THE HIGHEST OF THE continents, a desert of ice with ferocious, near-continuous winds, surrounded by the world's stormiest seas, Antarctica was, 70 years ago, still a blank space at the bottom of the globe. Twice the size of Australia, with a tenth of the world's land surface and 90 percent of its snow and ice, it was a land whose fringes had been touched only by sealers and early explorers. The interior was completely unknown. It was an affront. The Sixth International Geographical Congress, meeting in London in 1895, declared, "The exploration of the Antarctic regions is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken . . . This work should be undertaken before the close of the century." The race to the Pole was on; the last great adventure of the heroic age of exploration had begun.

The winner was Norwegian Roald Amundsen. British naval explorer Robert Falcon Scott lost, taking five lives in the process. Yet today Amundsen is hardly acknowledged while a current encyclopepdia calls Scott "an intrepid and able leader," and another cites his diary as "one of the imperishable documents in the annals of exploration." Roland Huntford, once the Scandinavian correspondent for the London Observer, is out to debunk the Scott myth and give Amundsen his due. Using ships' logs, diaries and journals, letters and interviews, he presents a highly readable double biography -- "the triumph of a superb organizer and tragedy of an inept bungler."

Scott and Amundsen could hardly have been more dissimilar. His mother called Amundsen "the last of the Vikings." Over six feet tall, fair, with piercing blue eyes, his boyhood in Norway led him almost inevitably to become an expert skier and sailor, "growing up a man of sea and rock, water, ice, forest and snow; someone of the coast; half mariner, half montagnard." By the time he was 20 he had already made long winter cross-country ski trips across mountains and glaciers and had earned his ship's master's license, with experience of pack ice and 'bergs. Inspired by Liv Nansen's ski traverse of the Greenland ice cap, Amundsen set out to explore the poles. Meticulous in his preparation, studying everything written about earlier ventures, working ceaselessly to prepare himself and adapt his equipment, he lived with Eskimos and mastered the art of igloo building, experienced the warmth of reindeer fur and the anorak, and copied much of the Eskimo diet. A lesson he never forgot was that Eskimo dog teams were the only realistic means of polar travel. By 1909, he had served as officer on the first expedition to winter in Antarctica and had discovered the Northwest Passage in a tiny ship with a crew of six. He prepared for the North Pole. But when news reached him in 1909 that Peary had finally made it, Amundsen secretly changed direction; when he left Norway in 1910, only he knew he was on his way to the South.

Robert Falcon Scott was a midshipman at 13. Since Captain Cook, polar exploration had been a special preserve of the Royal Navy. Scott, burning with ambition but apparently lacking much talent, saw this as his only chance for gold braid. Sir Clements Markham, President of the Royal Geographic Society, contrived to have him appointed commander of the 1901 British Expedition. Taking the Discovery deep into the Ross Sea, Scott wintered in McMurdo Sound, today the main U.S. base in Antarctica.

Although that expedition produced considerable scientific information, Huntford ignores it, focusing instead on what he views as Scott's obstinate refusal to learn the basics of polar survival. Scott as a leader was "vacillatory and obtuse. His naval training had taught him form, routine, discipline, obedience, but stifled independent thought. He lacked the capacity to learn from experience. . . . With a lordly disregard for his technical insufficiency, he believed that British guts would see him through." He "assumed the best possible conditions, to be surprised when they turned for the worse." Although that earlier expedition was a "theatrical shambles," Scott's book about it, says Huntford, "was a minor masterpiece of the literature of apologetics. It sowed the seeds of a legend. As The Seven Pillars of Wisdom created Lawrence of Arabia, so, out of The Voyage of the 'Discovery' . . . came Scott of the Antarctic. Scott's salvation was his literary talent . . . and exculpation was his theme."

Huntford sees Scott as a man "timid and dangerously reckless by turns; palpably lacking in judgment; incertain, indecisive, confused by emergencies, incapable of learning from experience; totally lacking in foresight, and trusting to luck." Scott's career continued to stagnate, so in 1909 he announced his intention of reaching the South Pole. Generously backed by the British Government, Scott set sail in June 1910 (within a few days of Amundsen) in the Terra Nova. "Scott had learned nothing and forgotten nothing."

Amundsen established his base at the Bay of Whales, not far from Admiral Byrd's "Little America" station 20 years later. He had handpicked the hardiest and most experienced men, and had 100 fine sledge dogs. Scott returned to McMurdo Sound, persisting in the delusion that ill-tested motor sledges and Mongolian ponies could haul supplies, and that "using dogs is somehow noe 'nice'." His team would "man-haul" their sledges for a round-trip of 1,800 miles. "They were expected to pull 200 pounds a man, uphill, for 120 miles . . . up to the Plateau at 10,000 feet." "When Amundsen started, he had three tons of supplies in his depots; Scott had one ton. There were five in Amundsen's party, making 1,300 pounds per man; Scott started with seventeen men which meant 125 pounds per head. Amundsen had ten times more food and fuel per man than Scott . . . Between the Glacier and 80 degrees S. Scott had put down exactly two depots, Amundsen on the corresponding stretch, seven."

"It is part of the English legend of the South Pole to say that Amundsen found an easy way up," but Huntford contrasts Scott's route on "the long, steady gradient of Beardmore Glacier" with Amundsen's route up the rugged ice cliffs of the Axel Heiberg Glacier. The author also refutes the legend that weather was the cause of Scott's failure: "In plain figures, Scott had, in all, six days of gale-force winds, and traveled on none of them; Amundsen had fifteen, and travelled on eight."

Amundsen's preparations paid off, and he always had comfortable margins for error. On December 14, 1911 he planted the flag of Norway at the South Pole -- "a triuumph of skill, forethought and organization." The trip back was almost a lark, and he and his team returned after a journey of 1,400 miles "in perfect health."

For Scott, it was agony all the way. They reached the pole on January 18, 1912 to find Amundsen's tent and the Norwegian flag there a month before them. Frostbite and gangrene, starvation and scurvy, exhaustion and slow death by freezing awaited them on the cruel trek back. Their photographs and the letters and diaries that Scott and his companions wrote in their last days are now part of the legend: "I am glad that we have done it by good British man-hulage," wrote Scott who "by now," says Huntford, was writing for publication . . . preparing alibi." The bodies were discovered eight months later, frozen in their sleeping bags. Their tent was lowered over them, and a cairn of snow blocks and a cross left to mark the spot.

Scott was clearly, according to Huntford, an amateur at best and basically a fool, guilty of leading men to their deaths: "It is worse than a crime; it is a blunder," he says. "Naval officers have been court-martialed for less." Amundsen won because he prepared; he deserved to win, and he left little to chance. Scott, on the other hand was "a heroic bungler . . . whose achievement was to perpetuate the romantic myth of the explorer as a martyr and, in a wider sense, to glorify suffering and self-sacrifice as ends in themselves."

Thus ended the heroic age of polar exploration.