ANNAPOLIS, Md. (Tribune News Service) — The Naval Academy Class of 2024 almost set a new record in their effort to scale the Herndon Monument — just maybe not the one they had hoped for.

The now 4th class midshipmen Saturday recorded the second-slowest Herndon Climb in Naval Academy history at 3 hours, 41 minutes exactly.

As the plebes fought their way to the top of the 21-foot obelisk, slick with water and shortening, the cannon signaling three and a half hours had passed boomed out over the Yard. Groans and chants of "we suck" rippled through the exhausted hoard, covered in grass, mud and sweat. But in the final hour, the class hugged tightly together around the gray granite, forming a more stable base than the one they'd cobbled together over the previous three. Forty-one minutes later, a skinny Tennessean named Michael Lancaster scrambled atop the fleshy pyramid.

Lancaster stretched, both hands gripping the midshipman's cover, but he couldn't quite make it. Shimmying to the right, his foot found higher purchase atop another classmate. One shove, then another. The cap stayed, freeing the plebes from their fight just in time to avoid breaking the Class of 1998′s 4 hour, 5 minute and 17 second all-time longest climb.

Ushered over to the gazebo, Lancaster faced his beaming classmates and threw a fist in the air.

"We are the COVID class. We've beat COVID! We beat Herndon! And we are plebes no more!" he shouted.

Of course, there were people who saw the writing on the very greasy monument.

Don Loren and Jim Ripley, of the Class of 1974, sat watching them trying and failing again and again to hoist a classmate high enough to end the climb. Loren and Ripley are "linked" to the Class of 2024 through the academy's Link In The Chain program, which pairs classes decades apart for moral and developmental support.

Asked for their assessment, the two agreed: organizational problems.

"They're going to be at least two (hours)," Ripley said.

Arlington, Texas native Aubin Hattendorf of 21st Company made it up to the second tier of the human ladder before she found herself pulled down. "It was very slimy," she said, with a hose spraying her, and hot as bodies pressed together under the 88-degree sun. Sometimes, when she lost her footing, one of her classmates got a foot in the face.

Around 4:12 p.m., just under three hours in, the plebes took aim at the "dixie cup" hat still resting mockingly atop the monument. A flash of something collided with the hat, sending it tumbling to the mud below. Cheers went up. But soon after, Commandant Thomas R. Buchanan stopped the celebration. The plebes had broken the rules requiring the hat to come down by a human hand, not a well-aimed water bottle.

The plebes unstuck themselves from the pillar, undoing any progress they'd made and fizzling any momentum, and reset from the ground. Timing resumed.

Kate Crothers, who most recently lived in Annapolis but hails from all over as an Air Force kid, threw herself into the fray. When it coughed her back out, she called the pile "chaos."

"It's not as bad if you're climbing up," she said, "but as soon as you become a base, that's when it gets sticky."

From the sidelines, Brycen Groess watched his friend John Weneborn scale the shoulders of their classmates. Weneborn was easy to pick out. Amid a sea of navy blue shorts and bathing-suits, Weneborn stood out in bright red shorts with "Thirsty 3rd" emblazoned across his posterior. The shorts referenced 3rd Company, which Groess and Weneborn both belong to.

Groess snapped photos of his friend he joked would likely end up on Weneborn's Tinder profile and remarked how nice it felt to be outside, with people, without wearing masks. When word came down from Gov. Larry Hogan and the Department of Defense that mids no longer needed to wear masks, Groess was headed to town on liberty. He almost couldn't believe the news in his inbox.

"I wanted to make sure we saw someone without a mask before we go out without one," he said.

Only vaccinated plebes participated in the Herndon Climb this year, Naval Academy spokeswoman Maddie Flayler said. And Superintendent Vice Adm. Sean Buck has previously said 99% of midshipmen chose to receive the coronavirus vaccine voluntarily.

The COVID-19 pandemic canceled last year's Herndon Climb. In 2019, the Class of 2022 took an hour and five minutes to complete the challenge.

This year's "Iron Company," the honor bestowed on the company that performs best during Sea Trials, happened to be the Lancaster's 14th company. He admitted for most of the climb, he hung back.

"I was really scared," he admitted. But Lancaster's build, "kind of skinny, kind of tall" by his description, was an advantage. A classmate encouraged him to go up. You're the ace in the hole, he said they told him.

Lancaster waited until his classmates formed a solid base. Then, they sent him up.

"I just put it up there by the grace of God and some good luck," he said.

(c)2021 The Capital (Annapolis, Md.)

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