Tributes pour in for South Tahoe world champ skier Kyle Smaine
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — South Lake Tahoe local and world champion halfpipe skier Kyle Smaine died Sunday, Jan. 29, after getting caught in an avalanche in the mountains of central Japan.
Smaine, 31, was reportedly skiing on a marketing trip for Ikon Pass and Nagano Tourism with Mountain Gazette Senior Photographer and Washington-based skier Adam Ü (last name withheld by Gazette for privacy) when the accident occurred.
The Mountain Gazette reported the news of the avalanche, stating Ü and Smaine went for a final backcountry run and ran into a group of Austrian skiers on the summit. Smaine and Ü skied down and were transitioning to skin out when one of the Austrian skiers triggered the slide.
“We saw it coming,” said Ü in an interview with the Mountain Gazette. “We heard the crack. We realized it is a big one. We started running and then we got hit.”
Gunderson, who had been skiing in the backcountry with Ü and Smaine earlier in the day, also gave an account of the incident via social media.
“Yesterday was my absolute worst nightmare scenario,” posted Gunderson. “It was supposed to be the last day of the trip … We had dug a pit and then skied a line in the backcountry. I was exhausted from the last 10 days so after that run I skied down to the base lodge. Kyle and Adam chose to go back up and ski it again.”
Gunderson said while at the bottom of the hill in the transition area, a skier above Smaine and Ü triggered an avalanche that stepped down into a larger one on the adjacent slope. He added that a Japanese group had been doing beacon practices in the transition area earlier and that everyone felt safe there.
When the avalanche happened the group tried to run, according to Gunderson’s post, but Smaine was ultimately thrown 50 meters by an air blast and buried. One of the Austrian skiers reportedly died in the avalanche as well. The Japan Times reported a total of five people were caught in the avalanche that occurred near Tsugaike Mountain Resort in the Nagano Prefecture.
Smaine will be remembered for his legendary skiing, contagious energy and warm smile. He grew up skiing the mountains of the Tahoe area and was a beloved figure in the South Lake Tahoe community. Smaine graduated from South Tahoe High School in 2009. He later attended Sierra Nevada College, and graduated in 2014.
“We’ve had the honor of watching you grow up and into a beloved member of the Sierra family (and) outdoor community — from some of your first turns, to putting on a show as ‘The Poacher’, to a World Champion skier (and) all-around stellar human being,” Sierra-at-Tahoe, Smaine’s home resort, posted to its Facebook page.
On the snow, Smaine was among the best in the world, capturing gold in halfpipe at the 2015 World Championships in Austria.
“Today we lost an incredible person, friend, skier and teammate to the mountains,” said the U.S. Freeski Team in a social media post. “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.”
In fall of 2017, Smaine fought back from orthopedic surgery at Barton Health, which became one of his sponsors, to become an alternate for the 2018 Olympics. During that season he claimed a first place finish at Mammoth Mountain in halfpipe, and then a second place in Aspen, Colorado at the final halfpipe competition of his career.
“We join the community in expressing our sadness about the passing of local legend, Kyle Smaine,” said Barton Health in a statement. “It’s hard to summarize Kyle and the impact he made on those around him, other than to say he was a positive force. His smile and easygoing nature made everyone around him feel good. And his contagious love for all things Tahoe: ski, mountain bike, and water sports made everyone around him a more passionate athlete. The years we worked with Kyle were inspiring, and we will cherish the memories made watching him fulfill his dreams. Our hearts are with Kyle’s family and friends around the world.”
Smaine was also inducted into South Lake Tahoe’s Champions Plaza in 2017 as apart of the first round of athletes recognized when the installation was unveiled. He retired from competitive skiing in 2018.
Smaine spent the following years skiing around the globe, and in November married longtime partner Jenna Dramise.
“I’m so incredibly thankful that I got to marry you and have you in my life,” said Dramise in a social media post. “You loved skiing more then anyone I’ve ever met. I picked you up hitchhiking in New Zealand 2010 and who would have thought we would be married 13 years later. The best damn years of my life. I know you had the best runs in your life out there in Japan and could never blame you for doing what you loved.”
On Sunday night, the X Games paid tribute to Smaine, followed by longtime friend, Reno’s David Wise winning his fifth gold medal.
“The pipe conditions were far from ideal that night. It was a combination of very fast and undervert, which meant it was going to take a lot of power to stay in the pipe and not land on the deck,” said Wise following the competition. “On my third or fourth practice lap I smiled because I could feel Kyle’s presence there with me. Kyle and I grew up skiing sketchy, undervert pipes together. We always excelled in them. I said to Kyle in my head, ‘this is our kind of night isn’t it?’
“As I was making small adjustments to my run to cater to the conditions I decided to do a right 9 lead blunt because that was a trick we both would do,” Wise added. “On my winning run I did one of the biggest right 9s of my life and it was honestly the highlight of my season. Thanks for that, Kyle!”
A GoFundMe campaign has been set up in order to raise funds to help bring Smaine’s body home. For more information or to donate, visit http://www.gofundme.com/f/kyle-smaine.
Justin Scacco is a reporter for the Sierra Sun, a sister publication of the Tribune.
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