Jan. 30 (UPI) — U.S. champion freestyle skier Kyle Smaine was killed Sunday after he was swept away in an avalanche while skiing down a mountain in central Japan.
Smaine, a native of Lake Tahoe, Calif., was on the eastern side of Mount Hakuba Norikura over the weekend when disaster struck, his family confirmed to NBC News.
Thirteen foreign nationals in three groups from several countries including Canada and the United States were on the same excursion as Smaine.
Five men in one group were caught in the landslide, three of whom survived, while Smaine and another skier were found dead near each other on Sunday.
Japanese authorities have not yet officially identified any of those who were caught in the snowslide.
One man reportedly sustained a dislocated shoulder in the accident but no other casualties were reported.
The avalanche occurred in an area called the Tengu plateau near the Tsugaike Mountain Resort in the village of Otari.
Grant Gunderson, a photographer who emerged from the mountain after the whiteout described it as an “absolute worst nightmare scenario,” in an Instagram post. He added that he witnessed Smaine’s death, saying the skiing phenom was “thrown 50 meters by the air blast and buried and killed.”
The U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said it was “aware of the incident in Nagano Prefecture and has been in touch with the relevant authorities to provide all appropriate assistance.”
Nagano, which hosted the 1998 Winter Olympics, sustained heavy snowfall in recent days, and prior to the disaster local meteorologists had issued an avalanche warning due to the extreme conditions.
Warnings remained in effect a day later as bad weather also hindered recovery teams were from getting to the remains right away.
Smaine, who won a gold medal at the FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships 2015, often bragged about his times in Nagano on social media, saying recently on Instagram that the “unbelievable snow quality … is what brings me back to Japan each winter.”
In the world of professional skiing, Nagano is referred to as “the backcountry” where veterans of the sport are known to test the limits of their skill along more treacherous terrain.
“The risks in the backcountry are real and should not be taken lightly – some of the dangers include avalanches and tree wells,” according to the Japan National Tourism Agency website.