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.
Granted, the ability to climb an Alp in less than three hours isn’t a particularly dramatic superpower by comic-book standards. It’s not like anyone’s leaping to the summit in a single bound. But if Marvel and DC Comics have conditioned us to think of superhuman abilities as freakish and far-fetched, science and history are teaching us otherwise. It turns out we don’t need genetic mutations, lightning strikes, or laboratory experiments gone awry to produce people with extraordinary physical and mental capabilities. Human enhancement is happening all the time, largely through incremental improvements on existing technologies. And contrary to those who would have you believe that the golden era of innovation is behind us, the rate of this progress shows no signs of slowing. It just doesn’t always follow the paths that the experts predict.