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Navy plebe monument climb could be ending

Students at the U.S. Naval Academy celebrate the end of their grueling first year by scaling a 21-foot obelisk on Monday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As they have for 70 years, students at the U.S. Naval Academy celebrated the end of their grueling first year by scaling a 21-foot obelisk on Monday. But this time, without a lard coating on the monument, students completed the task in minutes.

For years, the Herndon Monument was slathered in the grease to make the event as challenging as possible. It often took hours for a group of first-year students, or "plebes," to hoist a peer on their shoulders to place an officer's hat atop the obelisk.

This year, the event drew more attention after Vice Adm. Jeffrey Fowler, the academy's superintendent, cited "unnecessary injury risk" as a reason the school could end the yearly ritual. He declined to offer a timetable for a decision that will likely rest with his successor.

"I just think at some point it will become not very interesting and it will just cease to be a climb," Fowler told reporters earlier this month, adding that there have been minor injuries in the past.

However, many students, parents and alumni find the tradition to be an endearing rite of passage.

On Monday, Midshipman Keegan Albi managed to grip the sides of the monument and shimmy his way to the top in just over two minutes after a human pyramid of classmates boosted him more than halfway up.

Moments after reaching the top, Albi was upbeat, but he also sounded disappointed by the lack of lard. He hoped the tradition would continue.

"They should grease it, though, make it a lot harder," Albi, of Eugene, Ore., said.

Image: Herndon Monument
3rd Company's Keegan Albi from Eugene, Ore., top at right, scales the last bit of the 21-foot Herndon Monument to complete his two minutes and five seconds climb to the top, Monday, May 24, 2010, at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. As they have for 70 years, students at the U.S. Naval Academy scale the monument to celebrate the end of their grueling first year. The Herndon obelisk was not greased with lard as in years past. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)Carolyn Kaster / AP

Spectators, including alumni and current students who dealt with the lard coating, could be heard grumbling about how easy it is without the grease.

John Truesdell, who made the greasy climb in 1960, warmly recalled the bond of teamwork shared by those in tackling the task. He said the academy should keep the tradition.

"I would love to see it continue," Truesdell, of Tucson, Ariz., said. "I think it's such a big part of the tradition at the academy."

Even Albi's mom, Linda Albi, said it was much more exciting when her daughter participated several years ago.

"It happened way too fast," Linda Albi said, noting she hardly had time to take pictures.

Fowler said he would rather that the academy's Sea Trials exercise be seen as the culminating experience for plebes. The 14-hour competition, which began in 1998, involves every member of the class and requires teamwork to complete an obstacle course.

Fowler is slated to be replaced as superintendent by Navy Rear Adm. Michael H. Miller, who was nominated by President Barack Obama's administration in April to lead the school. Miller must first be confirmed by the U.S. Senate.