ANNAPOLIS, Md. – ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — 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. As the ritual dictates, he snatched a first-year student's cap from the top and replaced it with the officer's hat.
Moments after reaching the top, Albi was upbeat, but he also sounded disappointed by the lack of lard.
"They should grease it, though, make it a lot harder," Albi, of Eugene, Ore., said.
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.
First-year students began the yearly ritual of helping classmate to the top of the obelisk in 1940, and added the symbolic placement of an officer's cap on its tip seven years later, according a history of the event by James Cheevers, senior curator at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum. In 1949, upperclassmen began smearing on as much as 200 pounds of lard on the monument to increase the difficulty of the task.
Records are incomplete on how long the climb has taken every year. But the longest time is believed to be the span of more than four hours in 1995, a year when upperclassmen glued down the hat that must be removed from the top. The shortest on record is 1 ½ minutes in 1969, a year that the monument wasn't greased.