U.S. freestyle skier dies in avalanche in Japan

A U.S. freestyle skier has died after being caught in an avalanche in Japan on Sunday, his family confirmed.

Kyle Smaine, a skier based in Lake Tahoe, California, had traveled to Japan for the “unbelievable snow quality,” according to a recent post on his Instagram account.

“This is what brings me back to Japan each winter,” wrote Smaine, who won a gold medal in halfpipe at the FIS Freestyle Ski and Snowboarding World Championships 2015, as he shared a video of him skiing.

Smaine was skiing in Nagano Prefecture, in the center of Japan’s Honshu island, when he died after the avalanche unfolded, his father, William Smaine, confirmed to NBC News.

At least five men, all foreign nationals from the U.S. and Austria, had been caught in the avalanche on the eastern slope of Mount Hakuba Norikura, a Nagano police spokesperson said, according to Reuters.

Police had previously said the five men were skiing in two separate groups on the roughly 8,100-foot high mountain. Three of the skiers were able to climb down the mountain on their own on Sunday following the avalanche, but Smaine and another skier, who has yet to be identified, were left behind. Both men were later found with no vital signs, Reuters reported.

Weather authorities had issued an avalanche warning for the area after days of heavy snowfall. The warning came as Japan grappled with widespread disruption caused by heavy snow and record-cold temperatures, with authorities also investigating whether the severe weather was behind a number of deaths.

Police officers board a gondola heading to the site of an avalanche in the village of Otari, Japan on Sunday. AP

A spokesperson at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo said the embassy was “aware of the incident in Nagano Prefecture and has been in touch with the relevant authorities to provide all appropriate assistance.”

“Due to privacy considerations, we are not able to comment further,” they said.

Smaine’s Instagram account was flooded with tributes from friends and fellow athletes.

“Such a bright light lost,” wrote Marielle Thompson, a Canadian Olympic freestyle skier.

“Wish we had more time to ski these past few years,” Joss Christensen, a U.S. freestyle skier from Park City, Utah, wrote. “Thanks for always being such a positive energy,” Christensen said.

Arata Yamamoto, Valeriya Antonshchuk, Caroline Radnofsky and Reuters contributed.

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