Former world champion freestyle skier Kyle Smaine died in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, his family has confirmed. Smaine, 31, died along with another unidentified Austrian skier when a catastrophe struck on the slopes of the Hakuba Norikura mountain close to the Tsugaike ski resort.
Smaine, who won the halfpipe world title in 2015, had traveled to Japan from his home in Lake Tahoe, California. It's believed that the South Lake Tahoe Professional was on a promotional tour for Ikon Pass and Nagano Tourism when the avalanche struck, crushing the skier and an unnamed Austrian. Tributes have been pouring in from all concerns from the moment news of his death broke.
Gone too Soon
Smaine was one among the several skiers from Austria and the United States who were caught up in the Mount Hakuba Norikura avalanche on Sunday. Three of the skiers were subsequently able to make their way down the mountain, but local police reported that Smaine and another skier, whose identity has not been released, were later found dead.
One of the American skiers, who was buried for 25 minutes before being dug out by rescuers, told Mountain Gazette: "We heard the crack. We realized: 'It is a big one.' We started running and then we got hit."
Adam U, Smaine, and Mountain Gazette photographer Grant Gunderson were "going out for fun" in between shoots on Sunday to explore the region, which had been under an avalanche warning in previous days due to heavy snowfall in the region.
Photographer Gunderson had just completed one run when tragedy struck as he was descending the mountain. When Adam U and Smaine returned to the summit a second time, they came into a party of skiers from Austria.
According to Adam U, an Austrian group member was the one who triggered the avalanche that killed Smaine and another person.
"Yesterday was my absolute worst-nightmare scenario," said Gunderson. "Adam, Kyle and the other skier tried to run.
"The doctors did everything they could for Kyle and the other skier. Adam and I will be rehashing this for the rest of our lives."
The incident has left the other skiers on the trip shocked while the fraternity is mourning Smaine's unfortunate death. The US embassy in Tokyo said it was "aware of the incident in Nagano prefecture and has been in touch with the relevant authorities to provide all appropriate assistance."
Smaine had retired from international competition, and his final notable performance took place in February 2018. On Sunday, other athletes paid him tribute.
"We all did this for Kyle tonight," two-time Olympic halfpipe skiing champion David Wise said on Sunday, after his X Games victory. "It's a little bit of an emotional day for us. We lost a friend."
Just before Sunday's tragedy, the former X Games competitor posted the following message on Instagram: "This is what brings me back to Japan each winter. Unbelievable snow quality, non-stop storms, and really fun terrain that seems to get better then (sic) more exploring you do."
"Wish we had more time to ski these past few years," Olympic gold medal-winning freestyle skier Joss Christiansen commented on Smaine's final post. "Thanks for always being such a positive energy Kyle. Heavy hearts tonight."
Marielle Thompson, who won two Olympic medals, referred to Smaine as "such a bright light lost," and many other people praised him as an inspiration and role model.
Smaine won the gold medal in the halfpipe competition at the 2015 FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships. He was one of four Americans who took home a gold medal at that year's competitions, helping the country lead the medal count with 11 in total.
The FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships will begin in Bakuriani, Georgia on February 19, commemorating the eighth year since Smaine greatest his biggest skiing triumph in Kreischberg, Austria.