Graeme Bryant says nothing beats the rush of zipping down a mountain on skis.
"It's the freedom, the thrill, just that adrenaline - it takes you out of worry level."
Graeme is 86 years old and started in the sport in his early 20s.
"I decided I needed to get out of the city and have an adventure in the hills. I had a cousin climber in the Himalayas. He was my inspiration to get into the mountains."
The retired educator learned to ski on Mount Ruapehu through lessons and solo practice.
He says he still skis black (advanced) runs, but avoids moguls (bumps) because they're "too hard on the knees ... and I don't go down chutes and over bluffs".
Graeme, who lives in Papamoa, has skied around the world, including in Japan, Europe, America and Canada. He served as ski patroller and host for 30 years at Whakapapa and rates Mount Ruapehu highly.
"It's one of the best places in the world on a clear day. It's a challenging mountain, but always interesting - like a golf course with too many bunkers." Graeme expects to ski up to 20 days this year.
Whakapapa, on the north-western slopes of Mount Ruapehu, is New Zealand's largest ski area. Ruapehu is the North Island's tallest peak, rising 2797 metres. Its ski area includes sister hill Turoa (on the south-western slopes).
Together, Whakapapa and Turoa encompass dozens of runs including nearly 50 classed black or black diamond. Turoa offers 722 metres of vertical descent from the country's highest chairlift at 2322m. New this year on Whakapapa is a quad express chairlift, replacing the Centennial and Rockgarden double chairlift.
Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL) acting marketing manager Jessie Watling says they're hoping the new lift might result in a small increase numbers at Whakapapa this year.
She says RAL is also rolling out a flexi-pass campaign next month allowing customers to buy a lift pass two to four days in advance for use any day within the season without restrictions. Ruapehu's terrain includes a large area for beginners (Happy Valley at Whakapapa) as well as advanced back country terrain on both sides of the ski field.
"We've got a unique environment being on an active volcano and being a dual World Heritage site," Jessie says.
Savvy skiers sort a season pass early. Through April, an all-mountain Ruapehu pass cost $495 for adults; $298 for ages 5-18 and $59 for ages 5-10 (when bought with an adult pass). Today, the same pass costs $735 for adults and $425 for ages 5-18. People 70 and over are eligible for a free season pass, as are children up to 4 years old.
Mount Maunganui accountant Tierre Thompson says she and her family bought season passes last year, and they average 25 days of skiing each season. She and her husband have twin 11-year-old girls, Ellie and Mia, who first hit the slopes at age 4.
"The best thing for kids skiing is to ski them with other kids, because mum and dad will just annoy them...they learn off each other. It's amazing."
Tierre cites one example last year, the day after the North Island Primary School Ski Champs.
"There were blue skies, no more competition. We had the whole day to just go out west and ski with all their mates from school. And that was one of the best days ever."
Tierre says friends recently outfitted themselves with second-hand gear by asking around and buying off Trade Me. She also suggests joining one of the many lodges on or near the mountain. "Once you join, you feel like you have to go."
Graeme Bryant says it's never too late to catch the ski bug. He says his wife, Barbara Wade (aged 76), first donned skis at 65, shortly after the couple married.
"She wanted to do things with her husband. She loves the Alpine experience."