Crystal Davis-Robbins was jumaring the first gully on Cerro Domo Blanco, in Patagonia, when a rock the size of a softball careened down.
"I heard it, looked up, and got smashed in the forehead," she says. "It wasn't a bad hit, but it seemed to bleed liters."
A little shocky, she jugged another 40 feet to her partner Chris Brazeau, who was just asking if she was all right when, boom -- another, bigger rock hit her square in the helmet, breaking it in two.
Yet two pitches later Davis-Robbins led an offwidth roof onsight at 5.12a. She says only that she was feeling better, and it was beautiful: an amazing pitch, a gem, with unique movements.
Davis-Robbins, 25, who grew up in Durango, Colorado, and is currently studying music at the Institute of Miriam Garcia, in Mendoza, Argentina, had a banner season in Patagonia: three new routes on virgin faces, five summits and a proud attempt on Cerro Torre (shut down by storm about 17 pitches up the Compressor Route).
La Suerte Sangrienta (5.11 A1) was the first ascent of the east face of Domo Blanco. Also with the Canadian climbers Brazeau and Jon Walsh, Crystal pulled the first ascent of the east face of Cuatro Dedos, via Fingerlicious (5.11), onsight. The best route, however, was The Art of War, with Ryan Nelson, who has written that she is becoming the most influential female climber in the area. Their opus was the first ascent of the south face of De la S, on which Davis-Robbins' pitches again went free, onsight, up to 5.12a. The route began with a clean, overhanging 5.11 splitter, which eventually cruxed out in an offwidth.
From the time the two clipped into anchor webbing at the summit, the descent was a nightmare. Davis-Robbins recalls, The wind was so strong it would blow the two of us up into the air, floating like kites, and when it died down, slam us into the wall. Both climbers were soaked, a storm moved in, and when they tried to rappel off the North Ridge route, the ropes hung up. The two were forced into a system where Nelson lowered Davis-Robbins, then down-led the face. We couldn't pull the ropes, she explains, because they would fly into eternity. Their rope stuck again on the last rappel, and they ditched it, reaching camp after 35 hours roundtrip.
Ian Altman of Durango, who calls Crystal "Home Girl" and with whom he climbed Terre Innominata, describes her as youthfully exuberant yet steadfest and wise in choosing objectives. He credits her faith in his climbing, though he struggles with multiple sclerosis, saying, Crystal also seemed willing to help me be an inspiration to the MS community. He describes her as quiet in demeanor, but outspoken in her beliefs. She can be bull-headed, for sure.
At 23, Davis-Robbins achieved the first women's ascent of the 1,200-meter North Pillar / Cassarotto route on Fitz Roy, Patagonia. At Indian Creek, Utah, she fired the FA of Full Moon, Good Times (5.12) at 20; climbed Six Star (5.13a) on her second try; and has redpointed Ruby's Cafe (5.13a).
She says, "Indian Creek is where I learned to crack climb and where part of my soul resides, para siempre. "
A 2004 graduate of Fort Lewis College, Durango, Colorado, Davis-Robbins double-majored in Humanities and Spanish, and today she offers a resume of beguiling variety. She has worked as a heavy-equipment operator, and performs bass, rhythm guitar, and vocals in Jeff Robbins' Band, playing traditional Appalachian music. She brings a light alpine guitar to every basecamp.
In 2005 she spent two weeks volunteering at a homeless shelter in New Orleans with Red Cross Katrina disaster relief. When home, she cooks for the homeless at the Durango Community shelter.
What did you do for Hurricane Katrina relief?
A third of the inhabitants were non-English speakers. Part of the time I was the only one who spoke Spanish, so I focused on helping them with paperwork, English classes. I also cooked, cleaned, and put together a talent show that was a hit. People told jokes, played the guitar and sang, and the children danced. We laughed and cried.
Who are your heroes?
Lynn Hill, Gandhi, my mama -- for her spiritual wisdom, and for her strength and independence in travel and confronting life. She taught me to climb, taking me out from age 5, buying me my first rack and gear every holiday ... taking me all over the world to climb and experience new cultures.
Who taught you to play music?
My father, the other half of me, also my hero in many ways. I started playing fiddle at 3, and at present play the mandolin, bass guitar, rhythm guitar, and sing ... genres of blues, jazz, rock, folk, bluegrass and reggae. My strongest passion is song writing. [I have] 35 original compositions.
What construction equipment do you operate?
The cement mixer. Also the excavator, but not that much. It's been a year since I've worked construction, but I hope to return for a while, as a side-hand man.
What the heck is that?
Something I invented ... meaning I do whatever.
You are considered very modest, and even something of an enigma.
I don't see myself as an enigma. But I like to keep things, such as what I climb, on a down low, because I don't want ego to hinder something I love so much. The ego plays a role in everything we do, but it is important to keep it in check. I climb for myself, for the intimate connection to nature, for the meditation and confrontation of fears. Not to be known.
What is next?
I hope to climb Aconcagua this year, and spend three or more months in Patagonia, focusing on climbing new terrain. Got the itch for first ascents.