour physical and mental challenge that tests the plebes' teamwork, toughness and mental endurance. The 14th Company was recognized as the Iron Company for its spirit and performance, which allowed members to rush at the Herndon Monument first.

Though many were exhausted from the rigors of the previous day, the plebes also narrowly beat last year's time -- the Class of 2026 scaled the greasy monument in 2 hours and 32 minutes. The class of 1972 holds the record for the fastest climb, clocking in at 1 minute and 30 seconds, though there was no grease applied.

The monument is named for Cmdr. William Lewis Herndon, who went down with his ship off the coast of North Carolina in 1857 after trying to save as many passengers as possible.

Herndon "defined the concept of honor," said Vice Adm. Yvette Davids, the Naval Academy's superintendent.

"Captain Herndon's story is one of bravery," she said, "and one that says fight to the end as you will today, 2027."

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