Kyle Smaine, world champion halfpipe skier, dies in avalanche

Kyle Smaine, a professional skier from South Lake Tahoe, was killed in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, according to friends and family.

Smaine, 31, traveled the world as a professional freestyle skier and took home a gold medal in halfpipe competition at the 2015 International Ski Federation World Championships.

Vertical outdoor picture of smiling man with facial hair in ski helmet, light yellow jacket and ski poles.

Kyle Smaine, pictured December 28, died in Nagano Prefecture, Japan, on Sunday.

(Brian Walker)

The Japan Times reported that an unknown number of skiers were hit by an avalanche around 2:30 p.m. Sunday in front of Tsugaike Mountain Resort in Otari Village.

Photographer Grant Gunderson was skiing with Smaine on the east slope of Mt. Hakuba earlier that day, but skipped the final run of free skiing, which requires some acrobatic tricks to move around the terrain and descend slopes at high speeds. Smaine’s friends described it as exciting but sometimes dangerous.

Smaine and another skier continued down the same route they skied earlier in the day, and when they got to the bottom, they were joined by a third skier. Another skier triggered the avalanche further up the slope, Gunderson wrote in an Instagram post.

Smaine and the other two skiers were unable to escape the avalanche. A group of doctors and nurses were in the area helping with the rescue effort. One person survived and two people died in the avalanche, a Nagano Police spokesman told Reuters.

The Mountain Gazette reported that Smaine was found unresponsive and was one of the two skiers who died.

Growing up in South Lake Tahoe, Smaine was most in his element outdoors.

At the age of 4 he encouraged the older children to ski with him on the more difficult slopes.

“I met him by chasing him around the mountain as a little kid,” said Becca Gardner, who first met Smaine when she was about five years old in South Lake Tahoe.

While Smaine was inseparable from his father Bill and brother Justin, relatives said he was like a brother to the Gardner family. He was often the captain of the family’s ski boat near Nevada Beach on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. Enjoying being on the water or in the backcountry, he was described by friends as a natural athlete who seemed to carry his body through some of the most difficult maneuvers with ease.

“Watching Kyle wrestle on a wakeboard or surfboard or skis or whatever was amazing to watch,” said Whitney Gardner, 28.

He was larger than life but modest in his talents.

Becca Gardner, 32, recalls how Smaine let out so much when he was cheering on his friends or just listening to someone tell a story.

The third Gardner sister, Michael Gardner, 25, recalled how Smaine never made her feel like a younger sibling. She was looking forward to hitting the slopes with him.

He always had snacks in his bag, including honey sticks.

Her last conversation with him was in her driveway.

“He caught a flight to Japan and had about five minutes, so he stopped at our house,” she said as her voice cracked. “He said, ‘I just wanted to give you a hug before I go.'”

Smaine enjoyed traveling into uncharted territory. He loved mountain biking with his father, Bill, and he seemed to dance when he was skiing in the backcountry, according to childhood friend Adam Kingman.

Kingman, 30, and Smaine skied together in Tahoe a week before he left for Japan.

“I learned so much from him skiing,” Kingman said. “I told him, ‘I love following you because I’m just watching your form and I learn so much right away.'”

Smaine and his wife Jenna Dramise wed in November in a private ceremony with a handful of friends and family. The couple were planning a wedding in New Zealand later this year. The two met in 2010 when Smaine was hitchhiking and Dramise was taking him, friends say.

Childhood friend Abe Greenspan, 35, said the South Lake Tahoe community was shocked by the news of Smaine’s death. So many people would have known about Smaine even if they never met him, Greenspan said.

While Greenspan was a snowboarder and Smaine was a skier, the two always hit it off on the slopes and kept encouraging the other to stay out and enjoy the great outdoors.

“He was always trying to put in another lap,” Greenspan said, referring to another run and staying out a little longer. “He would say or I would say, ‘When are you coming back to ski?’ I’ve always had that mentality. You never know if this is your last lap.”

https://www.latimes.com/sports/story/2023-01-30/kyle-smaine-world-champion-halfpipe-skier-dies-avalanche-obit Kyle Smaine, world champion halfpipe skier, dies in avalanche

Emma Bowman

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