Kyle Smaine, the world’s best halfpipe skier, was killed in an avalanche in Japan.

Kyle Smaine

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

Kyle Smaine, 31, traveled the world as a professional freestyle skier, winning gold in the halfpipe at the 2015 International Ski Federation World Championships.

An avalanche hit an unknown number of skiers outside the Tsugaike Mountain Resort in the village of Otari around 2:30 p.m. Sunday, according to the Japan Times.

Grant Gunderson, a photographer, skied with Smaine earlier that day on Mount Hakuba’s eastern slope, but skipped the final run of free skiing, which involves some acrobatic tricks to get around the terrain and descending slopes at high speed. It was exhilarating, but also dangerous, according to Smaine’s friends.

Kyle Smaine
Kyle Smaine celebrates after winning gold at the Freestyle Ski and Snowboard World Championships in Austria in January 2015. Japan’s weekend avalanche killed Smaine. (Darko Bandic/AP)

Smaine and another skier continued down the same path they had taken earlier in the day, and when they reached the bottom, they were joined by a third skier. Another skier higher up on the terrain triggered the avalanche, Gunderson wrote on Instagram.

Smaine and the other two skiers were unable to escape the avalanche. A group of doctors and nurses were on the scene and assisted with the rescue. According to a Nagano police spokesperson, one person survived and two died in the avalanche.

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According to the Mountain Gazette, Smaine was discovered unresponsive and was one of the two skiers who died.

Smaine grew up in South Lake Tahoe and was most at ease when he was outside.

He encouraged the older kids to ski with him on the more difficult slopes when he was four years old.

“I started getting to know him as a little kid by chasing him around the mountain,” said Becca Gardner, who met Smaine when she was about 5 in South Lake Tahoe.

Smaine was practically adopted by the Gardner family and frequently captained the family’s ski boat near Nevada Beach on Lake Tahoe’s Nevada side. Friends described him as a natural athlete who seemed to effortlessly carry his body through some of the most difficult maneuvers when he was out on the water or in the back country.

Kyle Smaine, pictured Dec. 28, died Sunday in the Nagano prefecture of Japan.
(Brian Walker)

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“It was amazing to watch Kyle rip on a wakeboard, surfboard, ski, or whatever it was,” said Whitney Gardner, 28.

He was larger than life, but humble about his abilities.

Becca Gardner, 32, remembers Smaine giving so much of himself when he cheered on his friends or simply listened to someone tell their story.

Michael Gardner, the third Gardner sister, remembered how Smaine never treated her like a younger sibling. She was looking forward to going skiing with him.

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He always carried snacks in his pocket, such as honey sticks.

Her most recent conversation with him took place in her driveway.

“He was on his way to Japan and had about five minutes to spare, so he stopped at our house,” she explained, her voice breaking. “‘I just wanted to give you a hug before I left,’ he said.”

Smaine enjoyed venturing into unknown territory. According to his childhood friend Adam Kingman, he loved to mountain bike with his father, Bill, and he seemed to dance when he skied in the back country.

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

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

Childhood friend Abe Greenspan, 35, said the news of Smaine’s death has left the South Lake Tahoe community in shock. Smaine was known by so many people, even if they never met him, according to Greenspan.

While Greenspan was a snowboarder and Smaine was a skier, they always got along on the slopes, encouraging each other to stay out and enjoy nature.

Greenspan said, “He was always trying to get another lap,” referring to another run and staying out a little longer. “He or I would say, ‘When are you going to be able to ski again?’” That was always my mentality. “You never know when it’s your last lap.”

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