Golden Eggs: How Some Women are Funding the Climbing Lifestyle

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Golden Eggs sept 2016

Illustration: Dongyun Lee

It’s the timeless climber conundrum: How do you make enough money to travel and climb without spending all your time trying to make said money? Seasonal jobs, freelancing, and a variety of other gigs can provide small paychecks here and there, but the real goal is a payout big enough to stay on the road for months at a time, replacing stress with fun. For female climbers, egg donation is a lucrative option that provides hefty compensation in exchange for genetic material.

This relatively new trend has come about with the advancements in the assisted reproduction field, and it’s gaining popularity among young, active, educated women—three words that describe most female climbers. The basic gist is this: The egg recipients choose a donor based on a profile that includes education, photos, personality traits, family medical history, genetic background, and other characteristics. Once chosen, the egg donor is given hormones to stimulate the growth of her eggs over the course of a few weeks. Her hormone levels and overall health are monitored closely, and once those eggs reach a certain size, they are extracted with a needle in an outpatient procedure and given to the recipient for implantation, either in the recipient herself or a surrogate.

Besides the satisfaction of providing the gift of life to those who want kids, donors are paid $4,000 to $10,000, depending on the agency, proof of fertility, and if the donor has donated before or not. Certain races/ethnicities, education levels, and looks are highly sought after, so donors with those assets might receive more. While $10,000 might not seem like a lot for most folks who have mortgages and other big expenses, most climbers’ ability to stretch a dollar means gear, gas, and plane tickets are covered for the better part of a year.

Alexis Fuller, executive director of Golden Egg Donation, a California-based agency, admires the character and dedication of her climber girls.

“It’s the lifestyle that draws them to it,” she said. “[Working 9 to 5 isn’t] the kind of thing that climbers do, so they tend to lack a consistent income… Climbers exhibit meticulous, type-A personalities, making them viable candidates for donation.”

There are downsides to egg donation, both mental and physical. Women who donate do retain their fertility and are able to get pregnant after the procedure. One major and immediate side effect is the swelling of the lower torso, which causes discomfort and cramping. Because the eggs grow to much larger than their normal size, donors must stop certain types of physical activity (climbing, running, yoga, etc.) in the days leading up to the donation in order to prevent permanent damage to the reproductive organs. Other possible side effects include scarring, organ and nerve damage, blood loss, and tissue or bone infection, to name a few. Because the field is relatively new, long-term effects 20, 30, 40 years down the road have not been identified, but are a definite possibility. Then there is the potential for emotional issues with having a genetic child out there in the world without any contact. Donors get to choose their level of confidentiality, if they want the parents or potential child to be able to contact them in the future, but that doesn’t eliminate the chance of emotional distress.

Recent social science research shows that one-third of 20-somethings move to a new residence every year, cycling through an average of seven jobs in 10 years, and climbers are a standout example of this desire to follow your passions wherever they might take you. The following are real-life examples of women who have been paid to donate eggs, and although all the women we interviewed can be categorized as climbers, each uses her payout for very different reasons. All their names have been changed and distinguishable information removed to protect their identities.

1. The Contemporary Climber

Zoe is a diehard climber, but not quite a dirtbag, who is typically someone so committed to a given lifestyle that they abandon employment, societal norms, and future goals to pursue it. Zoe plans to get a nursing degree, but she wants to have some carefree fun before sacrificing all her time for school. As a ski resort employee, she had been working eight hours a day, five days a week, making $10 an hour, just enough to pay for rent and food but not much else. By donating her eggs, she can plan her yearlong road trip knowing she has the funds to make it happen, allowing her to focus on her climbing objectives before she shifts that focus to becoming a nurse.

2. The Practical Photographer

Over the course of one year, Lisa has made three donations and pocketed $23,000, allowing her to jump-start a photography career. Her office is a van, and she lives cheaply on the go. She doesn’t need to make a large salary as she starts out in this competitive career, but she does need plenty of time and a flexible schedule to follow good conditions and notable climbers. These donations help her afford camera gear, a van, and living expenses while she builds her portfolio and reputation.

3. The Wishful Veteran

At 23, Harley has donated five times and uses the bulk of that money to pay off debt, so she will have a more financially stable future. By getting the majority of her loans paid off now, she will be able to focus on climbing more in the coming years, instead of having major debt.

What Does It Take?

Time

While the actual retrieval only takes about 30 minutes, the entire donation process takes one to three months, requires a dozen or more visits to a local medical center, and involves several weeks of daily, self-administered hormone injections.

Age

A donor must be between the ages of 18 and 32, although the age cap is often stretched for particularly fertile donors.

Genetic Testing

Donors undergo a series of blood tests and answer questionnaires looking for genetically inherited diseases, STDs, drugs, medication and/or alcohol abuse, cancer, history of chemotherapy or radiation therapy, and communicable diseases.

Psychological Testing

Donors interview with a psychologist or social worker to ensure a full understanding of the emotional consequences of donation.

Egg Donor Matching

Infertility programs match recipients to donors through physical resemblance and confidentiality preferences.

Stimulation and Retrieval

Through ovarian hyperstimulation, a series of hormonal drugs is given to stimulate the ovaries to produce and mature more eggs than usual. Progress is medically monitored through recurrent blood tests and ultrasound examinations. When the eggs are mature, they are retrieved from the donor through transvaginal ultrasound aspiration, a surgical procedure performed under conscious sedation.