The major event of the year at Mt Ruapehu has probably already happened - last month's lahar.

But skiers and snowboarders who visited the area in record numbers last season can anticipate enjoying the rewards of New Zealand's largest skifield investment programme.

Mike Smith, marketing manager of Ruapehu Alpine Lifts (RAL), which runs the Whakapapa and Turoa skifields, received many calls from Aucklanders asking how he fared when the lahar swept down from the crater lake.

He assured them there was as much chance of being damaged by a lahar in Ohakune as there would be sitting in a Queen St cafe.

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However, it was great to get the uncertainty out of the way, he says.

Although there has been a bit more hiss and steam from the volcano, Smith's main worry is that the centrepiece of Ruapehu Alpine Lifts' $30 million investment programme is ready for the start of this season.

Its a 1.4km high-speed, six-seater, detachable chairlift - the biggest in Australasia - that will replace the High Noon T-Bar.

It will be able to whisk 3200 skiers an hour up the mountain.

"It will move a lot more people a lot more quickly, Smith says.

People will also be able to enjoy the flash new base area restaurant, The Alpine Chalet, and a much bigger shopping area. The Alpine Chalet will have double the seating and there will be a lot more shopping space.

Importantly, there will be a lot more man-made snow on the lower slopes.

RAL is building a 50 million litre reservoir to feed 25 new snow guns. This will mean more reliable snow around the bottom Park Lane chairlift. And there will now be multiple routes to the lower slopes. which has always been an issue at Turoa.

With three ways down Park Lane, those slopes will now be favoured by intermediates as well as beginners and make a better transition between the lower and upper mountain, Smith says.

The new High Noon chairlift will triple capacity on the upper mountain.

This year, RAL is concentrating on Turoa.

For now, Whakapapa is getting upgraded snow-making, mainly on the lower slopes around the Rock Garden chairlift and in Happy Valley.

However, the Rock Garden chairlift's days are numbered. Next year it will get a detachable, high-speed four-seater, called Tennants Valley Express, that will go higher.

A more important development will be the replacement of the Valley T-Bar by with detachable six-seater that will rise higher than the existing lift.

But this year the focus is Turoa. The thinking behind this is that in the past Whakapapa had about a third more visitors than Turoa, but that margin is closing.

"The pressure on Turoa was greater and that really drove the priority of our investment decisions," Smith says.

In the past, on peak days, 6000 paying visitors used Whakapapa and there were 4000 at Turoa. The numbers are now about 5500 and 5200.

Whakapapa has been more popular because of the large number of novices who are attracted to Happy Valley.

But Turoa has been attracting far more intermediate and advanced skiers and boarders.

Last year, when there was an excellent early start to the season at Queens Birthday weekend, Turoa had a record 185,000 skiers, compared with 165,000 in 2005 and the record 176,000 in 2004.

Whakapapa had nearly 250,000 visits - the best year since 1994, before the 1995 eruptions and poor snowfall reduced its popularity.

RAL is the most innovative skifield operator in the country in terms of its lift-ticket marketing, and this year it has introduced another welcome innovation, the five-season pass.

When Smith started with RAL in the late 1990s, less than 100 season passes were sold a year. That was because they were priced so that skiers had to use them 18 days before they were in the money.

Following research, season tickets were priced so that users were in the money after five days. That year, 27,000 passes were sold. And unlike the absurdly early close-off days for South Island discounted season passes, RAL allows people to get in until the end of April.

RAL, a not-for-profit corporate, is financing its development programme largely through the sale of life passes. It sold 4000 last year and hopes to sell almost as many this year. They cost $3975, or $5195 for ones that can be sold on once. About 8000 lucky skiers or boarders have life passes. Lifers use their passes for an average of 10 days in their first year, then five to six days - about the same as most season-ticket holders.

Last year, RAL probably failed to sell as many as it would have liked, but it was the life pass that prompted the five-season pass idea.

Smith says that RAL had strong feedback that "life is a really long time and people said they didn't know what they would be doing in a decade or so".

Many skiers have children who will soon leave school and they worry that these youngsters will not remain in the North Island to enjoy their expensive life pass, Smith says.

The five-season passes are priced so that you pay just under the price of four season tickets. For adults that's $1550, for under-15 it costs $870.

Although that's still a stretch for most families, the credit card can usually just stand the five-season pass, Smith says.

"Our research and anecdotal feedback suggest they are going to go very well. It seems to have hit a right note.

RAL's innovative pricing has not stopped it putting up prices.

A regular day pass has risen more than 5 per cent, to $80, following a 5.5 per cent rise last year.

The early-purchase season adult pass has risen from $349 to $389. The rise reflects higher prices for wages, electricity and diesel. It also reflects business-interruption insurance to cover the possibility of volcanic eruptions.

Let's hope it won't be needed.

WHAT'S NEW AT RUAPEHU - TUROA AND WHAKAPAPA
Record upgrade

A major upgrade of both Mt Ruapehu ski areas was exciting news for New Zealand and Australian snow-lovers when the proposal came out last year.

And because several thousand customers showed their support by buying life passes, Ruapehu Alpine Lifts has been able to start phase one of the five-year plan, at Turoa.

It's the single largest ski upgrade the country has seen and will cost $18.5 million.

This season Turoa will have a new six-seater detachable chairlift, a new cafe and retail area and greatly increased snowmaking capacity.

In phase two of the plan, a chairlift more than 1km long, The Valley Express, will be built at Whakapapa.

The final phase is also at Whakapapa, where Ruapehu Alpine Lifts will replace the Rockgarden Chairlift with a high-speed chairlift to be known as the Tennants Valley Express.

Super-fast lift

The new lift at Turoa, on the southwest of the mountain, will have the biggest capacity in Australasia. The mammoth 1.4km High Noon Express will be able to cope with 3200 people an hour in six-seater chairs, at a top speed of 5m a second. MORE SNOW To compliment the express chairlift, Turoa's snowmaking capacity has been tripled in size. there's an additional 50 million litre reservoir and 25 more automated snowguns.

This should ensure Turoa gets snow cover up to 1950m very early in the season.

Dining, shopping

Turoa's largest cafe has been extensively overhauled. The Alpine Cafe and Vertical Retail centre will offer complete on-mountain dining and shopping.

Located at Turoa's base area, the 400-seat cafe is double the original size and the retail area is much larger.

Added to the development of the past few years, the improvements put Mt Ruapehu well on the way to providing world-class facilities.