In the summer of 1935, a pair of Bavarian climbers arrived in the Bernese Alps, hoping to become the first people ever to scale the monstrous north face of the mountain known as the Eiger. On their first day, they made good progress. On the second day, less so, and on the third, even less. Then a storm swept over the mountain and they froze to death. The next year, four more mountaineers attempted the face, and all four died. After a third failed attempt in 1937, a quartet of climbers finally reached the summit in 1938, taking three days to get there.
Twelve years and many more fatalities later, a pair of climbers managed to surmount the Eiger in 18 hours. The 1960s saw the first successful solo climb. In 1988, Alison Hargreaves climbed the Eiger while six months pregnant. By the 1990s, people were making the climb in the dead of winter. In 2008, Swiss climber Euli Steck speed-climbed the peak, solo, in winter, in 2 hours, 47 minutes, and 33 seconds. You can watch the video. Last month, a trio of Brits stood on a ledge near the top of the Eiger, then spread their arms and legs like wings and flew down.
The Eiger hasn’t gotten any shorter or less steep, nor the conditions any gentler. Rather, humans have grown stronger, more skilled, and better equipped. The relative ease of scaling the Eiger today is the result partly of a series of portable and wearable technologies—ultralight synthetic fabrics, custom crampons—that have turned human climbers into superhuman climbing (and flying) machines. But lest you think it’s all in the tools, American Dean Potter ascended the face in 2008 with his bare hands.
Ten years ago, Slate editor David Plotz wrote a series of stories examining the ways in which scientists believed humans could better their vision, strength, memory, alertness, and hearing, primarily through drugs or surgery. His “Superman” series examined emerging technologies ranging from retinal implants and prosthetic ears to gene therapies and memory drugs. Today, many of those possibilities remain frustratingly just over the horizon. In some cases, we’re hardly any closer to realizing them than we were in 2003. And some technologies that were newly available then, like the alertness drug modafinil, have grown in popularity even as they’ve proved less revolutionary than their most ardent supporters (and critics) had hoped or feared.
In the meantime, a new crop of enhancement technologies has captured the attention of the media, the dollars of investors, and the scrutiny of ethicists. Some of the potentially most transformative achieve their effects not through biochemistry but by means of electronic devices that connect our brains to external sources of knowledge, sensory data, or physical power. We may not have gotten any closer to being able to put memory chips in our brains, but who needs those when we’re all walking around with the entire contents of the global Internet in our pockets—or on our faces?
The story of the Eiger reminds us that wearable technology isn’t an entirely new trend. But it’s taking off today in more ways than you might think. Muscle suits, long elusive, arestarting to look more plausible, at least for specific purposes such as lifting a hospital patient out of bed. The military is working on “Spider-Man suits” that let the wearer scale vertical walls. We may never get our hoverboards, but jetpacks are already starting to give certain daredevils a superpower that humans have coveted since Icarus.