It is sad to hear that Cycles has some problems with RAM when it comes to rendering fur. That's probably one of the nifty things in mental ray - its ability to render a lot of geometry without having memory problems. My RAM is only half of yours but I'm able to render fur easily.
Oh, thanks for answering about Blender Hair. Looks like it works the same way as in older versions - parent curves guiding the children strands. Fibermesh is really awesome since every fiber is unique which means more detailed hair. The only thing making me stay with Maya is a good compatibility between Zbrush and Maya's hair systems - importing Fibermesh curves and grow the hair along them is a straightforward and simple process. Though Maya's hair shader really sucks.
PS no worries about Blender. I'm using it every day for almost five years. Along with Zbrush this is my favorite software. I switched to Maya only for rendering since when I started learning 3D there were no renderers for Blender suited for rendering skin while also being able to provide indirect lighting and other nice stuff.
PPS I don't find Blender hard to learn at all IMHO it is far superior and straightforward in many aspects compare to Maya or Max (starting with UI, navigation and finishing with modeling toolkit... though cannot speak about stuff like animation since I don't know too much about it)