U.S. skier Kyle Smaine dies at 31 after being caught in avalanche in Japan

American skier Kyle Smaine died after being caught in an avalanche while skiing in Japan on Sunday, family members and the U.S. Freeski Team confirmed on social media. He was 31.

Smaine, a professional freestyle skier from South Lake Tahoe, California, was backcountry skiing in the Nagano prefecture of Japan as part of a marketing trip when the avalanche hit Sunday afternoon, according to outdoors magazine Mountain Gazette, which first reported the news.

Fellow pro skier Adam Ü, who was skiing with Smaine at the time, told the outlet that they had finished skiing one route for the second time when the avalanche occurred, triggered by a third skier who had taken a different route down the same mountain.

Rescuers helped Ü emerge from under nearly 5 feet of snow, he said, but found Smaine and another unidentified skier to be unresponsive.

Kyle Smaine, a U.S. skier and world champion, died after being caught in an avalanche in Japan.
Kyle Smaine, a U.S. skier and world champion, died after being caught in an avalanche in Japan.

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"We saw it coming," Ü told Mountain Gazette. "We heard the crack. We realized it is a big one. We started running and then we got hit."

Japanese police told local media that two men had died in an avalanche in Nagano but did not identify them or their nationalities.

Smaine's father, William, confirmed his death to NBC News, as did his wife, Jenna, in an Instagram post. The identity of the second man has not been reported, but Ü identified him to Mountain Gazette as an Austrian national.

Smaine regularly skied in Japan. Earlier this weekend, he had posted a video on Instagram of himself skiing in the area and describing the reasons that he kept returning – "unbelieveable snow quality, non-stop storms, and really fun terrain that seems to get better then [sic] more exploring you do."

Before retiring, Smaine spent a decade as a competitive skier for the U.S., mostly in halfpipe – a discipline in which he won gold at the 2015 world championships. He last competed in 2018.

"Today we lost an incredible person, friend, skier and teammate to the mountains," the U.S. Freeski Team wrote on Instagram.

"Kyle Smaine was a World Champion freeskier, loved exploring the mountains, was a fierce competitor but an even better person and friend. We, along with so many others, send our love and comfort to his family, friends and community."

Contact Tom Schad at or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kyle Smaine, U.S. skier and 2015 world champion, dies in avalanche