By Ian Haupt
U.S. freestyle skiing gold medalist Kyle Smaine died in an avalanche while backcountry skiing in Japan January 29. He was 31.
Smaine was skiing on a marketing trip for Ikon Pass and Nagano Tourism along with Bellingham-based photographer Grant Gunderson and Glacier-based pro skier Adam Ü. According to ski magazine Mountain Gazette, Gunderson, Smaine and Ü were out skiing for fun on their last day of the trip. After a lap, Gunderson went back to the resort while Smaine and Ü went out for one last run.
“It was the last run of the last day of our trip. We had no camera gear with us. We were going out for fun,” Ü told Mountain Gazette in a call January 29.
Smaine and Ü ran into a group of Austrian skiers on the summit. Smaine and Ü skied the same run as the previous lap. The Austrian group decided to ski a slightly different aspect with different exposure, Ü told Mountain Gazette. Smaine and Ü were preparing to skin up at the bottom when the first of the Austrian group joined them. The second Austrian skier triggered the slide.
“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.”
Ü was buried 1.5 meters deep for approximately 25 minutes. He told Mountain Gazette he believed it was 4 or 5 minutes, but the rescuer who assisted in digging him out said approximately 25 minutes.
Two doctors who were part of a guided group nearby responded to the scene. The group was performing CPR on the Austrian skier when they pronounced him dead. Shortly after, they said Smaine was unresponsive.
Gunderson said in an Instagram post Smaine was thrown 50 meters by the air blast and buried.
Smaine won a gold medal in the halfpipe at the 2015 FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships in Austria. He resided in South Lake Tahoe, California.
Gunderson told Mount Baker Experience in an email they are currently working to get Smaine’s body home.