They say faith can move mountains, but perhaps at times, mountains move faith.
December 27, 2020, Hunter Pinke, age 22 at the time, collided with another skier as he came out of the trees on a blue diamond run down a mountain in Keystone C.O.
“I like to ski in the trees, or the powder in the holes in and out of trees. And so, that first run of the day was relatively easy.” Hunter, now age 23, said while telling his story. Except it wasn’t. Coming out of the trees, another skier hit him on his blindside. “He tried to avoid me at the last second, but it was too late. We collided. And then I ended up going headfirst into a tree at high speed. And that’s where my injury occurred.” Hunter explained he was wearing a GoPro as he recorded many of his runs, so later, he was able to see exactly what happened.
“Wearing a helmet saved my life.” Hunter did not suffer from any brain injury, including a concussion. He also did not have a neck injury, which he explains the doctors were surprised. “But what the accident did do is it shattered my spine from the T-4 through that T-9 region. That’s pretty, much if you put a pointer right on your sternum and go right around to your mid-back that’s kind of where I’m at, right beneath the pectoral muscle.” Pinke’s spinal cord transected at the T-6 area of the spine and he currently has no feeling or function below his chest.
This, however, is not where Hunter’s story begins. Growing up in Wishek, N.D., Hunter went to school and was involved with everything he could. “I tried to be well rounded in high school, and I think that continued into college now.” Hunter was the first person from Wishek High School to earn a Division I athletic scholarship. He was awarded a full-ride scholarship to the University of North Dakota (UND), and they’ve honored that even after the injury.
He, along with his dad, Nathan, mom, Katie, and two sisters, Elizabeth and Anika, are members of Faith Community Church of Wishek. Spiritual faith has always played a huge role in the Pinke family, Katie Pinke explained.
Fast-forwarding back to the accident and the middle of Hunter’s story, he very methodically stated, “I want people to know that I feel really fortunate to have what I still have.” Hunter is referring to the use of his upper body and mind. “From the beginning up on the mountain, I reached out, actually, with the guy that had cut me off. He was the one who called the ski patrol, and he stayed with me. The first thing I said to him was, ‘Excuse me, are you Christian?’ And he said, yes. I asked if he wanted to pray, and so we prayed up on the mountain. That was the first thing we did, and ever since that moment, I can honestly tell you, sitting here over a year later, I have not worried about my future.”
Pinke continued, “From that time, I’ve just had this unbelievable peace. It might seem crazy to say now, with so many more challenges and complications, but I’m more at peace with my future now than I was before my injury. One might look at me and say, holy cow, look at this kid’s life; it’s been flipped upside down, but in my eyes, it’s just become clear. Throughout the recovery process and now moving on towards the start of chasing my goals, I can do pretty much anything anyone else can do. I’m just going to do it a little bit differently. And so, my goals for life haven’t changed; they’ve been modified. I’ve made new ones, to add but I still have a lengthy list of things that I want to get accomplished. I’ve never thought I can’t complete them because I’m living in a wheelchair; it’s more of how can I complete them in a wheelchair.”
After the accident, in July 2020 Hunter spoke for the first time at his home church in Wishek. The church’s Facebook page had 1,000 live views, and then over a period of a month, that viewing reached 20,000. His message was one “of doing God’s will and not worrying about the consequences of what’s going on in our own life,” said Pastor Brian Hendrickson of Faith Community Church.
Katie Pinke said the support from the locals and other rural surrounding towns was phenomenal. “We have a Facebook group with more than 11,000 people in it called #PinkeStrong, which was started by friends in Wishek.
Sparkle City in Ashley made all of the #PinkeStrong shirts as a fundraiser to cover some of the medical costs. A lot of teams from across south-central North Dakota wore the shirts last winter. It was really cool to see District 6 basketball teams wearing #PinkeStrong shirts that Hunter used to compete against, whether it was Linton-HMB, Napoleon, Strasburg-Zeeland, and his former team, South Border. There are huge uncovered medical expenses associated with spinal cord injuries, and so the fundraising, generosity, and support for Hunter have been really humbling and needed for his future. Hunter’s faith has given us encouragement as parents, too because when a child of yours has a traumatic event, you always would prefer it to be you instead of your child,” said Katie Pinke.
Hunter’s parents own Pinke Lumber in Wishek which his dad, Nathan, grandfather, Eldon Pinke, and employees helped create adapted living spaces for Hunter to live independently. The family said this is something they would like to continue for others who have similar universal design and adapted living needs.
When asking Hunter what his plans are moving forward, he said, “I don’t know if I’m ever going to be able to have the same job for four years. I like to get involved with a lot of different things, and that’s probably one of my greatest strengths. I’m well-rounded and have a little bit of knowledge in a lot of different areas. But it is also one of my greatest weaknesses because I have trouble saying no to people when they present opportunities.”
Hunter is about to begin his final semester at the University of North Dakota and is a UND football team captain this season which begins in February due to COVID-19 changes in the schedule. He is on track to graduate in May with a major in mechanical engineering and a minor in math. Hunter was also recently named Grand Forks Herald Person of the Year.
Hunter said he believes in miracles and follows stem cell spinal cord injury research but isn’t planning his life around them. But don’t cancel Hunter out from walking. Many believe, including Pastor Hendrickson, that one day he will walk again. “Whether or not he walks on his own feet or whether he himself will invent some way to walk, he’s a very determined person. And if it’s possible, if there’s any slight possibility, he will walk on his own, he will do it.”
If you would like to get updates about Hunter Pinke please follow #PinkeStrong.