Mt Ruapehu is celebrating the start of winter tomorrow with free skiing and snowboarding at Happy Valley.
Ruapehu Alpine Lifts chief executive Ross Copland said recent massive snow dumps have led to lots of requests from the public about opening earlier than the official day on Saturday June 2.
"We've listened and will be offering a free taster in Happy Valley on Friday, so there will be no charges for lift passes to ski from 11am–2pm."
Ruapehu is the first commercial ski area to open in New Zealand, and Copland said it was shaping up to be a great season.
"With our snowmaking technology and a big boost from mother nature, which has blanketed Whakapapa ski area with snow over the past week or so, it should make for fantastic early season skiing.
"We're not ruling out an early opening of Turoa as well if this weather keeps delivering snow and cold temperatures."
The chairlift and carpet lifts in Happy Valley will be operating on Friday for skiing and snowboarding to welcome winter. Lift-accessed sledding will then be added on Saturday when the ski season officially opens.
Whakapapa may also open its Rangatira Express this weekend, offering skiing and snowboarding on the lower mountain, depending on weather and snow-making.
Friday's early opening will also help benefit the Greenlea Rescue Helicopter fund with donations being taken at the Whakapapa customer relations office on the day.
Copland said more than 2700 people headed up the mountain on opening weekend last year setting a 10-year record high.
"We're hoping to break last year's opening weekend record, especially with all the hype around the recent snowfall and the latest reports from MetService that it's going to be a cold winter."
The next ski area on Mt Ruapehu scheduled to open is Whakapapa's lower mountain on June 16. Whakapapa's upper mountain followw on June 30 and Turoa ski area on June 29.
The early season opening is thanks to Mt Ruapehu's new snow-making technology, offering skiers and snowboarders the longest scheduled winter season in New Zealand, operating until Labour Weekend in late October.
The snow-making machine can make snow in temperatures of up to 25C.
Meanwhile Mt Ruapehu officially went smokefree today - World Smokefree Day.
Ruapehu Alpine Lifts Ltd, which operates both Whakapapa and Turoa ski areas, now has a smokefree policy in all indoor and outdoor areas of both ski fields.
Mt Ruapehu people and performance general manager Andy Hoyle, said there were many reasons the time was right to make the mountain smokefree, one of which is the government's goal of a Smokefree Aotearoa by 2025.
"That is something we as an organisation support and believe in. We're in the business of sports and leisure and as part of that it's important to promote and support healthy lifestyles, not just for our staff but for the public as well," he said.
Indoor areas of the ski fields were already covered by smokefree laws, but the new policy would extend to all outdoor public use areas of Whakapapa and Turoa.
"The other aspect of this is that we are privileged to operate in the pristine surrounds of Tongariro National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site. Anything we can do to preserve and protect our part of it – from cleaner air to fewer cigarette butts littering the ground – we have a responsibility to do."
All visitors to the mountain lighting up this season will be politely asked not to by staff.
"In the end it's about creating a more pleasant environment for everybody to enjoy the mountain," Hoyle said.