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Avalanche at Japan ski resort kills American pro Kyle Smaine, one other backcountry skier

Tokyo — World champion halfpipe skier Kyle Smaine and another skier died after getting buried in an avalanche in the mountains of central Japan over the weekend.  Police in Nagano Prefecture said earlier that the two men were among five foreign skiers who were caught in an avalanche Sunday afternoon on the eastern slope of Mount Hakuba Norikura, where the group was backcountry skiing. 

The U.S. Freeski team posted on social media about the 31-year-old American's death. Smaine, who lived in Lake Tahoe, California, recently posted that he was taking the trip to ski in the backcountry of the Nagano prefecture to enjoy the "unbelievable snow quality."

Pro U.S. skier Kyle Smaine is seen in a 2022 file photo posted to his Instagram account. Smaine was reportedly killed on January 29, 2023, by an avalanche at a ski resort in Nagano, Japan. Instagram/Kyle Smaine

His wife, Jenna Dramise, also posted on Instagram, saying "tonight I hope to ride some pow or bikes with you in my dreams."

There had been heavy snowfall in the area at the time of Smaine's trip, and authorities had issued avalanche warnings.

Photographer Grant Gunderson, who was on the trip, detailed the avalanche on social media and said Smaine "was thrown 50 meters by the air blast and buried and killed." Two other skiers were with Smaine, one of whom died and another who was buried in nearly 5 feet of snow but emerged unscathed. Gunderson did not give the full names of the other skiers.

Smaine won the world championship in ski halfpipe in 2015, the year after that discipline was added to the Olympics. His last major contest was a World Cup in Mammoth Mountain, California, that he won in January 2018.

The snow-capped peaks of Joshinetsu seen from Mt. Hakuba-Norikura in the Japan Alps
A file photo shows the snow-capped peaks of the Japanese Alps, as seen from Mount Hakuba Norikura. Getty/iStockphoto

Tributes to Smaine poured in on his Instagram page. On its own Instagram posting, the U.S. Freeski team said "Kyle Smaine was a World Champion freeskier, loved exploring the mountains, was a fierce competitor but an even better person and friend."

Police declined to disclose the skiers' nationalities and names, saying they were still being verified, but Japan's TV Asahi said one was American and the other Austrian.

The Mountain Gazette, a specialist outdoor publication based in the U.S., reported on its blog page that Smaine was one of those killed, and mourned him as a "beloved South Lake Tahoe skier." 

Mike Rogge, the editor of the magazine, said Gunderson had been working for the publication when the tragedy struck. He said the trip was organized as part of a marketing project by Nagano's tourism board and a private company. 

Gunderson said in his own Instagram post that he had called it quits but some of the skiers, including Smaine and fellow American Adam Ü, had decided to go back up and do one more run. It was not long after they reached the bottom of the slope that the avalanche struck, he said.

"Adam, Kyle and the other skier tried to run. Adam was buried 1.5 meters deep for 25 minutes and is unscathed. That is a miracle," Gunderson said. "The skier buried next to him died from internal injuries. Kyle was thrown 50 meters by the air blast and buried and killed."  

Another party of eight foreign skiers, who saw the five engulfed in the avalanche while also skiing outside of the designated ski slope in the area, rushed over to dig them up. Three of the five survived — two uninjured and a third with a shoulder injury. They walked down with the other party, leaving behind the two who were found without vital signs, the police said.

At Nozawa, another ski and hot springs resort elsewhere in the Nagano prefecture, rescuers found the body of a 38-year-old Japanese skier in the forest outside a designated ski slope where he went missing while backcountry skiing with a friend, police said.
An avalanche warning was issued for the area on Sunday following heavy snow since last week.

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